Video Games: A New Platform for Humanities Thinking

Nintendo NES ControllStudents in IHUM 280R are applying their skills of analysis and deconstruction to video games, a new and growing cultural medium.

PROVO, Utah (June 3, 2015)—“This is probably the first time you’ve ever written a paper about a board game,” Michael Call says to his students, who answer with general laughter. An hour later, the class will have moved into a computer lab to play an online computer game, another class assignment. The week before, a group gave a presentation on Candy Crush.

Taught by Call, associate professor of comparative studies and interdisciplinary humanities, “Games and Play” is this year’s iteration of IHUM 280R: The Humanities and Popular Culture. The class has attracted a wide variety of students who are interested in not just playing games, but thinking critically about them.

“They want to think about it as a new, emerging communication medium,” Call said. “It’s a rare historical privilege to be there – to be living in a time when a major new medium of human creativity comes about.”

With that in mind, the classwork encourages students to apply critical thinking and to be wise in their media consumption.

The class operates the way you would expect a humanities course to: students have assigned readings from articles and textbooks (Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction and Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World), write papers and give in-class presentations. The class’s very first paper was an analysis of Eight-Minute Empire, a board game in which players race to build up economies and sustainable governments. The board game helped students see video games as part of a continuing history of human gaming.

This year’s students have examined a wide variety of video games. One of their first assignments was to review the 2007 puzzle game Portal. In the game, players navigate a research facility, solving obstacles and creating portals to transport themselves and objects, all while receiving instructions from GLADOS, a mysterious artificial intelligence. The game has been praised within the industry for its creative mechanics and dry humor, but Call and his students looked at how the game reflected upon the very conventions, mechanics and themes common to video games.

At certain points within the game, the player is instructed to transport and care for inanimate objects, then mocked by GLADOS for feeling any attachment for said objects – a sensation that, according to Call, is representative of the attachment players come to feel for the games they play. Call explained, “Kind of like what some of these earlier novels did, like Don Quixote – which explores what it means to read a novel – Portal is in many ways about the activity of playing a video game and what that means.”

While Portal’s themes may be missed during casual gameplay, other games have been made with the express purpose of representing a theme. IHUM 280R students have played Dear Esther, which Call described as less of a game and more of “an exercise in using the video game medium to then tell a post-modern story about trauma, loss and memory.”

IMG_4912Though not all games intend to be taken as art or to teach a lesson (it would be difficult to argue that the developers of Tetris were pushing a philosophical agenda, after all), that does not exclude them from analysis. Researchers in the humanities are used to reading things from a cultural perspective.

For example, when playing America’s Army – a free-to-download war simulator developed by the United States Army – the class didn’t just examine the game’s mechanics, but also the controversies of using a video game for recruitment purposes and the self-image of the military portrayed by the gameplay. They also took the occasion to discuss the portrayal of violence in video games, an ever-present concern in the public mind.

Even Candy Crush was a topic for discussion as part of a larger cultural picture. “When our society produces this game, or our society consumes that game, what does that have to say?” Call asked. “It’s so much a part of our students’ cultural landscape, it’s a disservice not to invite them to think about these things, and they deserve to be taken seriously.”

Video games have penetrated our culture so deeply that they even feature heavily in other mediums, such as film and literature. For example, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game uses video games as a powerful tool for character exploration and development. As Call explained, the book treats games as “something innately human, as a form of human expression and creativity, and that creativity extends to the idea of envisioning possible futures and other options.”

His students are just as interested in exploring that human expression, even if their backgrounds are varied. “I have students for whom video games are of enormous interest to them, but they don’t have any of the humanities background,” Call said. “It is a very diverse group of students.” The students represent a wide range of majors, many of which would typically never be found in a classroom together.

“Some of them,” he added, “have never picked up a video game in their life.”

For IHUM major Deborah Olsen, video games were just another activity for her grandchildren to enjoy, and her personal experience before the class was all but nonexistent. “The first time someone said R.P.G. (role-playing game) to me I thought, ‘rocket-propelled grenade?’”

Now, however, she can hold her own in conversations with her grandchildren, having played games like Marvel Heroes and Destiny. Though she doubts that she’ll continue gaming herself, she has enjoyed the time learning about another aspect of American culture, and her own opinions have changed accordingly. “Gaming isn’t the negative thing some people my age think it is,” she said. “Women’s gaming is definitely growing in popularity, and even people my age play video games.”

Just as Olsen said, the face of the gaming public has completely changed. Call elaborated, “Women ages 45 to 65, that’s one of the largest demographics of video game players, and in fact more women at that age play than men.” As for the gender makeup of gamers at large, “It’s about 48 percent female. That’s very different from the perspective of the late 90s.”

As video games continue to grow from a niche market to enjoying a general audience, they are able to say more to more people. And just as humanities students are taught to seek out the best books and enjoy the best films, so too are they learning to play the best games.

“That, I think, is the hallmark of a good humanities education,” Call said. “You start doing everything more mindfully, you think more about what you’re reading, what you’re watching and what you’re playing.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

Samuel covers interdisciplinary humanities for the College of Humanities. He is a junior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.


“Nintendo NES Controller” photo by William Warby