Some serious fun with games

July 21, 2006

The UK's first professor of video games is also passionate about horror films - a genre that has experienced a renaissance since 9/11. Sara Wajid meets her

The video game has come of age. Brunel University has just appointed the UK's first professor of video games. Tanya Krzywinska will lead the university's new MA in digital games: theory and design. She is also lecturing on Brunel's new MA in cult film and TV, which will cover horror, kung-fu and Buffy the Vampire Slayer , but she won't be offering tutorials in maximising your zombie count on Resident Evil .

Since the Atari 2600 came out in 1977, gaming has changed from a cottage industry to big business, with Sony and Microsoft competing for a market share in both hardware and software. Krzywinska sees her appointment as a sign of the times; she came to gaming early in its evolution, when games were available in text format only, making her one of the first academics to have a significant record in the field. A generation has grown up since. As Jeremy Penzer, a 35-year-old gaming enthusiast and lecturer in statistics at the London School of Economics, says: "My parents' generation saw no value in playing video games at all, and now friends who grew up to be designers are really, really wealthy."

The MA in cult film and TV has also been developed in response to the maturing of the genre, the accompanying body of academic work and a new generation of students reared on The League of Gentlemen (which will be studied on the course). Xavier Mendik, the MA's convener and director of the cult film archive (which holds 3,000 films and interviews), says it's not about Brunel trying to look cool. "People think this is really radical, but cult film has emerged as an academic discipline with more than ten years' worth of study, and about 80 per cent of undergraduate film courses already have disparate modules on cult film and television. Brunel is already home to many of the intellectual figures who have been central to my development, such as Julian Petley, the anti-censorship campaigner, and Leon Hunt, who wrote some of the first works on Hong Kong cinema and Italian horror."

Horror is a key interest for both Krzywinska and Xavier. For Krzywinska, horror's "pleasure" resides in its ability to arouse anxiety but to contain that anxiety in a pre-determined form.

But is Freddy Krueger really worthy of study at postgraduate level? Mendik says: "We're not here to defend trash, but within any canon of film, whether mainstream movies or monster movies, there are undiscovered gems and important texts that need to be re-theorised and re-articulated. As soon as movies go mainstream that's when the custard settles and everything becomes very watered down and uninteresting. For example, the first Nightmare on Elm Street directed by Wes Craven [ former humanities professor] is very complex; it deals with certain sexual traumas and psychoanalytical frames of reference that are present in great works of literature as well as in 'splatter' films. But once that was taken on by the mainstream and we saw the Freddy TV series and lunchbox it became dull."

For Mendik, bad times for society tend to be good times for horror film-makers. The "cuddly" Freddy Krueger of the self-satisfied late 1980s is the cultural opposite of difficult avant-garde horror movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre released in 1974 just before the end of the Vietnam War and reflecting the deep anxiety in US society at the time.

Mendik points to a resurgence of complex and "hardline" American horror movies since 9/11, in particular the films of Eli Roth - Cabin Fever and Hostage . "The events of 9/11 are almost the unsayable, the return of the repressed, and the way these things bubble under the surface of a culture is very Freudian. Because horror has always been a somewhat marginal form it allows [film-makers and film audiences] to articulate those things that are often watered down or contained within the mainstream. So, although we're now finally seeing a cluster of films that deal directly with 9/11, such as Oliver Stone's World Trade Center , a lot of the horror films came out straight after 9/11 and were far more direct in the way they dealt with the idea of the horror within."

"In Cabin Fever (2002), Roth uses knowing references to 1970s films and to what's happening in America now. The idea of a flesh-eating virus in the contaminated water supply on which the film turns came from the story that the FBI closed off bits of the American water supply (as a counter-terrorist security measure), so there's this currency within the film that feeds directly into contemporary fears."

Horror-film audiences are deliberately playing with their own fear, in particular a sense of impotence in the face of the terrible events unfolding on the screen. As Krzywinska puts it in her essay Hands on Horror , "horror-film suspense trades on a masochistic economy of delicious passivity, visceral affect and expectation".

So are horror video games less scary because you can control the action and "save the girl"? Not for Penzer. He says: "There's a huge shock factor, much more so than watching a film, because it's happening to you as you're playing." Krzywinska agrees: "Horror games are a more potent genre than horror films precisely because you're not just watching. The tensions are ratcheted up immediately." The shock of losing control is actually intensified if you have an illusion of controlling the action and adopting the persona of the avatar, the computer-generated character that represents a human in on-screen interaction.

Both Penzer and Krzywinska strongly reject the suggestion that gaming rots the brain; they compare it favourably with watching television and liken it more to reading. Penzer explains: "It's like reading a good book in that you are driven by narrative; you want to know what happens next. The raw visceral pleasure is the main reason for playing, but I appreciate games that are beautifully rendered."

For Krzywinska, who has a background in literary studies, games charge the imagination and emotions in the same way that a novel does: "When you're playing a game it coerces you into different emotional states, in some ways like a novel or a movie does."

Penzer would rather his young daughter spent time learning to play games than mindlessly watching television. "It takes a really long time to become good at games. If anything, they are too sophisticated now. My wife prefers the old retro games [such as Space Invaders] because everyone can play them together so it's not excluding."

Krzywinska is clearly familiar with earnest objections about young people hunching over consoles instead of developing social skills or some other self-improving hobby. "We are becoming more wedded to our screen and there are some problems with that, but multi-player games are the other side of all this. It's wonderful to be playing with other people and playing in a team; it's a really liberating experience."

She sees online games such as World of Warcraft as a huge growth area in gaming. Only the computer role-playing games are, in effect, alternative worlds online that persist even when you are not playing. And they are proving much more popular with women than traditional console games. Krzywinska cites the convenience for young mothers who can enter an adult social world without getting a baby-sitter. In fact, she believes women represent a future untapped market for video games, pointing to the popularity of the Mattel series of Barbie games. So far, only two of the 20 applicants to the MA in digital games are women, but it's a start.

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