Understanding Video Games has been a popular course among University of Alberta students, but now launched alongside Dino 101 as a Massive Open Online Course, anybody with an Internet connection can sign up and learn about how to interpret these ever-more important cultural contributions. And people in 149 countries already have.
“The idea behind the course is, certainly as we’ve seen recently in the media, computer games are an important cultural medium—they have become something that a lot of Canadians view as an important way of understanding the world and relating to the world,” says Sean Gouglas, who teaches the course.
“So what we wanted to do in this course is to give [students] a set of tools that they can use to try to understand what computer games are. That they can see how they work, that they can see how they can tell stories and how you can interpret them and use them to understand the culture that produces them.”
There’s an online version of the course that’s free for anyone, and also a version where students at other universities can sign up and get accreditation for a fee. This is good for alumni who want to stay in contact, Gouglas says, and it is a potential way for anybody else to get to know the university.
Existing U of A students are, of course, still able to enroll as usual. As a Science, Technology and Society course and a collaboration between the Faculties of Arts and Science, it fits into the relatively new Computer Game Certificate program, which came from an initiative from the current Dean of Science, Jonathan Schaeffer.
“It was an idea that started with the realization that computer games are, if they ever were, no longer built by a couple of people in their basement. They’re involving computing scientists, creative writers, level designers, artists, musicians, so what Dr Schaeffer wanted to do was recreate that experience for the students who are going through the program,” Gouglas says. “So with an introductory course called Computers and Games, we created a team-based, problem-based learning course around video games. Students just basically go and build a game. That course has expanded into a certificate.”
The various courses on offer delve into creative writing, artificial intelligence, gameplay fundamentals and more. Once students have done a few of those, they can go into the capstone course where they build a complete game in teams. The idea for the certificate program is to not only give disciplinary and interdisciplinary experience, but also a portfolio of complete games.
Local game developer Bioware has been a part of the university’s video games courses for a long time, and they’ve been back to help with this one.
“They gave us art assets that we were able to use in the course,” Gouglas says. “They’ve given us access to their people—we did some filming at Bioware, we’ve interviewed six or seven of their employees. They’ve been very generous in making themselves available to help us provide concrete examples of some of the concepts that we’re trying to relate in the course.”
The course starts with some basic concepts. The idea is to give students fundamental tools that they’ll need to understand video games. This will include things like game mechanics, story and gameplay. After the basics, the course moves onto interpretation and tackles some cultural questions, such as what gaming culture is.
“And it’s a bit misleading because there are multiple cultures—there are multiple elements of any sort of culture,” Gouglas adds.
One thing Gouglas identifies is the term “gamer” itself, and the different groups that might lay claim to it, or that might problematize it.
“If you go about looking at any of the recent statistics about games, you realize that half of all gamers are women, that the average age of the gamer is about 33, 34, somewhere in there, and what’s interesting is all of those people, the broader spectrum of people who are playing games now, have a stake in the term ‘gamer,’ and a stake in the production of culture that instantiates itself as a computer game,” Gouglas explains. “The problem is that there are groups who see themselves as more ‘true gamers’ or ‘real gamers,’ and they feel disenfranchised by this broadening out of people who play computer games, and that competing for power of trying to get attention of media, of people who produce culture, of developers, of people who view themselves as true gamers and those who see themselves as a different type of gamer, has produced a number of societal competitions or fights that are ultimately breaking forth into the popular media.”
The obvious ongoing example is what’s called GamerGate, which is difficult to describe but has brought up questions of the treatment of women in video games, with prominent commentator Anita Sarkeesian and relatively obscure indie developer Zoe Quinn alike facing significant gender-based online harassment, along with questions of the gamer identity, the culture and the role of the media.
“[GamerGate] is a classic example of what happens when two powers are competing for power. The fact that it manifests as rape threats, as sexism, as misogyny is an interesting statement as to how culture perceives women and how these groups perceive women and their participation in this production of culture—but this course would speak exactly to issues like that.”
The course considers questions of race, sex and violence in video games, and does so in two ways. First is from a game studies point of view, where questions such as how people actually use these things as mechanics in games and how they become a part of the discussion of how the game and its story unfold are considered.
“If you take real-time strategy games, or most of them anyway, they’re frequently set up as a race war,” Gouglas says. “It’s between the humans and the orcs or something like that, and usually it’s a war of extermination. That may seem simple on the face of it, but those simple assumptions about race penetrate all aspects of computer games. We try to draw out different ways that race and sex and violence are used in the construction and playing of a game.”
It then steps back and considers how these things reflect broader cultural issues. With women, for example, it examines how their portrayal might influence people as players and developers, and how it speaks to broader patterns in Canadian and international culture.
“In most games—not all—and most characters—not all—most male characters are doers: they accomplish things in their games through their actions, and that’s how they’re known and become famous” Gouglas explains. “Women characters are either adornment or they’re rescued, or their agency is established through their sexuality if they have any agency at all. Now, of course there’s exceptions but generally, I think that’s probably true.
“But to say that’s true of video games is not to say it’s not true of movies or television,” he continues. “These conversations that we’re having about video games are no different from many of the conversations going on in other media. Yes, video games have problems in them, but they’re issues that we are trying to address, and this course is just one of those ways.”
You don’t have to play games, be a gamer or have particular experience in the area to take the course. The ideal student for Gouglas is just someone who is interested in how the medium is shaping the world. With questions like those of race, sexuality, gender, violence and culture in video games finding their way into mainstream press and conversation, now might be a better time than ever for a course like this to help people examine the medium.
But that doesn’t mean it’s about turning everyone into a 24/7 cultural critic, unable to enjoy themselves with the games they’ve been playing. We don’t have to be passive absorbers of what the games we play are telling us either, and Gouglas hopes the course can help people ask better questions of the medium, but mentions that we also don’t have to analyze everything.
“Sometimes, it’s great to sit back and enter into a game where you’re just shooting a gun and saving the world from aliens and you don’t want to think too much about it.”