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Screenshot: It’s time for video games to enter the humanities curriculum

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Integrating video games into the classroom is no simple feat. — illustration by Adam Burke

Ever since the first versions of the video game Oregon Trail appeared in the early 1970s, the notion that video games might have a productive place in a classroom setting has been widely accepted. Relatively early adopters of the home computer, my parents stocked my childhood home with edu-taining games like Reader Rabbit (1986), The Playroom (1989) and, of course, Carmen Sandiego (1985). (Full but unnecessary disclosure: In the late ‘80s, my father worked for Broderbund, the software company that developed Carmen Sandiego and The Playroom.)

So, video games can be educational—that much many of us know. What I’ve been trying to figure out recently, however, is how to get them into the humanities classroom—how to incorporate them into the courses I teach.

A serious study of contemporary culture(s) needs to take video games into account. There are a whole number of statistics one could cite to argue this point, but the fact that the video game industry regularly out-earns the Hollywood box office is perhaps the most condensed illustration of video games’ dominant cultural position. Of course, not everyone plays video games, and not everyone grew up with them being an important part of his or her life. But one could say the same thing about Victorian novels or midcentury cinema, both of which are canonical humanities subjects. If studying a culture means analyzing what that culture says about itself (consciously and unconsciously), and if one of the goals of an education in the humanities is to make students conscious and critical of the world around them, video games need to have a place in the classroom.

This also means that more critics and academics, depending on their field or interests, should strive to be conversant with video games, or at least take them seriously. The 20th century saw film and television somewhat reluctantly added to the accepted canon of humanities objects (painting and the plastic arts; poetry, prose, etc.), as well as mainstays of popular criticism next to theater and book reviews in the newspaper. But the point of this move shouldn’t have been to incorporate film and TV into a bracketed, exclusive group of “art”—to have “redeemed” them—so that they could then be held as “legitimate” expressions in opposition to the newer medium of video games. Instead, the cultural legitimation of film and television illustrates to us how very historically determined (as well as conservative and culturally elitist) any such boundaries are.

But the question remains: How, pragmatically and effectively, does one integrate video games into a classroom? It’s a problem of resources, of apparatus. The apparatus for studying literature exists largely in the students’ minds. They are, presumably, literate—they can both understand and use language, an accomplishment of years of internalizing sets of rules and practices, of forming the neural connections that turn them into reading-machines. Teaching film and television requires the presence of a more thoroughly exteriorized “reading” technology in the classroom. Nevertheless, classrooms, particularly at the university level, are now typically designed to accommodate the audiovisual moving image. Because at some level films and TV shows operate like a lecture—a singular address to a multiplicity of spectators who are intended to absorb information—they were relatively easy (if not cheap) to incorporate into the classroom.

Like films, video games are not literature; the “apparatus” that “reads” the games is not as internalized as literacy in a given language. But the analogy with the lecture also doesn’t work, because what is demanded of the game player is not simply spectatorial attention. Integrating them into the classroom setting is not, therefore, just a matter of bringing one’s Xbox into class (as I have done a couple of times now). It means figuring out how to teach a text that offers multiple, varying experiences based on the interaction of a program and an individual’s choices within that program. In some sense, video games are the inverse of literature: Where we bring literature into ourselves, video games bring us into them.

The latter statement, is something that has been observed of the difference between literature and film as well. Games take it one step further than film, however, offering an individual (or a very limited number of individuals) the opportunity to take action in the world of the game, to affect it uniquely. Practically, what this means in the classroom is that while everyone can read the same book or watch the same movie, it’s almost impossible for everyone to play the same game. And the classroom isn’t built for an experience that is not shared. While one student plays, the others spectate, and because the spectators don’t control what happens, they will have a hard time reaching an understanding of the game.

There are a few ways to try to work around this. Assigning video games as homework would ensure that everyone has the hands-on experience that games require, but this doesn’t quite work yet, as consoles and games are quite expensive, and one can’t assume that a student has the access to the correct hardware—the way one can assume that, given access to a library DVD, the student will have the means to play it (through the library if not at home). This is why, just as university libraries supply DVD players for assigned films, they should invest in having game consoles available for courses that put games on reserve.

Taking turns in class can give multiple students a chance to play, but classrooms are typically too big, and contemporary games typically too complex, for this to be fully effective. A classroom with multiple gaming devices, so that the class could be broken up into smaller groups, is perhaps the most feasible and theoretically effective option right now, but classrooms with that level of multimedia capability are few and far between.

It’s a problem that will have to be addressed in the coming years. A video game, as I understand it, is just one term for the interactive, increasingly personal media forms that have proliferated in contemporary culture; they will have to be studied in the liberal arts classroom.

Pat Brown teaches and learns Film Studies at the University of Iowa. Fun fact: A family friend was the model for the character Skip Tomaloo in Where in America’s Past is Carmen Sandiego? (1991).


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1 thought on “Screenshot: It’s time for video games to enter the humanities curriculum

  1. It’s too bad there isn’t a corpus of scholarly literature or any extant models for teaching video games from which you could draw. Perhaps in the future, things like Star Trek, video games, and comic books will finally begin to receive the serious consideration they deserve, but only if people are willing to vote with their educational dollars. Have you considered teaching one of your video games classes as a MOOC? I can’t think of a better way to show university administrators that video games have a place in the humanities than massive sales for a pre-packaged game studies course.

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