Durham, N.C. - In a darkened room, 15 students listen to a presentation by two classmates. A PowerPoint show flashes on a screen as the presenters discuss historical context and cultural influences.
Pretty typical undergraduate stuff, except these students are explicating the nuances of the history of the first-person shooter games "Half-Life" and "Counter-Strike." When they need to illustrate a point, four 50-inch plasma screens lining the walls light up with running commandos, gunfire and the flash of a laser.
At the end, juniors John Tough and Chuck Iannuzzi turn to their classmates with questions: "Does Counter-Strike really fulfill a need for people or is it simply a game to be played for entertainment only?" "Can you consider gaming a sport?"
"We want to look at the culture from which they emerged and their effect on our culture."
It's interesting to understand how video games and interactive simulations affect and are affected by our culture, he said. Students are not only looking at shoot-em-up games, but also Dungeons and Dragons, Zork, Atari and arcade games, and the ancient forbearer of video games, Pac-Man.
Participants can tackle some of the questions the games raise: What kind of social interaction do online gaming communities foster? How are women represented? Do computer-based games encourage violent behavior? How do games fit into what Lenoir calls the "military-entertainment complex"?
Chris Moore is silhouetted as he listens to a presentation about the video game "Final Fantasy VII" during ISIS 210, "How They Got Game."
The star of this class is a seminar-room-turned-lab dubbed IMPS, or Interactive Multimedia Project Space, which opened last month. One of the most technologically advanced classrooms on campus, IMPS is a significant step in Duke's use of multimedia technology in teaching the humanities, said Pamela Gutlon, director of operations at the Franklin Center.
The new lab allows participants to feed different digital content from multiple sources -- including students' laptops, the in-room DVD player, or different videogame consoles -- to any of the screens within the room. A whiteboard on one end of the room has a camera to instantly capture the information to the web for archiving and later download. Users can also annotate digital presentations by writing directly on a plasma screen with a digital pen tool. Multiple remote participants can videoconference into meetings. And a specially designed system allows for all these different interactions to be digitally captured and preserved.
"Critical inquiry into gaming is just one of the intellectual projects that we designed IMPS to facilitate," said Mark Olson, director of new media and information technologies at the Franklin Center. "The space aspires to enable new modes of collaboration and intellectual production, through interaction with and analysis of the 'stuff' of the digital age -- text, sound, video and image."
The lab also will be central to Duke's involvement in a yearlong exploration of the intersection of technology and the humanities, in connection with the national organization HASTAC (the Humanities, Arts, Science, Technology Advanced Collaboratory). It will culminate in an international conference at Duke in April 2007.
Looking at the relationship between technology and culture is one of the overarching goals of HASTAC (pronounced "haystack"), which was co-founded by Cathy Davidson, the outgoing vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. The consortium comprises humanists, artists, scientists, social scientists and engineers from across the country who are interested in promoting technology in education.
Gaming is one area of interest for HASTAC because a key question the consortium is does this technology-savvy generation of students learn differently than previous generations? Do they think differently? Do they have different forms of social networking, and different ways of understanding the world?
Davidson said these are important questions for higher education and the workplace that require an interdisciplinary approach.
For Davidson, HASTAC is as much a cause as an intellectual interest. She likes to call it "a movement, not an organization." She has been drumming up interest and collaborators across the country, giving speeches, meeting with funding organizations and academics and the folks she calls "IT intellectuals."
She and HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, Irvine, believe humanities scholars need to understand technology, and technology experts and scientists need to understand what humanists contribute.
"It's the business of the human and social sciences to study human creativity and human endeavor," Davidson said. "If the information age isn't about the human and social sciences, what is it?"
She added that the humanities face significant technology issues. For example, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the most ambitious astronomical survey ever undertaken, comprises 40 terabytes of information, while Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History project comprises 200 terabytes.
"I just don't think people are aware of the enormous data needs in the humanities," she said. "The data demands of the human and social sciences are huge and complex and costly. Most universities are structured around the idea that the humanities are cheap.
"But storage requirements are just the beginning. The human and social sciences ask the difficult questions of technology that we are all obsessed with, questions of intellectual property, privacy and security."
In addition, it is through the humanities that scholars understand the history of technology that allows us to appreciate what is new about the present and what is similar to what has gone before, she said.
"Gutenberg's pals probably complained about the information overload in their age too," she said.
HASTAC was created in 2003 to bridge that divide. It now has more than 70 groups under its umbrella and a number of associated projects. It also sponsors an online, multimedia journal, called Vectors and an online newsletter, Needle.They can be found on the group's website.
During the 2006-2007 academic year, HASTAC is organizing InFormation, a yearlong series of conferences at nine university sites across the country. Beginning with a kickoff event in Los Angeles in September, the series will continue through the year with each event focusing on one theme and one type of technology.
The Duke event, called Interface, will focus how humans and computers interact including through gaming. The Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI) seminar next year will use the IMPS lab to explore issues surrounding various games and modifications of them. There will also be a new FOCUS cluster on games that will pair up with faculty in the FHI Seminar.
Lenoir, who is a co-convener of the FHI seminar on gaming with English professor Priscilla Wald, said playing the games is an integral part of understanding and analyzing them.
"My idea is not to observe them from 30,000 feet, but to actually play games," he said. "The lab, the teaching, the faculty seminar are all part of a continuous thread of investigation around new media."
Wald, who is learning to play online games with the help of her teenage son and a graduate student, said she's looking forward to spending next year exploring how video games can be used in learning, how they function as a form of social interaction and how academics can use them to understand traditional disciplines.
As an English professor, for example, she's fascinated by the use of language and the storytelling in the games.
"It's like living inside a novel," she said. "It's performance and storytelling."
Her experience learning to play games also shows that this is an area in which faculty and students can genuinely collaborate.
"The students know a lot that we don't," she said. "We know how to frame the questions, but they know the games."
The IMPS lab is open to the Duke community for teaching, meetings and research. (You have to be enrolled in a course to play games there, however.) For more information on use guidelines and reserving space, click here.