MCC’s Liel Leibovitz Talks Seriously About Video Games

On Tuesday, April 17, Steinhardt’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication will host “Re: Play 2012,” a one-day conference dedicated to the ever-evolving medium of video games and electronic play. Liel Leibovitz, Steinhardt professor, video game scholar, and conference director discusses how gamers, clergymen, academics, and executives intersect in the world of virtual play, and his latest project, “The New York Review of Video Games.”

What is the purpose of “Re:Play 2012?”

With video games being such a booming industry, game designers, business executives, and scholars, are asking themselves a lot of seminal questions. What makes a game great? Why do people play? What might future genres or business models look like? The purpose of this conference, which we hope will become an annual tradition, is to bring all these diverse people together for a day of conversation and informal presentations. I think that when smart people, all representing different points of view and distinct experiences, but all obsessed with gaming, get together and talk, great ideas and insights are bound to follow.

What is a video game scholar? 

That’s a great question. My wife still asks me that every time I tell her that I have to spend the evening “researching” a game. In all seriousness, though, the field is busy being born. Video games have been around for more than three decades, but we’re only now seeing academics begin to ask themselves the key questions, trying to understand what sets the medium apart from others and what constitutes its building blocks. NYU is very fortunate to have many of the most prominent and exciting scholars in the field: Jan Plass, Jesper Juul, Eric Zimmerman, Frank Lantz, Katherine Isbister, Joost van Dreunen and others. To me, this is a very exciting time to be doing this kind of work; like being very nerdy Lewises and Clarks, mapping out a wild digital frontier about which so much is still unknown.

There is a panel titled “Video Games and Religion,” during the conference; exactly how is it that religion and video games intersect? 

Video games and religion, I believe, share the same spiritual engine. They’re both fundamentally about finding your own way in a universe that was meticulously designed by some external, unknown force. Gamers and people of faith both realize that the world they inhabit is governed by rules they don’t entirely understand and will never entirely know, and yet even the most fervently orthodox among them insists on coming up with ways to assert their own sense of agency. The gamer realizes that the game consists of algorithms, and that possibilities are limited only to what the software permits, and yet he or she explores and invents and negotiates. It’s not precisely predetermination, but it’s not entirely free will, either. Every gamer, I believe, is secretly an aspiring theologian, and I look forward to discussing these questions with two members of the clergy who happen to be avid gamers.

What is The New York Review of Video Games?

The New York Review of Video Games is a new project we’re debuting at the department of Media, Culture, and Communication. It’s a web-based magazine run by faculty and students and devoted to thinking seriously about electronic play. The idea is to create a space for intelligent, insightful, and approachable essays exploring all aspects of gaming, from the ways game design principles are helping reinvent older, more established industries to the interplay of software and gender. I find that most of the writing about video games one sees is either geared exclusively toward gaming fanatics and therefore written in the secret language of the initiated, or is too overly broad to provide any real illumination. We hope to find a solid, smart middle ground. So much of video game reviewing right now is based on this childish numeric scale or rating from 1 to 10, and so much is preoccupied with delving into the most minute technical details. Our reviews, we hope, won’t be a detailed description of the engine; instead, they’ll tell you what it feels like to drive the car.

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