Back in January (2009), Kotaku let the world know about a peculiar initiative involving two (apparently) very distinct elements: learning and StarCraft. It was confirmed that UC Berkeley had a class on the “Art of Competitive StarCraft”.
The class focuses on applying critical thinking, quick decision-making, and game theory skills throughout an in-depth analysis of how the theory of war is conducted within the confines of the game. Prerequisites include a working knowledge of StarCraft strategy and the suggested readings are The Art of War by Sun Tzu and Crazy as Me by Lim Yo. Impressive isn’t it? To see games be taken so seriously among an academic environment. Truth be told, electronic games emerged as an entertainment medium, but in time their uses proved to be far more varied.
Although amazing, using unconventional resources in class is not new. Dickinson College proved how Civilization IV can teach about History and how WoW can improve your German. DeCal courses (which include the StarCraft class) have been available since 2006 and their range of subjects is extremely broad. Choices vary from course titles such as “James Bond: Politics, Pop Culture, Hero”, “The Long and Winding Road: The History of the Beatles”, “Come Out and Play: Designing and Playing Games Outside”, “‘Sex and the City’ and the Contemporary Woman”, and “Bookworlds: History of Middle Earth”. No doubt, each and every of those classes aims to educate their students. However, their strategy seems to be much more effective than traditional methods because they deal with topics (game related or not) that interest the student. The level of engagement is higher and it becomes even easier than “Tangential Learning” in which the pupil has to assume the role of an autodidact.
Being a writer and game designer, another particular course caught my eye: Storytelling and Characterization in Video Games. The objective is to deepen (or initiate) the study of games as a literary media through the analysis of the deep and meaningful human interaction, strong political themes, and captivating stories which are present in games, but overlooked, due to the fact that they represent a new and underrated media. Among many games, the course aims to study Chrono Trigger, Portal, the Silent Hill series and the Monkey Island series.
Since narrative is essentially what drives me to produce creative works and given the fact that this course aims to study narrative in and through games, I couldn’t miss the chance to talk to one of the organizers, Robin Khamsi. Robin confirmed his intentions of demonstrating video games as an interpretable medium. Noting the very important, yet flawed, stereotypical image that prevails he said “In the past, video games were seen as the hobby of nerds and children, but as technology has improved we’ve begun to see a rise in video games as art. Okami borrows heavily from Japanese watercolor style, but in fact carves a new medium through its digital and interactive elements – players can actually wield a brush in-game to create bridges and other objects. Shadow of the Colossus conveys a rich and emotional narrative through its formal elements. There is no reason that the rules of literary or cinematic criticism could not apply to these titles, it’s just that no one’s really tried.”
As an advocate of the freedom of speech for games, and therefore greater understanding on society’s behalf of what games truly represent, my thoughts go hand in hand with Khamsi’s statement: “Video games are as prevalent today as any other medium, and yet no one is looking at what effect they are having on public discourse. Sure, there are concerned parents and politicians worried that they could instigate the next school massacre, but if they fear that they have such power then why aren’t they respected as a medium capable of formal analysis? Hopefully our class was one of the first steps to bringing the interactive game into the intellectual sphere.”
Games are a lot more that mere entertainment, but unless they are given the freedom to express themselves, through study, through mature themes, and experimental narratives, progress will not visible to society as whole. There is huge gap between the view of those who play and those who don’t. However, the scenario isn’t as grim. If games are already being used in classrooms, it’s only a matter of time before layman society and non-specialized media change their views.
Or is it?