For some of us, the end of summer means one thing: a return to school, an end to lazy days spent gaming away in the comfort of your living room. But this year, for students of Wabash College in Indiana and the University of Florida, this spring semester they'll not only get to play videogames, they'll be required to.
The games in question are Portal and Starcraft II, which are not the first two games that come to mind when considering the likelihood of being adopted by academia. After taking a look at the recent gameplay videos from Portal 2, it wouldn't surprise any of us to see Portal used as a demonstration of experimental physics, but students won't be studying the game for science.
Michael Abbott, a teacher at Wabash has announced that Portal will be considered a primary text in his spring course called "Enduring Questions". And don't think this is a lightweight course for those looking to get out of real work, it's a course all students are required to take in order to graduate.
The class is focused on what it means to be human, with small classes diving into a variation of texts in an effort to better understand the world and their place in it. How does Portal fit in to this? Abbott explains:
"One of the central questions of our new course, 'Who am I?' is the focus of [Erving Goffman's study Presentation of Self in Everyday Life]. He contends we strive to control how we're perceived by others, and he uses the metaphor of an actor performing on a stage to illustrate his ideas ... [The] tension between backstage machination and onstage performance is precisely what Portal depicts so perfectly - and, no small detail, so interactively. Goffman would have found a perfect test subject in GLaDOS. Bingo! Assign students Goffman's Presentation of Self and follow it up with a collective playthrough of Portal."
After having taken a few psychology and sociology classes myself, I do see the potential for investigation in a playthrough of Portal, and the manipulative nature of GLaDOS. The next part of the story may surprise you. And again, I swear this is for real.
This spring at the University of Florida, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty will be used as part of a course designed to teach students resource management. Nate Poling, a Ph.D candidate at the university, came up with the idea and managed to convince his department. As a result of his hard work, the class '21st Century Skills in Starcraft' will be offered online (fittingly).
We should point out that this course is no joke, since only honors students who have experience with the game will be able to take the supplemental class. But with the figures pouring out, that group could be a whole lot bigger than they think. While Starcraft II is no doubt a triple-A title (just check out what we thought of it) its not the storyline or mythos Poling is interested in. He instead sees a link between the mechanics of commanding an army, and managing a business team:
"A student who gets a normal education, gets an MBA, and is in the business world, he could realize that something he learned in his StarCraft course helps him think outside of the box,"..."You synthesize this with an MBA program and voila - you have an innovative business practice."
No final exam against a Korean pro, but the course will count towards the students' GPA.
After I learned that plane tickets to both Indiana and Florida were out of my price range, I got to thinking: what does this mean for the way people will see gaming? Or more importantly, what does this say about the way people are seeing gaming right now? Now the idea of using video games as part of a scientific study is nothing new. But the fact that philosophical questions posed in a game, and the resource management of an RTS are deemed worthy of educational credit is something to notice.
What do you think of the idea, do you think this could be the start of a trend? Could we see psychology courses delving into what a player-designed LittleBigPlanet 2 level tells us about its creator? Or perhaps a sociological experiment examining the motivations of the common forum-troll?
The only thing I know for sure is that graduating isn't looking so good anymore.