Why Study Video Games?

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April 6, 2012 by tanineallison

I wrote this the other day when I was asked for a newspaper article to discuss how our Video Games class may appear to be “wasteful” but actually can be useful.

Video games are an increasingly important part of our economy and our culture. Recently, Mark Pincus, founder and CEO of game company Zynga, said that game mechanics “will be the most valuable skill in the new economy.” (He is quoted in this very interesting article about video games in this week’s New York Times Book Review.) Some of my students hope to go into the growing multi-billion-dollar industry that video gaming has become, rivaling both Hollywood and the music industry. But, beyond this, as Pincus’ statement implies, video games are becoming integrated with more and more aspects of our culture. As time goes on, video games increasingly influence how we learn about the world, access information, persuade others, communicate, represent ideas and the world around us, tell stories, etc. In the field of video game studies, this is called “gamification,” as more and more aspects of society are transformed into or embedded within games. Last week, I invited video game scholar, game designer, and Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost to come to speak to my class and to give a public talk at Emory. His main argument was that video games will no longer be the provenance of merely a small subculture of “gamers,” maligned in mainstream culture as antisocial males in suspended adolescence. Rather, games will become part of all aspects of culture: advertising, political campaigns, journalism, therapy, exercise, music, education, art, and so on. He has been working with the Knight Foundation on “newsgames,” which aim to report, comment, satirize, or illustrate current events. Instead of just being an entertainment medium, video games will be put to many “serious” uses throughout society.

My class aims to familiarize students with these “game mechanics,” in other words–the formal structures and underlying foundations of video games. Students learn to analyze games, both for their form and for their significance to culture. In terms of its formal aspects, we examine how video games differ from other media–primarily in how they create simulations that model events and behaviors, rather than just creating representations. We look at different genres of games and how they are defined. (Unlike film and literature, video games are defined by their mode of interactivity, such as driving, shooting, role-playing, strategy, or simulation.) We explore the role of narrative in games and how these narratives relate to the gameplay (in other words, the rules and activity of the game). After looking at these formal aspects, we investigate the role of video games in culture. How do they represent the world–gender, race, class, sexuality, but also war, national identity, religion, love? What kind of communication do these games (particularly massively multiplayer online games) allow? How do gamers create communities, both within and outside of the game? We do look at the representation of violence in video games, but it is not the center of our course. We historicize concerns about the violent content of video games within a long history of “media panics” from comic books to film to television.

The students write a series of analytical essays, consulting theoretical and formal analyses of video games that have been published in the growing games studies field. These papers are also posted and commented upon on a class blog. They also do presentations that introduce and analyze video games of their choice. At the end of the class, they will complete a final paper or creative project. One student is tracing the representation of women in games; another is analyzing representations of African Americans. Another is designing a text adventure game (a computer game with a written rather than visual interface). (Those doing creative projects also have to write an analytical paper examining their own choices and connecting them to the class.) Another is writing about how competitive gaming has exposed players to other cultures, using his own experience playing Starcraft II (for the Emory Starcraft Club) and learning about Korean culture. Another is writing about the online role-playing game World of Warcraft and the ways that it challenges our assumptions about video games and gamers.

In doing these assignments, students learn to analyze video games, but more broadly, they learn to analyze and participate in our increasingly digital, “gamified” culture. They improve their critical thinking, analysis, writing, and communication skills, which will serve them in the future, no matter what career path they take.

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One thought on “Why Study Video Games?

  1. […] far less literature on why people study video games. It’s not non-existent, and some of it is certainly approachable, but it’s not […]

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