Teaching Video Game Theory, Part One: What Academic Study Can Do for Video Games

By Chuck Caruso, Ph.D.


This past spring I presented an academic paper on spatial representation in the video game Portal at the annual Textual Studies conference, along with fellow panelists’ discussions of early modern maps and the social and natural spaces in Sebold and Thoreau. The juxtaposition of our various analyses provoked a lively audience discussion. But as we jostled out of the room afterwards, I couldn’t help overhearing one of the curmudgeonly older professors grumbling, “I can’t believe there was an academic paper about a video game!”

But why not? Was I squandering my mental energies and straining my peers’ patience with a topic beneath scholarly attention? The more I considered the issue, the more important it seemed that I continue studying video games. In fact, I “doubled down,” as they say. I’ve already presented another conference paper on the video game L.A. Noire‘s adaptation of the detective genre, and this fall I’m attending a semiotics conference to discuss the paradoxical fantasies of military first-person shooter games. Not only that, but this summer I’m proud to say that I’m teaching Marylhurst’s first ever Video Game Theory class.

Why is a 19th-century Americanist with expertise in textual studies and psychoanalytic criticism spending his time playing video games? Even worse, why is he talking about it in public? Video games are no longer the exclusive province of nerdy teenaged boys who live in their parents’ basements. Recent demographics studied by the Entertainment Software Associations show that over half of American households own a dedicated gaming console, the average gamer is 31 and nearly 40% of gamers are over 36. While men do still edge out women among the gaming population, currently 48% of gamers are women.

We need to recognize that it’s not just about online fantasy or military shooter games. Just about everybody has a game or two on their phone. Angry Birds, anyone? These games are changing how and when we communicate with each other. Some people use Words with Friends as an excuse to chat more frequently with long distance friends and relatives. There are also games specifically designed to help a variety of medical patients recover better and faster, in addition to the studied benefits of video games helping teach autistic kids social rules and communication.

Beyond the stereotypes about video games that persist, what are some of the other reasons we need to think critically about this topic? For one thing, video games are big business, with the gaming industry generating over $21.5 billion last year. 2013’s top-selling game, Grand Theft Auto V, made over a billion dollars in its first three days. Compare that to other media. Top-grossing film Iron Man 3 also made over $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales, but it took nearly a month to hit that mark. Runaway bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey shattered every publishing record by selling 70 million copies in the U.S.–in both print and e-books.

I know it’s funny to hear an English professor measuring cultural significance with sales figures. Money isn’t the be all and end all of social values, but it’s a strong indicator. We all fundamentally “know” that books are better and more serious works of art than movies, and even TV and comic books are infinitely more important than video games. And yet, can we really just assume (or even argue) that either Fifty Shades of Grey or Iron Man 3 is an inherently superior cultural artifact than Grand Theft Auto V?

Granted, part of our job in academia is to serve as a standard bearer for important works from the past, to ensure they are not forgotten. As a 19th-century literary scholar, I’m acutely aware of this duty and I’m proud to say that I routinely inflict canonical “high literature” on my students. But what good are these various apparatuses we develop if they only apply to analyzing the works of “high culture”? Shouldn’t we also be able to apply our tools to “low-brow” works created primarily to entertain?

I think so. And I’m not alone. In fact, English professors have expanded the canon all along. It’s a slow and painful battle, but notice how (despite the vestigial name) English departments now routinely teach American literature. We teach post-colonial “world” literature and regularly include works of “popular” fiction. It’s much the same throughout the humanities. For years now, Culture and Media scholars have analyzed films, television, and comic books, so isn’t it time we stretch ourselves to include video games in our conversation?

Video games are undeniably cultural artifacts. They are “texts” of a sort, and as such they communicate meaning. Furthermore, people are choosing more and more to experience these video game “texts” instead of reading or even watching films. So, isn’t it better for us to teach our students how to apply critical thinking and analytical tools to these new texts?

It doesn’t mean that we will quit teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare. Not at all. But it means that we must also find a way to discuss Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty.