“Video games have become an aspect of our culture”

Selim Krichane, co-fondateur du GameLab © David Gentil

Selim Krichane, co-fondateur du GameLab © David Gentil

Selim Krichane, a co-founder of the EPFL-UNIL GameLab and a scientist at EPFL’s College of Humanities (CDH), has channeled his energy into establishing video-game studies as an academic discipline in its own right.

Selim Krichane has been an avid game player – whether of the video, card or board variety – for as long as he can remember. He even turned his favorite childhood pastime into his PhD thesis topic and has made it the cornerstone of his career. Krichane’s work has helped clarify the discourse surrounding video games and their use, analyze their rapidly changing socio-cultural context, and anchor them as a valid field of study in academic circles.

The results of this work were recognized at the 2022 Swiss Game Awards – held by the Swiss Game Developers Association on 11 November – when an educational game developed by Krichane and his colleagues, called Lausanne 1830, won the Best Serious Game category. This marks a major victory and illustrates the way such game-playing has become a part of modern society.

The merits of educational games

Lausanne 1830 was developed under a research project selected by the CDH through a call for proposals. It took a year to create and was launched in June 2022. Intended for lower secondary-school students, Lausanne 1830 prompts players to explore a virtual reconstruction of the city as it existed in the early 19th century based on digitized historical archives. The educational game was made possible thanks to the joint efforts of students from EPFL and the University of Lausanne (UNIL), researchers and an independent development studio. “Now that our game is ready, we’ll promote it among our target audience of 12–15 year-olds,” says Krichane.

Krichane was born in Chardonne, in the canton of Vaud, and moved with his family to Malaysia when he was nine. The widespread popularity of video games in Asia exposed him to many different types, especially after online games and the then-revolutionary PlayStation consoles emerged. During that time he picked up English almost without trying, since he spent most of his free time playing Magic: The Gathering – a collectible card game that’s not available in his native French. “From a sociological perspective, my gaming could be considered diversified but typical in terms of time spent,” he says. “It peaked when I was a teenager and then leveled off as I entered my 20s.”

Shifting attitudes

Krichane moved back to Switzerland when he was 18. But before embarking on a career in the study of video games, promoting their use in both society and academia, he first obtained a Master’s in cinema studies from UNIL. He went on to enroll in a PhD program at UNIL in 2010, convincing his thesis supervisor to agree to a research topic on the mutual influences between video games and cinema. This was an entirely new field of study and underscored Krichane’s belief that video games were worth examining from many different angles.

Attitudes about gaming have shifted over the past ten years and game studies have become a growing subject of university research. “Video games have already come a long way in being recognized as a serious topic, but it’s an ongoing process,” he says. “They’ve become an aspect of our culture. That’s reflected in the video game collection inaugurated at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2012, and in the Play Time exhibition held at the Maison d’Ailleurs museum in Yverdon, Switzerland, that same year.” Public-sector funding has also helped legitimize game studies, including through cultural outreach programs for the general public. Krichane also points out that news articles about video games today go well beyond the issues of addiction and violence.

In 2016, after seeing just how much video games were becoming an integral part of our culture, Krichane and three UNIL colleagues founded the GameLab research group in order to study gaming from a humanities perspective. In 2019, Krichane moved to CDH to develop a range of cross-disciplinary joint UNIL-EPFL classes and to further his research. The GameLab was renamed the UNIL-EPFL GameLab in 2020, and scientists enthusiastic about gaming continue to work there on research projects and educational programs, like Lausanne 1830. Now a new generation of researchers is emerging who have been trained in game studies through the UNIL-EPFL classes, which have expanded in recent years.

Krichane will take over as the director of the Swiss Museum of Games at La Tour-de-Peilz in April 2023, where he will continue to explore gaming but from a different perspective. “It’ll be a great opportunity with a wealth of development potential,” he says.