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2012 Spring Issue 5 (May 4, 2012)

Urback: What Makes a Liberal Art?

May 4, 2012
By Stuart Urback

What would it take to get game design to become a legitimate part of a liberal arts curriculum? Not necessarily even for a degree or a concentration, but as a single class.

A response I commonly get from professors and administration when I propose the matter is that game design is simply too technical.  I of course have my rather common responses, listing dozens of examples of games that are created for purely artistic goals, that challenge many of the the same things liberal arts students are taught to challenge. What I didn’t realize, however, was that I was only giving reasons as to why liberal arts education as an excellent route to becoming a game designer, not the opposite. 

So how do I prove the opposite?  What are the answers game design has to provide (or any other field looking to do the same) in order to legitimize itself as not only an academic field, but as a liberal arts academic field?  I think I’ve figured a few out.

Firstly, it has to have a set of content that it can define as its own.  It can overlap in content with some other fields, but the nature of the combination of content (and hopefully some of the content) will be unique to the field.  Game design does this rather well, obviously, by focusing on an area of study that tends to be overlooked in traditional education. It looks at games.

Secondly, that set of content has to be a legitimate area of inquiry in order to understand key cultural issues and huma-nistic topics. Games also do this. The exploration of games and play has become a central issue of the 21st century. The nature of citizenship in virtual worlds, intellectual property rights, what it means to be an artist, and even the nature of free will are all covered quite deeply by explorations of games and game design. 

Thirdly, even if it is to be an interdisciplinary field, it has to have a unique methodology that cannot be easily replicated by simply taking courses in another major and augmenting them or focusing your senior thesis project on games.  Game Design is production-oriented, but so is Studio Art, Cinema and Media Studies, Computer Science and English. 

Finally, and this is the sticking point, it has to provide a methodology that equips students with a perspective that will fundamentally alter and enhance the way they view the world. I think it would be rather easy to agree with the first three points, but the fourth one is tough. It’s tough because it’s the exact question that game design as a field is trying to figure out.  What does becoming a game designer teach? 

I think Game Design teaches a correspondence-based methodology of seeing and thinking about the world.  But what does that mean?  A comparison to a traditional author/artist might be useful here.  While an author/artist can create a beautiful piece of artwork by asking others for input, their work is not the result of the interaction between artist and audience. Furthermore, once their work is produced, it is complete, and the community is left to critique and reinterpret it.

A game, on the other hand, is built through the constant interaction between the designer and community. The game itself is the communication; it is the correspondence. The skills and viewpoints that are necessary to produce a beautiful game are highly unique as the designer must always balance the needs of the community with their own needs when creating the game. A beautiful game is one that has managed to successfully build a community around a meaningful set of perspectives and issues.

I would like to argue that game design, as the creation of a type of correspondence, is worthy of the chance to prove itself as a field of study. The field is still a fledgling, and there are many different key vocabularies that have not been agreed upon, but at some point game design will prove itself to be a methodology worthy of the title of the “artes liberales.”

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