Blog Post

Games Studies: Why Are We Here?

I'm waiting to hear if my advisor and I are going to co-teach next semester a class we developed last year, "Computer Gaming, Learning and Literacy." Reading over the teaching-philosophy posts some of you have made recently got me to look back on the one I wrote for that class.  Here it is...

I’m working on a draft syllabus for the undergrad games studies course I’ll be co-teaching next semester with Betty Hayes. I’ve been looking at some other syllabi for similar courses, and I’ve got to say, I love you guys, but… they’ve all felt incomplete. Or built on teaching philosophies so different from my own as to not be meaningful.

In thinking about what was missing, I was drawn to the question my dissertation committee asks me all the time: So what? Many courses seem to be structured like a salad bar: shredded critical theory, diced controversies, maybe a slimy dipper of design down at the end. But they all presupposed students had already bought the salad bar.

This seems to be a typical blind spot of academics. I’m constantly surprised that I’m one of the few people who actually market the courses they teach: most seem to consider that their job is to get the thing listed in the course catalog, then just teach whoever shows up. Part of that may be laziness, but I think part is an intellectual solipsism – of course my subject is the most interesting thing in the world!

That may also underlie the “differences in teaching philosophy” thing. If you think your subject is incredibly important, and your words just naturally useful and wise, then the “sit down, shut up and stare at me” model follows.

I don’t seem to have the luxury of that level of self-assuredness, or self-importance, depending on your angle in the mirror. I think it’s my job, the job they’re paying me for, to:

  1. Make a clear and persuasive case before and during the course for why it should matter to the people taking it.

  2. Be more interesting than Facebook and provide more event value than another beer after lunch.

  3. Recognize nobody, not even me, is saying essential stuff every second of course time, and count on my students to know that better than I do, in real time.

  4. Be useful, be memorable, and deliver value. If I want to work in an industry where quality of service doesn’t matter, there’s always McDonald’s. Or administration.

So, I’ve asked myself, Self, why should people study games? Why should I teach this stuff to undergrads, for whom sex, drugs and rock&roll ought to be a higher priority than listening to some Shatnerian old guy digress from his digressions?
Here’s what I’ve got:

Games matter.

Games matter because they model our views of the world. Fair and unfair, good and evil, random or reward, they’re statements about what the world looks like to us.

Games matter because play matters. Some definitions of games hold that inefficiency is critical: following the first point, they model a world in which being human is being inefficient, is being playful. Humans aren’t the only species that plays: as we know that play is important to cognitive and social development, it follows that it matters a lot to the development of good humans.

Games matter because they teach. We’re not sure whether they teach critical thinking and the scientific method, or murder and sociopathy. But they teach, and we should understand what and how they do.

Games matter because they’re products of some of the most powerful forces we’ve loosed upon the world: art, music, design, engineering, marketing, cognitive science. We can understand those forces by studying games.

Games matter because they’re art.

Games matter because they’re commerce.

Games matter because they’re – all of them – political.

Games matter because they’re fun.

Let’s study some games – but let’s play them too.


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