The traditional methods of studying sociology often involve exploring theories, reading textbooks, and conducting field research. These means of learning are used to understand how human beings function in society. As times have modernized and progressed, many new ways of studying sociology have emerged, such as examining films and television. Newer still is the concept of analyzing video games, as William Lugo, Ph.D. does at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU). Dr. Lugo’s Sociology 320 course, Video Games and Society, brings a whole new approach to understanding the field of sociology at ECSU’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work.
“I’ve always been an avid gamer,” Dr. Lugo says. “When I was younger, I used to read about Japanese video games because the Japanese were pioneers in the gaming industry,” he adds. Growing up, Dr. Lugo was fascinated by how the social construct of race was depicted in video games. He describes when video games migrated from Japan to the United States, “The character’s race would change but sometimes the love interests wouldn’t.” This discovery enticed Dr. Lugo to further study how video games are designed.
The origin of Dr. Lugo’s inspiration to study video games translates into the classroom setting by having his students explore sociological theories and apply them to video games. “We divide the class into different subjects within the field,” Dr. Lugo says, explaining that the students “choose between topics like gender, race, violence, socialization, or war games.” Students often are broken into groups in which some might play the game, while others take notes. At the end of the session, students answer questions about gameplay and social issues presented within the games, and then have discussions. These patterned breakout sessions prepare students to engage in their own research about video games throughout the semester. “They cannot write about video games properly until they’ve actually played them,” Dr. Lugo states. This is because he wants the students to understand video game culture in practice as well as in theory.
Much of Dr. Lugo’s course is lecture-based, with the intent of guiding students through the different topics in gaming. “They read literature, research concepts, and discuss the theories in class,” says Dr. Lugo, outlining a typical day. The goal is to familiarize the students with the analyses of race, violence, history, and women’s studies in society and evaluate how these sociological concepts are integrated throughout video games. “We use video games to examine society,” Dr. Lugo explains. He believes in many ways video games echo our culture, adding that they are “a reflection of us.”
This reflection is most apparent in the course’s study of violence. “We see a lot of violence in video games,” he admits. These messages of aggression and dominance are recycled in many games, leading Dr. Lugo to believe our society is violent. “Video games teach us that we are a violent culture,” Dr. Lugo says. While the many messages of violence in video games could impact the way people behave, Dr. Lugo isn’t worried that video games have that effect. “I’m not concerned that video games will make people violent,” he says. Rather, Dr. Lugo offers, studying violence in video games “can show us who we are as a species.”
Much like the analysis of violence, Dr. Lugo uses video games to teach his students about social class. He calls on the popular video game Grand Theft Auto, highlighting this as an example of games reflecting society. “Grand Theft Auto deals with many social issues, including the housing crisis of 2008,” Dr. Lugo explains. The big message of this game revolves around poverty and the American Dream. For example, the game, which takes place in a fictional city, shows foreclosed homes, planes spraying pesticides on migrant farmworkers, and homeless people living under bridges. In one chapter of the popular game franchise, the main character is an immigrant coming to the United States in hopes of chasing the American dream. Rather than finding success, the character finds constant failure, and his disillusionment pushes him into a life of crime. “Class is a deep message within the game,” adds Dr. Lugo.
History is a final concept Dr. Lugo focuses on, and it is arguably the most important. “In video games, you have the opportunity to create and interact with the world you inhabit,” Dr. Lugo says. While this freedom allows the user to take part in history, it also gives the gamer an opportunity to alter history. “History can be completely misrepresented,” he warns, describing an example of a military game where the user is a U.S. soldier deployed in Afghanistan. “The goal is to find Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. In the game, you also eventually find Saddam’s stash of weapons of mass destruction, which of course never existed, but nonetheless are what brought us to war,” Dr. Lugo explains. At times, the user’s knowledge and understanding of history may be impacted by the games they play. Dr. Lugo voices this concern by begging the questions: “Are video game players savvy enough to know what’s real? Do they know when games deviate and take on artistic liberty?”
The questions Dr. Lugo poses are relevant to all sociological topics depicted in video games, whether race, gender, violence, or history. While much of the content portrayed in digital societies exists due to society’s influence on video games, it’s also notable how video games influence society in return. “I hope my students learn to avoid being passive consumers of their content,” Dr. Lugo states. It’s important for gamers to recognize they’re being bombarded with social constructs and theories. “While I don’t think video games are nearly as impactful as some people make them out to be,” he acknowledges, “They’re also not zero impactful. They do have an effect.”
Video games can “affect the way we think and who we are,” Dr. Lugo says. Much like film, television, music, and other forms of media, the video game industry is a mature platform and sends out messages to audiences. “As long as users are aware and paying attention, video games are fine to play,” Dr. Lugo states. The key to gaming, like any other form of media, is for users to be aware of the messages they receive and have the ability to decipher between the gaming society and real life.