How NOT to Teach Video Games

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This past weekend I facilitated a BootCamp session at THATCamp PNW (slides can be found at http://bit.ly/cFd2b5). The goal of the session was to discuss some of the challenges we face trying to teach video games as objects of inquiry in humanities classrooms and to brainstorm about how to address them. We had a successful discussion and I know I came away from it with some ideas for structuring classes in the future. I thought this would be an apt continuation of the discussion Amanda Phillips started last week as well as an introduction to my angle on digital humanities.

The session opened with reference to recent iteration of the games-as-art debate and an assessment of the opportunities for digital humanists in the popular discussion of video games as cultural artifacts. The conversation, as in Roger Ebert’s reaction to Kellee Santiago’s TEDTalk, are typically held between reviewers, engineers, and the game-playing public and so often lacks a satisfactory definition of “art” or even of “game,” or a meta reflection on the purpose/desire to put games in the category of art in the first place. Moreover, as Ian Bogost has argued recently, the gaming Industry seems uninterested in the significance of gaming as a cultural artifact, except when such discussions prove valuable as a marketing strategy. At the same time, however, the gaming community’s rally in support of video games as an art form suggests that people want to have serious conversations about gaming. Its just when those conversations present themselves that the the obstacles make themselves known

We then looked at two online discussions about the critical treatment of gaming that each demonstrates a challenge to the kinds of interventions digital humanists would want to make. The first is the backlash against Abbie Heppe’s review of Metroid: Other M, which chastised the game for its depiction of Samus as emotionally weak and submissive to male characters. The second was more local, a response from some of our students who found our first Keywords for Video Game Studies roundtable to inaccessible to non-academics. Taken together, these conversations issue a double-sided challenge. On the one hand, as Michael Abbott notes, the response to Heppe’s critique demonstrates that “the greatest resistance to thinking critically about games comes not from academics, luddites, or old-school critics like Roger Ebert. The most vocal resistance comes from gamers.” At the same time, our own Keywords session demonstrates even those excited about joining a critical conversation often feel alienated by the way they are figured. In short, gaming “natives” often reject and feel rejected by critical gaming projects.

This realization represents a serious obstacle for bringing video games into the humanities classroom, for it challenges some base assumptions about teaching popular media. The suggestion that “digital natives” might have aptitudes for new media that can be leveraged toward pedagogical goals is a promising one; however it also assumes that the natives are willing to apply those aptitudes to academic inquiry and that we, as scholars and educators, are willing to make space in academic inquiry for their aptitudes.

In both instances, both in the gamer’s rejection of critique and critiques rejection of gamer knowledge, the central issue is one of closed access. The gamer feels ownership of the gaming medium and, having been continually assailed by the media and other “authority figures” with claims that “gaming is bad for you” with little to no foundation in the actual games, they are justifiably dismissive of outsiders making assertions, especially critical ones, about their area of expertise. On the other hand, the academia also expects discussions to take certain forms, often dealing in abstraction and trading in reference to obscure theories and theorists, that marginalize the kind of experiential knowledge players have about the games. Our goal as digital humanists who want to bring gaming into the critical conversation, then, is to open these two relatively closed spheres. We must find ways to show the critiques emerging from gameplay itself, rather than imposed from the outside, and to value player’s knowledge so it can be an entry point into academic inquiry.

Here are some of the strategies we came up with:

  • Start with user experience: As academics we often start with theory and work back to examples because that is our style of learning. For most of our students, however, they need/want the details first before they build up the abstractions. So, if we can start by playing the game and talking about their experience of play, we can validate their experience as an way point the theory.
  • Use solid scaffolding methods, even for digital native: Though its tempting to think that gamers will be onboard with critical discussions about gaming or that their experiences gaming prepare them for serious conversation, they still need practice playing games awake and thinking about games seriously. Model for your students want you want them to get from the games and were to look for it before jumping into analysis.
  • Make the obstacles themselves the content: As in above, even though they will often vehemently support the idea that games are art, they will still need to be convinced that they aren’t all “just games.” Making an examination of that claim, that games are just games, the course conceit can help undermine that fall-back position as well as offer more productive ways to discuss gaming. Ed Chang and I attempted this approach in our class “Why So Serious? Video Games as Persuasion, Politics, and Propaganda” and it was pretty successful.

I’m interested to know how other folks would respond to the challenges we presented on Saturday as well as if they see similiar obstacles to teaching other digital technologies. How can we both open the academy to the kinds of experiential knowledge our students have with new media while at the same time generating the kinds of serious cultural critiques they deserve and require? Though we had a great discussion of those topics this weekend, these issues are far from settled and will continue to be a focus of my pedagogy well into the future.