Life is full of fun and games for Ken McAllister (left) and Judd Ruggill. The archive for their Learning Games Initiative, housed on the outskirts of the UA campus, is one of the world's largest devoted to investigating and documenting computer games and the game industry. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)
Life is full of fun and games for Ken McAllister (left) and Judd Ruggill. The archive for their Learning Games Initiative, housed on the outskirts of the UA campus, is one of the world's largest devoted to investigating and documenting computer games and the game industry. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

For These Two Guys, It's Always Game On

The UA's Ken McAllister and Judd Ruggill head up the Learning Games Initiative, an international organization the two founded to study, teach with, and build computer games.
Dec. 14, 2016
McAllister and Ruggill have built the Learning Games Initiative Research Archive with partners in states that include Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts and Utah, along with collaborators abroad in Germany and Australia. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)
McAllister and Ruggill have built the Learning Games Initiative Research Archive with partners in states that include Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts and Utah, along with collaborators abroad in Germany and Australia. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

In a crowded, shotgun-style room at the University of Arizona's Transitional Office Building is a gamer's paradise.

Sitting in display cases and cabinets and on shelves are artifacts that reference our obsession with video games: homemade gaming console controls made out of scrap metal and wood; Atari's legendary home "Pong" console; a Japanese version of PlayStation's "Rez" music video game; "Legend of Zelda" T-shirts; and game-themed paintings by celebrated local artist Mel "Melo" Dominguez.

The lead collectors are gaming experts and aficionados Ken McAllister and Judd Ruggill, co-directors of the Learning Games Initiative Research Archive in the UA College of Humanities. The archive is a collection of more than a quarter of a million items, including at least 15,000 games, more than 200 gaming systems, thousands of trade and academic publications, and even more items sourced from around the world.

Introduced nearly two decades ago by a mutual colleague, McAllister and Ruggill have since built the archive with partners in states that include Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts and Utah, along with collaborators abroad in Germany and Australia.

Today, the archive is one of the world's largest devoted to investigating and documenting computer games and the game industry — which Newzoo projects, in its Global Games Market Report, will generate about $99.6 billion in revenues by the year's end. The archive is broadly accessible to both researchers and members of the general public — all of whom are welcome to hold, touch and play with its collection.

"Normally with archives, artifacts are kept safely stored away because human beings are ineluctably dangerous. Our sweat, skin oils and the like make the work of materials preservation difficult," said Ruggill, an associate professor of Africana studies in the UA College of Humanities.

"But because game materials are fungible by design, the memories people develop from physically interacting with them actually make for a surprisingly robust form of preservation," he said. "In this case, embodied experience is more durable than the mass-produced plastics, evanescent software and other quick-to-discard components of the commercial gaming world."

McAllister, a UA English professor, said the ability to have tangible interactions with the archive's contents is essential for understanding games on a deeper level.

"The things preserved here are fundamentally interactive, so what does it mean to preserve games if you don't preserve what they do? It would be like preserving books without encouraging people to read," McAllister said.

Although the geek factor is fairly high, you needn't be a gamer to appreciate what McAllister and Ruggill have been creating.

Ultimately, McAllister, Ruggill, and their national and international partners are preserving important pieces of our social and technological selves. Gaming has revolutionized how humans communicate, learn and play — even as it informs film, television, fashion, food and other parts of our global identity.

Their work is transdisciplinary, combining elements borrowed from fields that include history, art, music, science, engineering, design and even archaeology. In fact, if you look closely, you can spot McAllister and Ruggill in "Atari: Game Over," a documentary about the landfill excavation of a failed Atari video game, reportedly dumped (along with several metric tons of other Atari detritus) after the game's abysmal sales in the early 1980s.

Just as computer games are preserved by playing them, games feed our nostalgia in a way that is both familiar and comforting, even with advancements such as those seen in virtual reality and the emergence of 3-D technology such as scanning and facial recognition.

"Virtually every aspect of computer games has an origin in some other well-established medium. This is why there's so much resonance between games and film, television, radio, literature and so on," McAllister said.

"Computer games are hybrid forms. In their assemblage, they provide a different kind of experience than what people get with other media," he said.

For that reason and others, McAllister and Ruggill are loath to predict the future of the game medium, but they are excited to see how the multibillion-dollar industry will develop.

"There are so many different kinds of games, players and innovations," Ruggill said. "As a result, our jobs are always changing, which is both challenging and exciting."