Teaching Video Game Theory, Part Two

What Video Game Study Can Do for Academia

In my last post (“Teaching Video Game Theory, Part One: What Academic Study Can Do for Video Games”), I argued that video games deserve critical attention. But the question remains whether video games have anything essential to offer in return. What benefits can the inclusion of video games offer to Culture & Media Studies?

Well, in many ways the humanities are suffering. It’s no secret that universities around the world are in financial straits. While cutting budgets and raising tuition, administrations are looking at the numbers. And the liberal arts are not pulling their weight. According to a New York Times article about the global crisis in liberal arts, the number of students studying the humanities at Harvard has halved in the last 50 years. Yet another NYT piece about waning student interest in the humanities reports that although nearly half of faculty salaries at Stanford University go to professors in the liberal arts, only 15% of recent Stanford grads have majored in those disciplines. Those are alarming trends and suggest the humanities are fundamentally unsustainable. At least as they are currently imagined.


In response to this crisis in the humanities, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report last year stating: “At a time when economic anxiety is driving the public toward a narrow concept of education focused on short-term payoffs, it is imperative that colleges, universities, and their supporters make a clear and convincing case for the value of liberal arts education” (32). This report also stressed the importance of facing the new challenges of the Digital Age.

So, how do we do that? How do we make the case that a liberal arts education is worthwhile especially with the advent of the Digital Age?

Well, teaching video games is a start. We need to bring this powerful cultural medium into the classroom and engage students on their own terms. Over the past decade I’ve become aware that fewer and fewer of our students read for enjoyment. But nearly all of them use significant amounts of their free time to play video games. Male or female, younger or older, they choose to experience these video game “texts” of their own free will.

I already argued last time for the significance of video games as cultural artifacts. Every year more academic studies of video games are published and certain trends of intellectual thought about games have already begun to emerge.

All of this scholarly focus on video games is performing interesting and culturally important work; however, as academics we need to do more to translate this emerging discipline into the classroom experiences of our students.

They crave it. Not only that, but they deserve it. And so do we.

Video games can revitalize the humanities.

In order the remind the world how valuable a liberal arts education can be, we first need to entice students into taking our classes and then we need to make the classroom experience meaningful enough that they want to pursue degrees in our disciplines. When students are clamoring to study the humanities, financial support become available.

Three keys to attracting students are relevance, fun, and depth.

Relevance. Students want to take classes and study subject that connect to their actual lives and provide them with better ways of understanding the real (and often virtual) world they inhabit on a daily basis. For a class to be relevant, it needs to provide students with the analytical tools that help them interpret the information that bombards us from every side. Part of this is learning to ask the right questions. Part of it is learning how to understand the stuff our social interactions are made of – language and ideas and assumptions and rhetorical strategies. When it comes to teaching critical thinking and effective reading and writing skills, the humanities are not just relevant but central. There’s a reason two out of the three basic R’s of education are in the humanities! Yes, ‘rithmetic is important, but try surviving a day in the Digital Age without reading and writing.

Fun. Students learn best when they’re having fun. This is why so many young people retain seemingly endless minutia about the video games they play (which they experience as fun) and recall so little about that boring world history or chemistry class where they were forced to memorize dates or formulae. Fun lights up the brain like a Christmas tree. Just look at all those presents! By contrast, boredom shuts down the mind. “Eat your peas” and “do your chores” do not inspire enthusiasm and engagement. Psychological studies bear this out and pedagogues are already busily trying to create “useful” video games that can surreptitiously indoctrinate players with real world information.

Depth. This one is trickier, but in some ways it’s the secret ingredient because it’s key to what students crave from classes. Relevance and fun are both very important, but alone they cannot complete the circuit of education. The avid mind of a student wants to think new thoughts, to make surprising connections, to explore uncharted areas, to see the ordinary as strange and to view the strange as ordinary, to learn how to ask important questions and how to find interesting answers, to discover the mysterious joys of an intellectual life.

Video games offer a powerful way to provide students with relevance, fun, and depth. Not only is that good education; it’s where the humanities shine.

