A Case for the Serious Study of Video Games in Higher Education

As a life long gamer,  the debate on whether or not video games are a serious art form worthy of study or just “mindless play” is something I’ve given a lot of thought to. James Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy was a fascinating read, mostly because he manages to articulate in words the ideas that I and many others have been thinking for years.

I think everyone will agree that there are different kinds of literacy besides reading and writing–musical literacy, for example, is widely recognized “semiotic domain”. So if we accept that there are many kinds of literacy, why have video games always been looked down on compared to their written counterparts?

The “problem of content” that Gee brings up comes the closest to articulating the reason that I’ve seen: people simply don’t recognize the ways in which video games can be vessels of active and critical (as Gee states) learning. Gee argues (and I agree) that video games engage players in a variety of different kinds of learning–from creative problem solving to hand eye coordination, to performing complex tasks under pressure, all of which are important skills. Gee says it best:

“They situate meaning in a multi-modal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships and identities in the modern world” (40).

This multi-modal engagement with different kinds of learning alone makes them worthy of study, and that’s not even getting into the fact that many video games these days have expansive, complex stories that easily rival that of books. I imagine many in academia/creative writing circles would roll their eyes at that statement, but that is pure ignorance, to be honest–how many in academia can say that they have enough hands-on experience with video games to even make an educated assertion one way or the other?

One interesting question (assuming we all agree with Gee that video games are, indeed, worth studying) is how to go about studying them. I had the privilege of taking a Lyric Science Fiction course with Professor Chu here at QC last semester, and this question came up a lot. Simply watching videos about games wouldn’t be enough, as so much is lost in translation without the control or mouse in your hand. Fantasy games, for example, ask the player to role-play, and gives them the freedom to make choices- good or bad-for themselves, and the freedom of choice is itself a critical learning experience that must be experienced first hand.

So would a video game course entail “assigning” video games to play? And then discuss the experience across a wide variety of modes (story, physical actions, ambiance, moral choices, realism)? I can immediately see problems arising such as students not having access to specific systems to play on (one may not have an Xbox, the next may not have a strong enough PC, etc). I don’t really have any answers, but it’s an interesting topic to think about.

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2 Responses to A Case for the Serious Study of Video Games in Higher Education

  1. Nick Earhart says:

    I haven’t played video games for years, but I was pretty into them when I was younger. I definitely came up against the “grandpa” effect Gee speaks of: It was a forgone conclusion that video games were a waste of time. As a result, I don’t think I ever really considered their value as a learning tool. I’m sure I wasn’t so analytical as that—I wasn’t thinking in terms of “learning tools”—but I certainly saw the games as more a distraction than a viable pursuit in themselves. I’m still reasonably fluent in “game-language,” and I enjoy playing on the rare occasion when someone has a console. I wonder, though, if I lost interest in high school in response to the skepticism that surrounds gaming. I remember simply not caring anymore, ceasing to suspend my disbelief, but I’m sure it’s more complicated than that.

    In response to your point, Alex: I’m also curious how to teach video games. I’m interested in what this “legitimacy” would do to broaden the conversation about their place in culture. How would a more active critical discourse surrounding games affect public perception, affect the views within the “affinity group,” and influence the kinds of games that get made? Likewise, how can video games be seen as a pedagogical tool—a supplement like a blog that can create some variability in the classroom? I played “Number Munchers” and “Mario Teaches Typing” when I was a kid, but I haven’t played another game for class since. I’d be curious to see what an advanced video-games course would look like. As well, I’d like to discuss how this field might connect back to our core concern of college-level writing.

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