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Creating Games is More than Programming

By Duncan Buell

For me at least the academic year is about to end; my final exam is ten days away.

And then I have to gear up full time for a June gaming institute for students and faculty from the humanities. This has been a somewhat different experience for me, and it has led me to think about how broad the whole computing industry is. We tend to focus on the obvious deeply geeky aspects of computer science, perhaps because that's what we know better and what we have seen. But the digital humanities is a growing, and in many ways a very different, side of the world. And the concept of gaming in the humanities is a different concept from first-person-shooter games or even the more naive pedagogical games.

Some of the gaming in the humanities involves using the digital world to learn more about who we are as human beings and about how to appreciate literature and the arts. The usual nature of a game is of something that is unguided, as is unguided learning in artificial intelligence. This is different from literature, that has been through an editing and a vetting process. When we read, we are following in a narrative a path that has been specified for us. Relatively few books (The French Lieutenant's Woman is a rare counterexample) offer a choice of endings, although the world of visual and performance arts has provided more examples of works of art for which the "ending" is not automatically specified. Digital gaming, however, permits the "reader" or readers to find multiple, alternate, paths to the same learning process, and it could (perhaps?) be more absorbing to participate in the process of the story than simply to have at the end the book club questions that are supposed to help us understand what we have read.

This kind of "game" presents any number of problems for developing the computer game itself. The content of the story and its various paths must be programmed in and accounted for. The usual first-person-shooter game is episodic as a story. Each encounter leads to winning or losing, and losing usually means game over. If the goal is for the digital game to lead to an understanding of oneself or of a message conveyed through "literature," then that context must be programmed in.

This may seem far afield from hacking code in Java or VB or C++. But if there is to be a game, someone will have to program it. There must be rules, choices, and paths. In the end, though, it's another of the uses to which this "computer" device can be put, provided we have those with the talents and background to create the games.

Duncan Buell
CSTA Board of Directors

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