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Originally published Friday, August 29, 2014 at 9:48 PM

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At UW, computer games studied as a serious cultural form

The Critical Gaming Project was founded by a group of graduate students in English, sociology and information science who were interested in thinking critically about games from humanistic and social perspectives.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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For University of Washington graduate student Terry Schenold, a game is not just a game — and we should stop dismissing video gaming as nothing more than teenage boys playing soldier.

“In popular culture, we’ve framed games as an entertainment medium only,” said Schenold, who has taught classes on video games for seven years. “What I teach has to do with games as forms of expression, as tools for thinking about the topics that they’re representing,” he said.

Schenold is a member of the Critical Gaming Project (CGP), an ad hoc group founded in 2007 by a group of graduate students in English, sociology and information science who were interested in thinking critically about games from humanistic and social perspectives.

It’s the difference between reading for pleasure and critical reading — except the text isn’t a novel, but a video game.

“I’m willing to entertain the idea that a healthy set of questions about a military-style game where the pleasure is mostly in demonstrating your ability to inflict violence can lead you to a productive set of questions about your own humanity and the world that you live in,” Schenold said.

Other entities at UW approach gaming from other perspectives: The Center for Game Science focuses on using games to further scientific research; the Computer Science department teaches students how to make games. The CGP and its members fill an academic gap by asking questions about how games are encoded with cultural values and narrative structures, and how they can help us understand society and ourselves.

But Schenold’s colleagues have all graduated and he plans to finish his dissertation in the fall, leaving the future of game studies at UW uncertain, despite increasing demand. (Schenold had to turn students away from a spring course titled “Critical Gaming: Introduction to Game Studies,” which was capped at 40 spots.)

Currently, classes in the discipline are offered as one-offs from graduate students, often in the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) program, but there is no consistency or sustained structure for students.

According to a recent study from the Entertainment Software Association, 59 percent of Americans play video games, with women representing 48 percent of players (only 17 percent are teenage boys). In 2013, consumers spent $21.53 billion on video games, hardware and accessories. The medium is ingrained in the fabric of American social life — most everyone and their grandma has played Candy Crush or Words with Friends — but rigorous study of this medium and how it affects human interaction and thought is undervalued, Schenold says.

Games, rather than being treated as a serious cultural form, are dismissed as “just for fun.”

The growing field of humanities-driven research on games is underfunded and undersupported by the university despite the medium’s status as one of the highest grossing entertainment formats and Seattle’s robust game industry and tradition of fan culture — including gamer conventions like this weekend’s PAX Prime.

Naturally it’s difficult to build new cross-disciplinary programs within a slow-moving institution, especially when traditional courses of study in the humanities are already mudwrestling for money. Still, the discipline is beginning to get a foothold at some universities — USC’s School of Cinematic Arts has an Interactive Media & Games Division and both NYU Tisch and Miami University of Ohio have game-studies minors.

“If we want a robust gaming industry that’s going to produce lots of interesting games, that’s usually the role of a university, which can give a set of reflective lenses to a problem that you don’t usually see in companies,” said Phillip Thurtle, a professor in CHID. “There are enough people like myself who have been able to plant seeds, but we really need a dedicated gardener, somebody who can grow a program and make UW a leader in gaming studies.”

Solon Scott, who recently graduated from UW with a degree from CHID and now curates local and virtual events for video games, distinctly felt the lack of opportunity for critical examination of games as an undergraduate. He applied for a major in computer science and information science hoping to pursue his academic interest in games and was rejected from both, eventually landing in CHID and with the CGP during his last year.

“The hardest part about being an undergraduate at UW when you want to study games is not knowing where to go,” he said. “You don’t have a home there.”

But the answer doesn’t seem to be a major, which Schenold thinks would be too restrictive. Instead, he and several other UW faculty and administrators proposed a flexible, cross-disciplinary game studies minor and graduate program, where students could pair programming and design classes with narrative studies and sociology.

Schenold’s humanistic approach to thinking about games helped set at least one of his students on a career path. For Michael Moore, Schenold’s class “The Poetics of Play” turned a hobby into an intellectual passion when he was an undergraduate at UW; now he’s a video-game designer at Disney Interactive in Seattle.

“I approach gaming design a little differently than some of my peers,” said Moore. Most designers think about creating games as, “How do we make fun?” Moore asks, “What are we trying to convey?”

“Even when you acknowledge that a lot of games are made from a purely capitalist standpoint, people still need to be aware of the cultural context in which they are presenting their product. How will people interact with this, what will it make them think?” he said.

Critiquing gaming from a cultural standpoint may lead to the development of more ethical and artful games.

“Technologists left to their own devices will develop the technology in the way that is most suited to the goals of that technology, not necessarily the goals of humanity,” said Donald Brinkman, former program manager for digital humanities and games for learning at Microsoft Research. “A scholar who studies technology in the context of culture is able to not just examine the tech and how it’s used by humans but also how it changes us. It’s going to cause the entire field of game design to move beyond simple improvements and optimization of mechanical processes and make it a field that’s less of a science and more of an art.”

Katharine Schwab: kschwab@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @kschwabable.



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