Games people play: Keeping busy in the parlor

The roaring ‘20s– jazz, Broadway, Hollywood, and the comic strips. The bobo ‘90s-– Pictionary, Sega, Scrabble, and on-line chess. A fair analogy? These are the things they’re pondering up in the Ivory Towers of deep brain thinking – M.I.T.

Henry Jenkins, Director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, brings his considerable scholarship in the realm of pop culture to UVA’s Forum of Contemporary Thinking to ask the question: Are games the new “lively arts”?
Taking a page from Gilbert Seldes, originator of the phrase as it applied to America’s contribution to 20th century culture, Jenkins wonders how society today critiques games as a popular art form. While many cynics would more quickly acknowledge our contemporary contribution as one to the non-lively arts (does sitting on your butt while commanding a computer-generated army or football team count as lively?), there’s no doubt that games, particularly computer games, are a ubiquitous and exportable product of American culture today, and that we spend a lot of time talking about them.
But computer games transcend national boundaries and cultures; they are shared, played, and rated by a supra-national audience. To get really American, maybe we should look to the nostalgic embrace of parlor games. This is a trend that started over a decade ago with Trivial Pursuit and its infinite permutations. For a while it seemed that the board game had a fighting chance at restoring a golden age of wholesome fun; I personally remember busting curfew to finish a close match. Parents did it, too-– sold, perhaps by advertisements showing responsible-looking couples gleefully regressing in an effort to simulate an orangutang on amphetamines, or some other challenging task. 
Jenkins is the author or editor of nine books looking at video games, the media, and the ascendancy of popular culture over the fine arts. But as his readers know, what begins as an examination of Trekkies can quickly segue into lesbian desire in The Wizard of Oz, and once you bring up karaoke, there’s nowhere to go but the stress-management industry.
So if you’re the one who sees Twister as a metaphor for class harmony, or credits charades with the development of postmodern body language, this lecture is for you. And if you do go, don’t forget to pay homage to Gilbert Seldes, who dined with the Stravinskys and championed the Katzenjammer Kids. Now that’s lively.

Henry Jenkins is the Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT and the author of “What Made Pistachio Nuts” and other pop culture studies. He speaks on Monday, October 21, at 4pm at UVA’s Forum for Contemporary Thought. Wilson Hall, 402, UVA. Reception follows.

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