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Teaching Video Game Theory, Part Two: What Video Game Study Can Do for Academia

 

By Chuck Caruso, Ph.D.

 

In my last post (“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 the New York Times, the number of students studying the humanities at Harvard has halved in the last 50 years. Yet another NYT piece reports that although nearly half of faculty salaries at Stanford University go to professors in the humanities, only 15% of recent Stanford grads have majored in the humanities. 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.