When LSA sophomore Joe Pak sits down to play his favorite video game, “Ghost Recon” – a squad-based action game – he gets as much entertainment as he does from a real-life simulation. The ROTC member enjoys first-person shooters and military-based games because “you get to kill things.”
“Freshman year, I remember, our whole hall would play ‘Halo,’ and no one would study. Someone would try to study and start to go to the library, and then (we) would stop to play,” Pak said.
Microbiology, physiology, chemistry, sociology and video gameology?
Two University courses suggest that that’s the direction the University is heading.
One examines the sociological effects of video games. The other takes a more technical approach, focusing on their hands-on development.
The two courses mark a change in academia’s perception of the video game industry. Games have gone from something to do in lieu of studying into something to study.
Taught by Screen Arts and Cultures Prof. Sheila Murphy, the first class – listed as Film and Video Studies 368 – examines “computer and video games as a culturally relevant form of moving images, as a growing entertainment industry and as a technology that presents us with new forms of interactivity and play,” according to its course description.
The course travels through the history of video games.
“(We studied) the first video games through present day games,” said LSA senior Hayley Gordon, who took the course last semester. “(We) connected the history to social themes.”
Like traditional film classes, it has a screening each week.
“I use about two-thirds of those as labs where we play and discuss game examples that are relevant to each weeks reading and lectures,” Murphy said.
But the labs are unlike standard film/video screenings because they give students an opportunity to experience the multiple genres and platforms of games first-hand rather than as passive viewers.
Murphy said that her days of being a serious gamer date all the way back to the Atari 2600, but said her interest in gaming was reignited when she started to look at them from an educational standpoint.
Murphy said she was watching a friend play “Grand Theft Auto 3” – part of a series of innovative games that allow more freedom to players – when she was inspired to take a closer look at video games, which had progressed far past Pong, bringing their cultural significance with them.
“I remember saying to my friend, ‘That’s a video game? Where have I been?’ ” she said. “I like to think that, eventually, other adults who’ve written off games as juvenile or adolescent will have a similar epiphany – but I’m not holding my breath.”
Murphy stressed that her class is not fan-based but rather a serious intellectual interrogation of the video game medium as an entertainment industry and aesthetic form.
“I think that games now inform other parts of popular culture and how contemporary media looks and addresses us,” Murphy said.
A few alums of the course are already working in the video game industry.
The second course, “Electrical Engineer and Computer Science 494,” taught by EECS Prof. John Laird, studies the technology, science and art involved in video games.
“The course emphasizes hands-on development of games,” the course description says.
Some say it’s only natural that the University has caught up with the video game revolution.
Other colleges across the country have already launched full-scale video game programs. According to the University of Colorado, at least 50 universities across the country have courses on video game study, development or design.
The most notable among them is the University of Southern California, which is in the process of establishing a three-year master of fine arts program in interactive entertainment. Electronic Arts, the leading game maker, contributed millions of dollars to get Southern Cal’s new program off the ground.
Video games are leaving their footprint on society on the whole. Retail sales on video games topped $9.9 billion last year. A new series of envelope-pushing consoles threatens to increase that number. Microsoft predicts the XBox 360 – a system that had customers lining up outside Best Buy’s across the country to be one of the first to own it before its launch Nov. 22 – will net the company a profit of $1.5 billion in just three months of sales.
Still, the idea of courses in video games at a serious, world-class university disgusts some. The classes create an intriguing juxtaposition – students in one campus classroom searching fervently for the cure for cancer while students in the next try to save the Mushroom Kingdom.
If you’re old-fashioned, the juxtaposition may seem unbearable. But it may be something you just have to get used to, because it looks like the serious study of video games is only in its infancy.