Teaching Video Game Theory, Part I

What Academic Study Can Do for Video Games

This past spring I presented an academic paper on issues of spatial representation in the video game Portal at the annual Society for Textual Studies Conference. My paper fit well with papers by my fellow panelists, including Marylhurst’s English Department chair Meg Roland, who offered important new insights on early modern maps, and recent Marylhurst alumna Jessica Zisa, who presented a smart paper on social and natural spaces in Sebold and Thoreau. As it turned out, the juxtaposition of our various analyses provoked a lively discussion with the audience. But as we jostled out of the room after our session, I couldn’t help overhearing one of the curmudgeonly older professors grumbling, “I can’t believe there was an academic paper about a video game!”

But why not? Did I do something wrong? Was I squandering my mental energies and straining my peers’ patience with a topic beneath scholarly attention?

As you can imagine, I’ve thought about this a lot for a while, but the more I considered the issue the more important it seemed to me that I continue studying video games.

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In fact, I “doubled down,” as they say. I’ve already presented another conference paper on the video game L.A. Noire‘s adaptation of the detective genre, and this fall I’m attending a semiotics conference to discuss the paradoxical fantasies of military first-person shooter games. Not only that, but I developed a reading list that turned into a syllabus, and this summer I’m proud to say that I’m teaching Marylhurst’s first ever Video Game Theory class.

So, I suppose I have some explaining to do. Why is a 19th-century Americanist with expertise in textual studies and psychoanalytic criticism spending his time playing video games? Even worse, why is he talking about it in public?

Video games are no longer the exclusive province of nerdy teenaged boys who live in their parents’ basements. Recent demographics studied by the Entertainment Software Associations show that over half of American households own a dedicated gaming console, the average gamer is 31 and nearly 40% of gamers are over 36. While men do still edge out women among the gaming population, currently 48% of gamers are women.

And, beyond these basic stats, we really need to recognize that it’s not just about online fantasy games or military shooter games. Just about everybody has a game or two on their phone these days. Angry Birds anyone? Farmville? Flow? These games are changing how and when we communicate with each other. Some people use Words with Friends as an excuse to chat more frequently with friends and relatives over distance. Others use a regular online gaming night to maintain group friendships across the miles that separate their homes.

Games have been adapted to create fitness programs like Fitbit and Nike+. There are community-oriented good Samaritan game-type apps like The Extraordinaries app or the app that notifies CPR-trained specialists if someone in their vicinity needs help. Apart from the studied benefits of video games helping autistic kids adapt to social rules and learn how to communicated, there are also games specifically designed to help a variety of medical patients recover better and faster.

Beyond the stereotypes about video games that persist, what are some of the other reasons we need to think critically about this topic? For one thing, video games are big business, with the gaming industry generating over $21.5 billion last year. 2013’s top-selling game, Grand Theft Auto V, made over a billion dollars in its first three days. Compare that to other media. Top-grossing film Iron Man 3 also made over $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales, but it took nearly a month to hit that mark. Runaway bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey shattered every publishing record by selling 70 million copies in the U.S.–in both print and e-books. Counting those all at $15 (the print price), that’s also over a $1 billion, but it took a couple years to reach and it’s exceedingly rare.

Yes, I know it’s funny to hear an English professor measuring cultural significance by looking at sales figures. I know money isn’t the be all and end all of social values, but it’s a strong indicator. We all fundamentally “know” that books are obviously better and more serious works of art than movies, and even TV shows and comic books are infinitely more important than video games.

And yet… can we really just assume (or even argue) that either Fifty Shades of Gray or Iron Man 3 is an inherently superior cultural artifact than Grand Theft Auto V? In fact, do we even want to try to assert that position?

Granted, part of our job in academia is to serve as a standard bearer for important works from the past, to ensure they are not forgotten. As a 19th-century literary scholar, I’m acutely aware of this duty and I’m proud to say that I routinely inflict canonical “high literature” on my students, many of whom I actually convince to enjoy the experience and continue it of their own free will. But part of our job too should be showing our students how to use these powerful analytical tools at our disposal to analyze cultural artifacts that the general public chooses to experience on their own. What good are these various apparatuses we develop if they only apply to analyzing the works of “high culture” that Academia elevates to special, masterpiece status? Shouldn’t we also be able to apply our tools to “low-brow” works created primarily to entertain?

I think so. And I’m not alone. In fact, English professors have been expanding the canon from the very beginning. It’s a slow and painful battle, but notice how (despite the vestigial name) English Departments now routinely teach American literature. We take it for granted now of course, but that wasn’t always the case. We even teach post-colonial “world” literature and regularly include works of “popular” fiction in our academic purview. It’s much the same throughout the humanities. For years now Culture and Media scholars have been analyzing films and television and comic books, so isn’t it time we stretch ourselves to include video games in our conversation?

Whatever one thinks of them, video games are cultural artifacts. They are “texts” of a sort, and as such they communicate meaning. Furthermore, as we know, people are choosing more and more to experience these video game “texts” on their own in preference to reading or even to watching films. So, isn’t it better for us to teach our students how to apply critical thinking and analytical tools to these new texts?

It doesn’t mean that we will quit teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare. Not at all. But it means that we must also find a way to discuss Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty.

*A slightly edited version of this multi-part essay is being cross-posted on the Marylhurst Blog.*

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About Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic View all posts by Chuck Caruso

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