by Kasper Swerts |

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the best video game ever made, period. In addition to the fascinating story, good gameplay and beautiful music, the thing that has always struck me in this game, and the franchise in general, was its complex interpretation of time. Not only did the game itself allow the player to move through time, alternating between a younger and older version of the main character, the Zelda universe is marked by three different timelines. Each of them being the consequence of a different outcome set forth by the events in The Ocarina of Time.

As a student of historiography and philosophy of history, these aspects have always eluded me, and have proven to be relevant to my own research in that it questions through the medium of videogames the validity of a teleological history, as well as supporting the idea of counterfactuals and even different time dimensions in the concept of history. Yet academia does not seem all too convinced about the utility of referencing to videogames when making an argument. Contrary to movies and TV shows (let alone books), the medium of videogames is hardly used to illustrate, highlight or even augment an argument. This could be due to the negative stereotype that often surrounds videogames and videogame culture, with examples of either excessive violence in videogames or adults ghoulishly staring at a brightly lit computer screen contributing to this perception.
Videogames as a medium however hold a significant relevance to academia and PhD students in particular. First, there is the uniqueness of the medium to convey its narrative to the player. Unlike movies and TV shows, a videogame’s narrative is in part formed by the player himself. A story can’t progress until the player makes certain decisions that influence the overall narrative, making the overall experience very personalized and unique. Using this narrative structure of videogames can prove to be very useful to a PhD student and their thesis. Instead of conveying the argument in a traditional manner – a book filled with graphs, facts and footnotes – a PhD thesis is the perfect opportunity to experiment, possibly making the thesis an interactive digital piece or even make the PhD a game itself!

Ironically, in addition to this unique personal experience videogames are essentially a social event. Barring the single-player games, videogames (and games in general) are intrinsically social: you play either online or with friends. What makes this social aspect so relevant to a PhD is that playing online or with friends allows you to see different tactics applied to one specific game. Everybody has his own tactic when playing UNO or Settlers of Catan, and perceiving those different stratagems can help to improve or alter your own approach, resulting in a better understanding of the game and even possibly winning it. A PhD, one could say, has the same symbiosis of individual and social aspects. It is a very personal endeavour, but without the input of others – through suggestions, comments or critique – it will remain limited in its scope and understanding of the subject discussed in the thesis. Understanding approaches or tactics different from your own is thus vital, both in a PhD and (video)games, to bring the personal endeavour to a success.

Lastly, and most trivial, videogames are a good way to take a step back from your PhD. Working 24/7 on a PhD is not only detrimental to yourself, but to your thesis as well as losing sight of the overall picture will hamper rather than contribute to the overall progress of your project. Playing videogames is thus a good way to remind yourself that there are other things in life besides the PhD, such as beating your friends at UNO or Settlers of Catan! So next time you pick up your controller, or set up the table as you prepare for a night of board games, be aware that videogames are not only enjoyable and a good use of your time, but may even hold the key to a successful PhD!


Kasper Swerts is a fourth year PhD Student in Canadian Studies at the Centre of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the historiographical influence of the neo-Thomist philosophy on nationalist historians in Quebec and Flanders (1900-1945). You can find him on academia or via his profile on the Canadian Studies Website.


Picture 1 (c)