Yesterday's New York Times ran a piece about the New York Public Library's “Game On @ the Library!” initiative. Part of a planned $1 billion expansion of the city-wide system, the exhibit illustrates the library's growing commitment to include games as part the library's standard collection:
The library first offered games at a single Midtown branch in 2006. Now the library system offers both organized play sessions and games for circulation at 18 branches across the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. (Brooklyn and Queens operate their own separate, library systems.) The library now owns about 2,500 copies of 92 different games available for circulation in one-week intervals. Overdue fine: $1 a day.
While not groundbreaking--other libraries around the country have been doing this for years--it's exciting to see one of the largest public library systems and one of the leading research libraries in the world devote space and resources to video games in this way.
My interest in this story, however, is less about the library and more about the New York Times report itself. It appeared on the front page of the Arts section in Saturday's paper. (Don't worry, I'm not revisiting the "games as art" debate. As far as I'm concerned it's "game over" on that question. Games can be art. Let's move on).
Typically, video game stories appear in the Times' Technology section or on its "Bits" technology blog. Occasionally, such pieces appear in the Business section, but rarely do we find a dedicated story about video games--aside from the usual "Senior citizens playing Wii" or "Halo 3 phenomenon"--on the front page of the Arts section. Interestingly, the story is indexed on the Times website as "Technology," but trust me, it appears in print as "Arts."
Why does this matter? It matters because when the New York Times prints a thoughtful story about video games alongside pieces devoted to film, music, and art, it moves us one step closer to legitimizing video games in our culture. While a part of me hates that fact with all my being--who needs the Times to affirm the cultural relevance of video games anyway?!--I believe it's an important step.
I live in two very different worlds. One world is exemplified by this blog. I write about video games nearly every day, and I enjoy correspondence with gamers from all over the world. We speak a certain language, share certain affinities, and we take for granted the fact that a video game can speak to us in a variety of ways, in a language all its own.
The other world I live in is very different. My friends in this world still use the term "Nintendo" to refer to all video games - as in "My kids are playing Nintendo," when in fact they're playing Madden on the Xbox 360. In this world, my colleagues send me email and newspaper clippings of Times articles about the New York Public Library cataloging video games. These usually come to me accompanied by message titles like, "Thought you might find this interesting," and "You might be able to use this."
I'm grateful to my colleagues for thinking of me, but their real impact is to help me realize that when such stories are printed, video games have entered their radar, and they have taken a moment to consider them in a new light - one that has nothing to do with ESRB ratings or troubled teens in trenchcoats.
These friendly colleagues know that I need ammunition. This other world isn't yet equipped (or receptive in many cases) to accept video games as worthy of academic study or even serious consideration. Consequently, I spend a fair amount of time arguing my case for a place at the table, much like film scholars did a generation ago. The Brainy Gamer is essentially an effort to demonstrate what thoughtful conversation about video games looks like.
At this point, particularly in a liberal arts setting, there is no talk of academic departments or even curricula devoted to the study of video games or interactive media. My victories come when I can offer a seminar course on the history of the medium, or when I'm asked by a colleague to help a student writing a paper about the spiritual dimension of Ico. For a scholar devoted to video games, progress in this world is very, very slow. Time may be on my side, but day to day it can be difficult to feel anything shifting.
So, when the New York Times publishes a story about books, video games, and libraries on the front page of the Arts section, it matters to me. Quite a lot, actually.
photo from original New York Times story.