Video games and homework typically don’t work together to create an enriching and educational experience for students during the school year. In fact, games are often seen as a waste of time and a distraction from writing papers and studying. Students and youth have been caught up with online apps, computer games, and video games for some time now, and adults are quickly catching up. An estimated 53% of adults in the United States play games at home, earning half of the adult population the title of “gamers”. What if studying the gaming lifestyle could help users understand cultural and gender differences? At Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU), this occurs through a blended course of games and narrative studies.
Jordan Youngblood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the English and New Media Studies departments at ECSU. His elective, “Digital Game Studies”, is a new interdisciplinary course overlapping the English major’s technique of analyzing narratives with the New Media Studies’ method of interpreting gameplay mechanisms. Though its history is short, with only two completed semesters to date, Dr. Youngblood’s class has garnered immediate student interest. “They come in thinking it might be a fan club,” he says, adding “but the idea of the course is to introduce them to the field of game studies as a serious, growing academic pursuit. How can we think of games as designed objects that use space, time, narrative, and stories? How can we change or adapt to the needs and expectations of the environment?”
Dr. Youngblood’s class meets for three sessions each week. He organizes his course into a series of lectures, applications, and designs. “The idea is to move [the students] from understanding the idea as a critic, then as a player, [and] then the student becomes the designer,” Dr. Youngblood explains. On Mondays the class discusses a new theory, such as gender studies. During their Wednesday session the students convene at ECSU’s computer lab to apply the theory learned on Monday and see it unfold on screen by playing a class game, such as a mainstream video game or computer game. By Friday, the students are then given an opportunity to design their own video game using the theories discussed.
“When students look at digital bodies or characters, they are able to take more of a critical view on a variety of topics,” Dr. Youngblood says. He explains that the students are “always experiencing how things are in the real world, but sometimes it can be so prevalent that you start to not even notice it. When they play games, they can see how video games ask players to do certain things, and how that reflects pressures and expectations they face on a regular basis.” Professor Youngblood, who came to ECSU with a scholarly background in gender and sexuality studies, describes how certain video games restrict users to traditional gender roles, whereas other games are more inclusive. Some video games give players an opportunity to choose their character’s gender, sexuality, appearance, and/or actions. “For many young LGBTQ people, games give them the first place to explore their identity, even in an industry and culture often hostile to them,” Professor Youngblood says.
In addition to the gender, cultural, and queer theories discussed during the course, Dr. Youngblood also highlights the inner workings of the video game business. “It’s a male-dominated and white-dominated industry,” he says, adding, “It’s not unusual for a designer to spend 80 to 100 hours a week working for six months straight to create a game.” By enrolling in this elective, many students are surprised to discover how much time and labor is necessary to create the video games sold in stores.
But what is even more surprising is how much students can learn from studying these games that take months to design. “Games can create incredibly layered and distinctive experiences,” Dr. Youngblood says, explaining how “two players can see entirely different content, meet different characters, have different skills, and experience different responses to the same game.” Compared to books, television, music, and film, games emphasize personal action and variation. Users control how their characters jump, spin, and run, feeling like they are actually doing the action. “It’s known as ‘blurring’,” Professor Youngblood says, describing that “The player feels like they are the character and there is an emotional bleeding over. Things in the digital world don’t just stop there. Users carry them with them.”
This concept of interactivity is a technique the students are challenged to mimic in their coursework by the end of the semester. Their final assignment is to pitch a game idea to their professor. “They write a paper about the game they want to make, and can include whatever they feel is relevant to explain their vision to me,” Dr. Youngblood says. In his experiences so far, the ideas from class never stop with the twenty-five students enrolled. “Some students have their friends draw a character from their game or record a theme song on an MP3 and include that in their final paper. It’s neat,” Dr. Youngblood shares.
For Professor Youngblood, the greatest reward of all is how his students continue sharing their passion for games long after the class ends, especially with their peers. “They carry the critiques from the course into conversations with their friends,” Dr. Youngblood says, adding that this “creates a dialogue that gets people looking at games differently, in an interconnected way.” While most of his students have no intentions of pursuing a career in the gaming industry after college, some of these undergraduates treat their projects like a career stepping-stone, as they consider working in game design after graduating. Professor Youngblood shares “The biggest compliment would be for a student to come back to me and say, ‘Hey, Dr. Youngblood, remember that game I made in your class? Want to play it?’”
Dr. Youngblood’s “Digital Game Studies” elective is one of several novel interdisciplinary courses across Connecticut State University’s four campuses that astonish people with untraditional content. “The study of digital games is a field that a lot of people aren’t willing to take seriously. It’s exciting because we get to surprise them,” Dr. Youngblood says. With over half of the adult population playing games, Professor Youngblood’s course is a reminder that gaming is a very real and integral part of modern society. “It’s not just a silly thing kids do. It’s a whole cultural medium that influences a lot of people on a very regular basis,” he explains. With smart phone apps, computer games, and video games still booming in today’s market, it seems likely that the study of games will only continue to grow overtime.