**This essay is cross-posted on the Marylhurst Blog.**

Drowning in Digital Democracy, Part I

It’s become commonplace, and maybe even a little passé, to describe our own ongoing digital revolution as analogous the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century.  Indeed, some points of comparison do continue to seem remarkably apt.  For example, the role of printed documents in spreading new ideas during the Reformation looks a lot like activists using Facebook and Twitter to share news and schedule protests during the Arab Spring.  Both show how technology can be a powerful force for democratization.  (Apologies if I’m stepping on any toes by seeming to valorize the Reformation as a positively democratic movement on the blog of a Catholic university, but you know what I mean.)

However, critics like Adam Gopnik in his New Yorker piece “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us” (Feb. 14, 2011) have been quick to point out that overly enthusiastic interpretations of such revolutionary possibilities not only tend to confuse correlation with causation – that is, did the printing press give rise to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, or did it just help spread the word?  The truth probably rests somewhere in between cause and coincidence, but we should be careful not to ignore the distinction.

Similarly, technology’s vocal cheerleaders seem all too ready to ignore the potential negative aspects of such improved communication technologies – like the inconvenient historical fact that totalitarian regimes have typically printed far more works of propaganda than they’ve destroyed in book burnings.  Dictators figured out quickly that it’s far easier to drown out the voices of opposition than silence them.  Pervasive misinformation can do far more damage than tearing down handbills.

Now, I’m not suggesting that our globalized digital community is a totalitarian regime.  At least on the surface it feels like just the opposite, though Jaron Lanier expresses some dire warnings about what he calls “cybernetic totalism” in his “One-Half of a Manifesto.”  I’ll plan to address Lanier’s thoughts more fully in a future post.  For now, it’s enough to observe that in this brave new world of online culture we’ve adapted to communication being instantaneous, everything being available all the time, and everyone having a voice.  Well, in such an environment, succumbing to the endless seas of unmediated information (and misinformation), the rule of the mob begins to feel like a real possibility.

We’re drowning in digital democracy.

Forgive me if I sound less than perfectly egalitarian here, but when everyone not only has a voice but has the ability to speak in a polyphony of voices masked in anonymity, we’re no longer looking at a lively exchange of ideas.  We’re looking at the well-known horrors of mob rule, and it doesn’t make the stakes any lower or the threats any less real that it’s happening online.

Even in the best of scenarios, when everyone has a voice the quality of the conversation can plummet very quickly.  I’m not talking about those annoying people who use their social media to tell everyone from Boise to Bangladesh that they’re making a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  Those folks are easy enough to avoid and to ignore.

No, my concern is that too many of our students and friends and journalists and politicians and, hell, all of us are relying on Wikipedia and Google.  Not only are we trusting crowd-sourced encyclopedias written by people who may have little or no education or expertise (and some of whom are hoaxers or pranksters), but we’re relying on logarithmically-driven and advertisement-enhanced search engines to provide most (or all) of our information, without pausing to question or to ascertain the authority of what we’re reading.

Not only that, but because of such ready access to information we’re hearing people who are smart enough to know better trumpeting the end of all cultural and social authority.  “The expert is dead,” such digerati claim.  And indeed throughout much of our irreverent, anything-goes society, many people do seem to be acting as if at last the king is dead.

But is it really true that we no longer have any need for cultural, political, and intellectual authority?

No, in fact just the opposite is true.  Greater freedom brings with it greater responsibility.  We now need experts in every field to exert their authority more powerfully than ever.  Reason must lead.  Functional democracies (even digital ones) still need organization and leaders.  Otherwise we’re left with the chaos of a shouting match.

Having a voice is not the same as knowing how to participate a conversation.  Access to information is not the same thing as knowing how to use it.  We didn’t close up schools because every home had a set of encyclopedias.  We didn’t tear down universities because people had access to public libraries.

All those online sources might be fine places to start looking for information, but we need to be constantly vigilant about verifying what we’re accepting as valid and credible.  We also need to get better about documenting and providing links to our sources (as you’ll notice I’m trying to do in these posts).

And finally, we need to make sure we remain very clear about the vital differences between having ready access to information and gaining an education.  Now more than ever, our students need us to teach them how to read, how to research, how to analyze information, and how to participate responsibly in this emerging digital democracy.

Of course, if the Digital Revolution truly lives up to its name, its effects will be further reaching and less predictable than any of us can imagine.  That’s the problem with revolutions – they change everything.

This piece is cross-posted on the Marylhurst University blog: https://blog.marylhurst.edu/blog/2013/03/19/drowning-in-digital-democracy-part-i/