She was worried her husband was spending too much time reading. And so, Jonathan Boulter’s wife bought him his first video game system, an Xbox.
“She wanted the gaming device to work as a sort of diversion from my academic work,” laughed the English and Writing Studies professor, who has logged countless gaming hours in the 15 years since that first system. “What has happened is, I have turned my pleasure into work.”
Today, Boulter, PhD’96, has found a place among the first wave of video game culture academic researchers. This month, he released his first book on the subject. Next week, he joins American writer and critic Michael Clune in conversation about Clune’s new book GAMELIFE: A Memoir during an event sponsored by the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.
Boulter’s research focuses on 20th century and contemporary literature, with a particular interest in the works of Samuel Beckett. He has published on and taught the works of Paul Auster, Jose Saramago, Jorge Luis Borges and others. However, it is work of Hideo Kojima, and other digital auteurs, which has garnered his attention in recent years.
“As I started gaming seriously, I started noticing certain things in certain games that spoke to my interest in philosophy,” Boulter said. “Certain games had philosophical elements to them – questions about what it means ‘to play,’ what it means ‘to be human.’ I have justified my hours of pleasure in work, or my work in pleasure; I cannot quite tell anymore.”
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Boulter spent the first decade of his life overseas and shielded from the burgeoning popular culture phenomena of video games in North America. Arriving in Canada in 1979, he missed some formative popular culture among his Generation X contemporaries – no Happy Days, no Evel Knievel and, most importantly, no early days of gaming.
“I had no television, no access to gaming devices or video games,” Boulter said. “In some ways, my interest in certain aspects of popular culture stems from the fact I didn’t have it the first 10 years of my life. I didn’t start gaming until fairly late. I think I am always trying to play catch-up to what I didn’t have.”
With roots back to the 1940s, video games did not capture the imagination of youth until the heyday of home consoles – think Atari and Nintendo systems – in the 1970s and 1980s. Since those days, the industry has exploded.
Right now, more than 1.4 billion people are playing games. Half of Canadians consider themselves ‘gamers,’ nearly evenly split between male and female, with an average age of 31 years. Canada ranks third in the world in terms of people employed in the gaming industry, with more than 16,000 employees having a $1.7-billion impact on the economy.
According to the Worldwide Digital Games Market 2015-2020‚ the digital gaming industry (including games played on mobile‚ tablet‚ PC‚ console‚ handheld‚ virtual reality and cloud platforms) will generate more than $80 billion in software revenues this year, and will cross the $100 billion threshold in 2018. Games consoles alone – PlayStation, Xbox, etc. – will generate $21 billion in revenues this year and reach $27 billion by 2018.
Given its size and influence, the area is ripe for academic study, although few minds are focused exclusively on the subject. Boulter’s work fills a gap in game criticism, one where many research are exploring ‘what a game is’ and ignoring ‘what a game can mean.’
“There is an impulse in me to always suspect fun, to be suspicious of it, and make it more meaningful. I am absolutely convinced these games are engaged in a philosophical speculation,” he said. “We should be responsible to these cultural products that hold so much sway in our culture, just as we should attend to films, to literature. These games are defining a way a generation is interacting with other subjects.”
Boulter’s work examines digital culture, and primarily video games, through the lens of various theories of the posthuman.
“I am interested in the cultural fascination with leaving the body behind and transforming into something more than it is,” he continued. “What does it mean for me ‘to game’? When I pick up a controller, and attach myself in a kind of cyborg way to my television screen, there is a way in which that act of engagement with this space is a practical realization of the fantasy of the game. The game is about extending the body of the character beyond what it would normally do – this is precisely what I do when I sit down and game. I am becoming that thing – the posthuman.”
Boulter’s main interest is in science fiction games that make a theme out of the body being extended beyond its normal human boundaries, like Fallout 3, Crisis 2 and Metal Gear Solid. His new book, Parables of the Posthuman: Digital Realities, Gaming, and the Player Experience, explores many of these same themes.
“The Metal Gear Solid series has always meant a great deal to me,” Boulter said. “It is a series that has worked on me not simply intellectually, but on an emotional level.”
For the uninitiated, the Metal Gear Solid series – or MGS – is a stealth action game where the player controls a Special Forces operative sent on military missions, including one where the player, eventually, faces off against Metal Gear, a gigantic super weapon which can be described as a walking tank with nuclear capabilities.
“This game is explicitly asking questions about what it means to be ‘in a game.’ It is a curious series – one that fetishizes violence and weapondary to an extraordinary extent, but it is also a critique of that very desire to kill.”
The game’s creator, Hideo Kojima, is “a god” in the industry, an auteur of the likes of famed film director Alfred Hitchcock. Both artists have presences felt throughout their works. By asking big questions of players, Kojima is engaging in a level of conversation with society equal to other artforms, Boulter argued.
“When a popular cultural artifact asks questions that my literary people, like Samuel Beckett, would, that makes me realize this binary between high and low art is, at times, completely false,” he concluded. “Popular culture can ask, and ask in more seductive ways, questions that so-called high art is as well – and maybe do so while engaging a wider audience.
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IN CONVERSATION: Join American writer and critic Michael Clune in conversation with English and Writing Studies professor Jonathan Boulter in A Talk on GAMELIFE, 3:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9, Arts & Humanities Building, 2R07.