How deep are video games?

December 21, 2009 at 10:20 am 10 comments

I’m excited about the article in this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution about games courses in college, with references to two of my colleagues, Blair MacIntyre and Ian Bogost.  I was particularly struck by Ian’s comments.

Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost teaches students and is co-founder of Persuasive Games, which focuses on social and political issues such as airport security, flu epidemics and tort reform.

Students, he said, are looking for ways to match games with their life passions. One student is trying to meld religious activity with games, he said.

“Games are like folk music of the 1960s,” Bogost said. “They grew up with it. They identify with it. And it isn’t something really co-opted by institutions of power.”

via Gaming courses popular in Georgia colleges  |

Another article in Parade magazine this weekend, Can video games teach kids? includes this quote:

“We’re starting to see agreement that video games are the new liberal arts,” says Kurt Squire, a professor in education communications and technology at the University of Wisconsin. “This school is the first implementation.”

I have Ian’s Persuasive Games but haven’t finished it yet.  Games are “the new liberal arts”?  Games as the “folk music of the 1960s”?  My experience with games don’t go that deep.  I find if I think about them too hard, there’s nothing there but the assumptions and world-view of the game author.  A great example of the bottom not being too deep is the SimCity game player who famously told Sherry Turkle in The Second Self, “If you raise taxes, people riot.” Can games really be as deep as great literature, or great music?  I suppose it’s possible, but I haven’t seen it yet.

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Going on Furlough and Holiday Traveling Fewer high school students taking computer science classes –

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ian Bogost  |  December 21, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Both of these are aspirational statements to some extent, but also truthful ones. Sometimes it’s necessary to overstate a position in order to see it through.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  December 21, 2009 at 2:58 pm

      Ian, to which games would you suggest looking as demonstrations or examples of the kind of depth that you’re suggesting?

      • 3. Ian Bogost  |  December 22, 2009 at 9:29 am

        Well, I talk about a great many in Persuasive Games! But, you might also check my regular column on Gamasutra for some ideas.

        You might also keep in mind that depth may function in a different way in games. Perhaps they are not meant to mirror the novel or the film, but to do something different.

  • 4. David Klappholz  |  December 21, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Re the Parade Magazine article about a school that is giving up textbooks, etc., and using solely the playing of educational games to teach the entire curriculum: One of the topics they are planning to teach using games is (Newtonian) mechanics. From ancient Greece until immediately before Isaac Newton’s time, the best brains thought that the appropriate quantity to define in order to study mechanics was the product of mass and velocity; a critical aspect of Newton’s brilliance was his thesis — proved true when applied to existing data — was that the appropriate quantity to define is actually mass times acceleration, a completely unintuitive idea both in his time and in ours. (Consider the results of the Force Concept Inventory.) Not only is it counter-intuitive to beginning physics students, but a number of physics profs have agreed with me that it is still counter-intuitive to them, though they clearly know exactly how to use it in their work.

    For me a large part of the proof that a textbook-free, solely-games approach to teaching actually works is to show/prove that/how it works for teaching Newtonian mechanics. I’m quite skeptical as one can’t easily visualize the notion of force times acceleration.

  • 5. Aaron Lanterman  |  December 21, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    “I find if I think about them too hard, there’s nothing there but the assumptions and world-view of the game author.”

    How is this not also true of other art forms?

    • 6. Ian Bogost  |  December 22, 2009 at 9:30 am

      I’d like to hear the answer to this question too.

      • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  December 22, 2009 at 9:37 am

        Fair question! I’m no expert on rhetoric or story-telling, so I can only reflect on my experience. I think it’s harder for the game author because they’re caught between no supports and lots of detail. They are building their world from nothing. Unlike the videographer who can film the real world with all its richness, the game author builds from bits, so they have to assemble everything. However, the game world can be rich with graphics and sound. Unlike the novelist who can creating shadings of meaning with a subtle choice of words, and can thus rely on the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest, the game author has 3-D realism and stereophonic sound to fill. That’s not to say that a game author can’t leave some details out, or can’t use video or photographers to help supply richness. There are so many degrees of freedom for a game author that much depends on the author, perhaps less than depending on the real world or the reader.
        I’m also still not sold on non-narrative formats having the depth as narrative forms. I like stories 🙂

  • 8. Darrin Thompson  |  December 23, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Seems silly to insist that games _can’t_ be deep.

    It might be that there aren’t yet enough people in the intersection of good storyteller and good programmer sets.

    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  December 23, 2009 at 11:40 am

      Point well taken, Darrin. Video games are new. I suspect that English existed for a few years before Shakespeare came along to create depth with it.

  • 10. How deep are video games? « Generation YES Blog  |  January 28, 2010 at 12:24 am

    […] How deep are video games? January 27th, 2010 Hello there! If you are new here, you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates on this topic.Powered by WP Greet BoxHow deep are video games? « Computing Education Blog. […]


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