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2012 Spring Issue 7 (May 18, 2012)

Urback: Games on the Horizon

May 18, 2012
By Stuart Urback

This is the third part of my surprise trilogy on why games belong at Carleton College.  If you’ve read my past two columns (no expectations here) you’ve gotten some idea of where game studies classes could fit and what sort of methodology they would teach.  But why bother?  Why do games deserve a spot when we’ve got plenty of other important topics that deserve and need to be understood?

Firstly, let me explain that in no way shape or form am I advocating that game design needs or deserves an entire department dedicated to its study.  I actually think we probably have too many departments as it is, but that’s an argument for another day. 

The reason games deserve to be studied is because they will soon be one of (if not the) main form of media that people use to interact with their world.  Video games outstripped Hollywood in terms of number of viewers and industry net worth nearly seven years ago and that doesn’t even include things like the study of sports or board games.

This alone means we need to take a good hard look at what these things are doing to our beliefs and perceptions.  But there’s more, games also provide a critical methodology that is both incredibly theoretical and very useful in helping to develop deep understandings of many different issues.  Game design teaches systems thinking, meaning understanding to come to terms with how a complex system of interactive elements can cause change.  This is fundamentally different from cause and effect method of understanding the world.

Games are also naturally interdisciplinary.  Understandings of literature, math, history, science, and human behavior are all important, respected ways of engaging with games.  What this means is that a game designer must be competent in a field that is available at Carleton, but they must use their understanding of the field to both engage students about games and use games to engage students within their field. 

Games are already here, sort of... There are a number of different ways that students can engage with games or game like processes.  The Economics department already has a number of courses in Game Theory, Behavioral Economics, and Experimental Economics.  The History department has Consumer Culture, and Art/Art History has Modern Architecture, Architecture since 1950, Planning Utopia, Introduction to Sculpture, and Advanced Sculpture.  And, not to mention that any course in computer programming will help.

However, what we don’t have are classes that specific game methodology.  If there were even three or four different classes that used this methodology to engage with familiar departments in new ways, there are already many different ways they can engage the subject interdisciplinarily, and not to mention that these new subjects can be engaged with this methodology or perspective with interesting results. 

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that games exist as this awesome tool to help academics understand existing fields and problems in new ways.  Games explicitly exist in a symbiotic relationship with other fields, they need them to survive.  This is why games have such an awesome potential. 

Where’s the sticking point?  The big question seems to be: Do Carls want to study games?  Most people I have talked to seem intrigued, but there just hasn’t been a push from the student body.  That isn’t to say that students don’t like games, there are plenty of game playing clubs (board and video), there’s even a game dev club, and a few different class periods in a variety of different classes have been spent talking about video games in some form or another.  However, if games are to gain any sort of toehold at Carleton there needs to be a bigger push into studying games as a class, not as a subject area within a class.

So, if you’re interested in looking at games as an academic field of study, speak up  let people know!  Game design academics is out there and it is absolutely fascinating and furthermore, Carleton is an awesome place to study it!

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