Odds Without Ends

Although I was only a few years old, I can still remember the day my dad came home with a Nintendo Entertainment System.

As time progressed, the NES would dominate my life and the lives of millions of kids worldwide, sparking what is today one of the most financially successful industries worldwide. And, just as we have grown, so has the industry.

Today, video games have surpassed movies both in the box office and through rentals. It’s transformed into an industry that caters to an audience of all ages, pushing creativity and originality more than ever before.

But without a doubt, video games have most closely become associated with the college demographic.

After all, as countless studies have shown, college students are some of the most avid video game players around. For example, a study by the Pew Internet and American Life organization found that 70 percent of college students play video games “at least once in a while,” while 65 percent are frequent or occasional gamers.

But perhaps most telling, and most alarming, is that 48 percent of those surveyed said they often play video games to avoid or distract themselves from studying.

Reports like that have fueled the arguments of every parent, professor, college administrator, and student that claims video games are detrimental to academia.
And, well, they’re partly right; video games are certainly distractions, and an easy way to waste study time.

But there’s something more to video games – something that most casual gamers and onlookers miss. It’s something creative, original, and ultimately beneficial to academia.

More specifically, I’m talking about video game studies, an emerging field in the humanities that is slowly gaining momentum and support from professors around the country.

Some, like professor Janet Murray from the Georgia Institute of Technology, have written extensively on video games, examining the medium’s ability to drive a narrative through interactive elements and how that interactivity affects a game’s ability to convey plot.

Espen J. Aarseth, who earned a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Bergen and currently serves as principle researcher at the University of Copenhagen, believes in a competing view on video games that, unlike the other, refuses to examine video games in terms of their ability to convey plot. Rather, his field – called ludology – holds that games should be studied solely for their player interactivity.

I’ve only briefly scratched the surface of how video games can play an interesting role in the humanities. There are many more professors and academics out there writing on this flourishing field of study.

In many ways, the up-and-coming study of video games reminds me of film study, which emerged just decades ago and has since become one of the more popular disciplines in the humanities. Rather than simply examining how to make film, professors have instead looked at how film works as a form of art, similarly to the way we study great literature.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that Super Mario Baseball contains a subtext advocating Marxism or anything crazy like that. But some more creative game franchises (BioShock, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, just to name a few) can certainly be examined for their artistic qualities and unique ability to drive a narrative with user interaction.

Things have certainly come a long way since my dad came home with a Nintendo Entertainment System back in the late ’80s.

But over time, I think it’s clear that video games have been written off by some a bit unfairly.

After all, in a decade, video games may not be what distracts college students from studying. It might, in fact, be precisely what they’re studying.