Jan 252015

The original inspiration for this course dates back a couple of years to the first time I offered “technology : culture : society” (an upper-division examination of major technologies and technological systems from the Industrial Revolution to the present). For their final assignment that semester I asked each student to research and write a 10- to 12-page argumentative brief in support of the modern invention, device, or process they considered most deserving a course all its own. Partly in jest and partly in an effort to motivate, I promised that, in addition to receiving the highest grade, the most compelling brief would become manifest in the flesh (or something like that) and I would commit to developing and teaching a course on the subject at some later date. There were strong cases made for automobiles, firearms, rockets, and a number of other things, but the sales pitch that stood out was for a course on video games.

My a priori knowledge of video games is not insubstantial. I’ve been playing them off and on (usually “on”) since The Beginning. I am of the generation who came of age at precisely the right moment. I experienced the cultural phenomenon of Space Invaders (1978) in its full original glory and at a suitably impressionable stage of personal development. During the “Golden Age” of video arcade games that followed in the early 1980s, I wasted more time and quarters than I could possible count playing today’s best-known “classics” — Asteroids, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Defender, and the like — as well as a slew of lesser-known (but no less fun) games such as Joust, Tempest, Frogger and Dig Dug.

Had the emerging milieu of digital gaming remained isolated to the arcade hall, I would likely have developed more skills transferable to adulthood. Alas, they did not. The games came home via an Atari 2600 console and Apple ][ computer. The latter, purchased used from my high school Physics teacher after I swore to my parents it would help with schoolwork, delivered a constant stream of adventures: Wizardy!, Zork, Castle Wolfenstein, the fantastically addicting President Elect, Ultima, and Crush, Crumble, and Chomp! (to name just a few). I earned a “D” in Physics.

College followed. So did the next iteration of “educational” computing: a Kaypro PC with a 20MB hard drive. I completed the The Bard’s Tale trilogy, achieved global domination and initiated countless nuclear wars in Balance of Power, came down with a dose (or three) of the clap as Leisure Suit Larry, and mucked around with other now forgotten titles while earning my undergraduate degree. (Thank God for the Humanities.)

Grad school wasn’t much different (at least from the standpoint of gaming): a new generation of computer = a new generation of computer games. Three stood out: Sid Meier’s Civilization and id Software’s now iconic releases: Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. The first and last of these were, literally, game-changing as the respective launching pads for “sims” and first-person shooters.

Although I never stopped playing games on the computer, save for occasional encounters in the mid-1990s with a NeoGeo home system owned by a family member, I didn’t return to console gaming until after the Sony PS2 was already well established. I consented to let one of my kids buy one – then bought myself a copy of God of War to dabble with during my downtime. The Wii did nothing for me (I’ve never been a fan of anything Mario and both the controller and graphics struck me as awkward at best), but the first commercial I saw for Borderlands, did. I bought myself a PS3 a week later simply to play that game.

Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

Borderlands rocked. It served as a second awakening to an entertainment medium I thought I had outgrown and an introduction (albeit it only briefly) to on-line co-op play (not a fan, too old). After finishing the game I bought my first DLC. New experiences followed; first, a belated introduction to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (I had played a Russian copy of CoD 2 on the PC a few years earlier. It was better. I could play it in Russian.), then a flood of recent releases and older games I should’ve already played: the Fallout franchise (terrific though buggy); Red Dead Redemption (wow); Crysis 2 (fantastic graphics); The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (excellent); Mass Effect 2 and 3 (among the very best franchises and the very worst endings); and Metro: Last Light (props for letting me play in Russian, but even more buggy than Fallout). Since returning to console gaming, I’ve encountered only two “duds:” Bioshock: Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V. Sorry, but they did nothing for me. Absolutely. Nothing.

Notwithstanding the new found appreciation for video games I’ve developed in recent years, my pledge to the students in that  t : c : s course would likely have remained unfulfilled had it not been for my encounter with Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed The Last of Us (2013). Combining near perfect mechanics and challenging game play with state of the art graphics, first-rate acting, sophisticated character development; and a heart-rending narrative set against the backdrop of an apocalyptic future populated by a shitstorm of zombies, TLoU elevated video gaming into the realm of art. It convinced me video games should be taken seriously as a subject of historical analysis.

Still, the decision to develop and teach a course on video games (even as a one-off “topics” course) was not an easy one. It’s brought me to the realization that much of my personal, lived experience is now the stuff of history. It’s a bit odd trying to teach it from the detached perspective of a professional historian (not unlike my lectures covering perestroika and the collapse of the USSR). Then again, it beats the alternative. However, unlike the Russian bits, I don’t profess to possess specialized, academic expertise on the subject of video games. And I can’t say that ever I intend to develop it. But in the time that has passed since I announced the “winning” brief to my students, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for the medium/art form and done what I can to accumulate sufficient content knowledge (as well as requisite knowledge of the theories and practices employed by video game scholars) to offer up a credible undergraduate course.

Obviously, I am nowhere near the first academic to take a stab at “teaching” video games. There are many others who are doing this (or have done so) already. For the most part, however, their approaches tackle the subject in ways different than I intend. This is not course on gaming design. (No skillz.) Nor is it a course on “gaming theory.” (No thanx.) It is a course on something more mundane and accessible: the  interplay between video games and the cultural, social, and historical contexts in which they have developed.

During the semester, we will explore a wide range of issues pertaining to computer/video games as historical phenomena. Among these will include: the origins and evolution of gaming technologies; video game economics and (big) business; the impact of video games on popular culture; game design and aesthetics; the politics of video games; on-line communities and gamer culture; practical applications of game simulations; and the possible futures of video games to come (to name but a few). In addition to providing students with a platform for honing their skills at research, analysis, and writing, the chief goal of this course is to to demonstrate that as with airplanes, automobiles, rockets, and other technological gadgets it is useful to study video games from the vantage point of history both to better appreciate the fruits of human ingenuity and to develop a deeper understanding of our shared, human condition.

This is a serious attempt to approach a “fun” subject via the history of technology and culture. This is also very much an experimental course. If it works, we’ll restart and do it again. If not, there are plenty of games we can go play.

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