The fast developing festive season has been making me think of Duke Nukem. Duke Nukem is a computer game in which the player controls the eponymous character in his struggle to defeat Dr Proton. It is a simple platform game that was released in the early nineties which, as the long nights drew in at the end of a winter term, is when my best friend handed me a blue floppy disk with the first levels on it. I played the game a lot.
What has this got to do with heritage? Well, there are two aspects that I would like to talk about here.
Firstly, for me the memory of playing Duke Nukem includes my spatial awareness of the levels. As I explored the levels I learned where things were. The layout mapped itself out in my brain and I was aware of the larger space of the level even though the screen only showed a small section. A little later, I found a similar experience with the game Doom. Again, the levels were learned through exploration. Even though both games were linear such that their events were strictly scripted and therefore replicable, I found the sense of place and space to be realistic.
This, I think, is owing to the way in which we are allowed to explore the limits of the environment created in the games. I hesitate to use the word ‘freedom’ because games are very restricted environments for the player. However, in many ways these restrictions mirror the real world where we find many barriers, whether physical or social. By being allowed to manipulate the avatar (which is of course just a graphical representation of computer code) the human player is able to explore the extent of the environment and to learn the ‘shape’ of the virtual world they explore. Many games allow this sort of exploration, but there are others which do not. The Lucasarts adventure games were, for example, excellent stories which created convincing and hilarious senses of place, but they weren’t able to create senses of space because their worlds were constructed of separate scenes which did not always seem to link together in a logical way spatially. Similarly, I find this with films. While a film may create very effective emotional connections with characters or give the viewer a convincing sense of cultural place, a sense of space cannot be achieved to any great extent (even with 3D) because the viewer is not able to explore the limits of the world themselves.
In this way, I see that games have an important role to play in the expression of heritage and culture. Even if they are not really ‘interactive’, the effect of manipulating an avatar or similar is an effective way to simulate using spaces for the human player. A video played at a heritage centre or an interactive information screen of artefacts at a museum can be excellent ways of conveying information about various elements of culture. However, a game may allow the user to develop a sense of space and so explore the idea of more subjective aspects of history, culture and the environment. Such an approach may allow the player the chance to apply their own perspectives onto heritage and so help to widen the audience and perhaps democratise accessibility. Of course, there are still issues of representation, since some group or body will be responsible for the creation of any game world and this can bring along plenty of complex power issues.
The second element of gaming that I would like to talk briefly about is the socially constructed nature of the technology. I looked forward to playing computer games (and I still do, when I have the time). Being reminded of Duke Nukem and the time of year brought back memories of getting home from school with the light fading and settling safely and warmly in front of the family computer to zap some monsters. Even learning to use the computer at a software and a hardware level provided me with a positive learning experience. The computer and the role of computer games in my life are positive memories linked to a happy childhood. As such it seems likely to me that I have followed a course bound to result in a positive opinion of gaming technology.
Moreover, the content of the games were accessible to me because I fit neatly into the target demographic. While I could never completely identify with the macho alpha male characters, my own youthful ignorance meant that there was very little which excluded me from engaging with these games. The same may not be said for others for whom violence, androcentricism and sexism (among many other flaws) may have been offensive. On the one hand I feel that this is being addressed by some game developers and the wider accessibility of the independent games market, but on the other there are still serious issues for the games industry to tackle; not least of which the continuing (and in my view worsening) sexualised representation of women in games and gaming advertising campaigns which are akin to newspaper and magazine pornography.
These issues call into question the equalising nature of the digital environment. With a gaming industry hostile to women (again, among others) it seems unlikely that the public will broadly accept the use of games as a method to help develop heritage or historical meanings; for some there would always be a concern about the agenda of a gaming approach given the associations with the gaming industry. But perhaps the use of games in museums and heritage centres would somehow influence representation in gaming – certainly if it turned out to be popular.
Is this possible? What do you think about the role of games in heritage and history?