Computer games are an art form, too

Just like films, literature and theatre, computer games are important artefacts through which we can understand our cultural heritage, says Hans-Joachim Backe. His research is about finding out exactly how digital games communicate – and sometimes inspire players to reflect on the morality of their own actions.

Digital designResearch

What is your current research about?

My current research is on metagames – games that reflect on what it is to be a game. We don’t yet have an exact understanding of how games communicate. We know that games can be a pastime, but some computer games also have a lot of meaning. They can be about important topics, like Battlefield 1, which is about World War One. This leads us to ask how war is portrayed in the game – is it a responsible portrayal, or does it trivialize war? When you play the game, you see that this portrayal not only happens through images, sound and dialogue, but also through the actions the game allows you to take. I’m trying to understand better how games – through all these different elements – make statements and provoke players to think about them.

What have you discovered so far?

Every art form gives the artist different possibilities for expression. Digital games have all the possibilities of film, plus interaction. With film, you are just watching, while games let you be a part of the things that are happening. They make you do things yourself, and they can easily put you in a position where you reflect morally on those actions. For instance, you may seem to be the hero of a story, but at some point it is revealed that you are actually the villain. An example is BioShock, a first-person shooter game that gives the player an illusion of bettering a situation. But at the end of the game, you find out that your character is under hypnosis. You are left to reflect on which of your actions were actually performed under free will – and on the fact that you can only do what the game allows you to do.

These days, games are often self-reflective in similar ways. They are about some topic, but also about the game itself. To me, that is fascinating, because this sort of self-awareness is often how we come to classify something as art – just think about paintings about painting, films about filmmaking, or Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play. I see that self-awareness in computer games, too. Of course, not every game is art, just as not every painting is not art. But I think we need to understand games as a medium that can be considered art.

What do you find most exciting about your field?

I come from a humanist tradition where we try to understand history, people and the world through artistic artefacts of the past. We now have at least 40 years of computer games to look back on and we can see how they make commentaries on the people, politics and media of their time. I think it is important that we deal with our cultural heritage in computer games just as we do with literature, film and theatre. 

Further information

Hans-Joachim Backe, Assistant Professor, phone +45 7218 5263, email hanj@itu.dk

Vibeke Arildsen, Press Officer, phone 2555 0447, email viar@itu.dk