A group of University of Oregon professors met last Tuesday to discuss something on all of their minds — the role that games, digital or otherwise, can play in academia.
The professors discussed how games can be applied to learning, their increasing academic relevance and the unique challenges and benefits of bringing games into the classroom. The gathering was attended by a broad range of professors who study games of all sorts, from video games to medieval board games. The Daily Emerald did not have a reporter present at the meeting, but spoke to some of the attendees afterward.
One can’t consider media without considering games, says Maxwell Foxman, an assistant professor of media studies at UO who also specializes in game studies. “One of the largest [mediums] in the world is games,” he said.
The video game industry has become one of the most profitable entertainment industries on the globe. With $134.9 billion in worldwide revenue last year, games nearly earned as much money as the global film industry, according to an annual report released by Gamesindustry.biz.
According to lectures by Foxman, in the '80s and '90s, video games had a reputation akin to that of toys: entertaining, but of little value. But it is increasingly difficult to ignore the social and economic phenomenon that they have become.
“To be at the forefront of advertising, public relations, journalism — you name it — it’s worthwhile to be familiar with games,” Foxman said.
Because game studies does not have an established academic history like other types of media studies, bringing it into classrooms presents a number of challenges, many of which have no agreed-upon solution.
“If you imagine asking a student to play a puzzle game. What would you ask them to do, besides, of course, winning the game?” said Tara Fickle, assistant professor in the English Department with an interest in game studies. “What should you pay attention to? I think we’re still trying to decide on a convention in that way.”
Teaching video games also brings logistical challenges.
“Especially if [the game] requires a console, you really can’t assign them,” Fickle said. Video games are expensive, and unlike books or film, they sometimes require specific proprietary hardware in order to play. Not everyone can afford to purchase their textbooks, let alone the various peripherals and appliances needed to play certain games.
The Price Science Commons and Research Library carries video games and consoles, which could help alleviate the problem. With 400 games in the collection, and a smaller stock of consoles, its ability to support large classes is limited.
The interactivity of games also presents an unknown variable: how can you test students on a text when their experiences may not be the same?
“Two students may have totally different experiences of the same game. It ends up creating, sometimes, difficulty for having common points to discuss,” Fickle said. “There’s definitely no way to evaluate it at all.”
Fickle has taught a course called “Games And/As Culture” in which she tried a different approach to engaging students with games — gamifying the course itself. Gamification is the process of applying elements of game design to non game contexts. “This course is not only about games and gamification; it is designed as a game,” reads the course syllabus.
Students who took the class leveled up over the course of the term by gathering XP (experience points), beginning as a level 1 “Fledgling” and rising to become a level 12 “Sage.” Failing to level up resulted in an F, whereas becoming a “Sage” by gathering XP garnered the student an A+. XP came from completing quests (assignments), killing monsters (quizzes) and winning boss fights (tests), among other equally gamey things.
“As the quarter goes on, you get exhausted. You need some motivation to keep coming to class every time. If you know that, if you get up and go to class, even if you’re just sort of sitting there, that you get 5 XP for that, it’s surprisingly motivating,” Fickle said.
While the phrase “game studies” often calls to mind video games, “games” as a concept date back much farther.
“They’ve always been a valuable educational tool, even if they weren’t video games,” Foxman said.
Professor Martha Bayless of UO’s English Department also attended the meeting. She represented a more fundamental aspect of game studies: the historical role of games and their societal importance. Bayless’ studies focus particularly on games in medieval society.
“It’s useful to know how important games have been throughout history and to start thinking about the role of games in our lives. Maybe not to dismiss games as something you do when you aren’t doing your important work,” Bayless said.
While teaching about Vikings in class, Bayless brings in an ancient board game once played by Vikings on ships. When teaching Old English, Bayless has the class solve riddles from the time period.
“It brings things to life in a way that text doesn’t,” Bayless said.
As an element of culture, play has been thriving since the beginning. Bayless’ courses use that fact to humanize the distant figures of the past and connect students to the material.
“What were [the Vikings] doing for all those hours on a ship? Were they just sitting around? No — they were playing their game,” Bayless said.
Even today, a large part of cultural identity comes from the things people do in their downtime. Films, novels, works of art, grand sporting events, and even games are entertaining and memorable, yet ultimately unnecessary.
“Those are the things we choose to do with our lives, not the things we have to do, so they are better indicators of who we are,” Bayless said.
At the meeting last Tuesday, professors discussed how those “indicators of who we are” could be further brought into the classroom and traded ideas for the future.
The role of games in academia continues to evolve.
In old Norse myth, the gods played a game together which helped give birth to the world. “After Ragnarok,” said Bayless, referring to the Norse mythological apocalypse, “we will find the game pieces in the grass again, as if to recreate the world.