December 23, 2008

In The Future We Will Play, Part I: Indiana

CRAWFORDSVILLE, 2004

The video game class that appeared in the course catalogue stood out as unlikely subject matter for both the college and the professor. The single-sex, 900-student Wabash College was a liberal arts school that had never before covered the medium, and Professor Michael Abbott, the 41-year-old chair of the Theatre department, had only a vocational interest in games and no experience teaching programming or game design.

The course, envisioned as a history of video games, had been in Abbott’s plans since at least 2001, and its delayed institution was occurring ten years after Abbott had interviewed for a faculty position at Wabash in 1994. Abbott, who held a Master of Fine Arts in Directing and had taught briefly at Marquette in Wisconsin, had found Wabash attractive after learning that the staff would allow him to bring in new courses. Though a theatre graduate, he deeply admired the cinema and it was incredible to him that Wabash at that time had no dedicated film classes.

Abbott had signed on, almost, to establish Wabash’s film department, and since then he had regularly taught courses on film, theatre, directing and dramaturgy, and had advanced to the position of Chair of Theatre, which, titular prestige aside, is accompanied by administrative and personnel duties he’d have otherwise preferred not to handle. His stature had landed him on the Teacher Education Committee and the Visiting Artists Committee, and through the latter he had been fortunate enough to meet some admired artists and writers, like the feminist film critic Molly Haskell and the playwright Tony Kushner, whose Angels in America (“the greatest American play ever written”, he says) had articulated a Pulitzer-winning response to the late-80s AIDS crisis.

Abbott had been presented with Wabash’s McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2001. While he would admit Wabash was small enough of a school that virtually all of its professors would win it eventually, he found it particularly meaningful that he received the award at a comparatively young age. His career had endowed him with the self-confidence, and the credibility with his colleagues, to launch now what was effectively an academic pilot program for an untaught subject.

Unapologetically enthusiastic about video games, Abbott kept a PlayStation 2 console in his office and the door was open for students to stop by and discuss this shared hobby. He had considered video games a serious art form as early as his graduate school years, and ever since it seemed like the rest of the world was catching up to the level of sincere regard he held for the medium.

Games had broken through to the cultural mainstream on the crest of a media narrative that cast the industry as a multi-million dollar machine to rival Hollywood, in which high-production-value action titles from famous franchises – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Halo 2 – were assigned leading roles. College life, certainly in contrast to Abbott’s own experience, had adjusted accordingly. Students commandeered the campus’ computer network to stage skirmishes in the tense multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike, the fraternities of Kappa Sigma and Tau Kappa Epsilon housed unusually serious gamers, and most of the other dorms could boast of multiple consoles and sport game fans. A loose confederacy of Dungeons & Dragons, role-playing and tabletop gamers successfully lobbied for student senate funding and designated themselves the ‘Dork Club’. “They actually have money to spend,” explains a faintly awed Michael Abbott, “to buy games and buy pizza and have fun… even ten years ago it would have been unheard of.”

From Abbott's perspective, Wabash was subject to a clear generational shift. “Very few of my colleagues are gamers, but as our faculty gets younger, that is clearly changing. I have a colleague in Chemistry who's very into Warhammer and Transformers and the survival horror genre. A visiting professor in my department whose office is right next to mine is a big fan of strategy games and sports management sims.”

Video games were fine to play, but to teach them was something else. That proposition, perhaps surprisingly, faced as much resistance from students as it did the non-gaming faculty. “I don’t think we've successfully made the case for studying games even to gamers,” says Abbott. “They're not shocked because they think it's wrong or stupid; they just can't figure out what there is to learn. They're games. They're great, but so is bubble gum.” Abbott, on the other hand, had long seen in video games similar creative possibilities to theatre and film. Games, much like other forms of art, could be a lens through which to view the world, and the medium was made uniquely fascinating through the element of interactivity. His class, potentially, could host a discussion between like-minded individuals. “I just want to be part of that discussion any way I can.”

Even if Wabash students weren’t convinced that games could be intellectual and support close readings, they were still generally enthusiastic about the act of play, and Abbott believed he could turn that to his advantage. Video games were fun, they had never been more popular, and students might more readily engage with complicated subjects if games were the point of entry. If Abbott legitimised games by assigning them as his course texts, he would be speaking with the students in a language they already knew, and that few liberal arts professors understood or sanctioned. It was a teaching style demonstrated to Michael by his own film professors, who had helped students deconstruct complicated subjects through the accessible and relevant case studies of modern cinema.

The study of games was not intended for the students to better understand graphics, programming or animation. Games could teach the basics of research, critical writing, critical thinking, and an appreciation of complex systems: the skill set of a liberal arts student.

Every incoming Wabash freshman has to take a tutorial course. Each course is limited to 15 students and the classes are effectively intended as an academic induction, introducing the freshmen to the skills they will need to succeed at the college. Tutorial topics are broad and chosen by the respective professors, who are encouraged to pick something outside of their expertise to keep themselves interested. Despite the limitless subject matter, Wabash had never offered anything like ‘In The Future We Will Play: The Art and History of Video Games’, which appeared on course lists sent out to new students that summer.

The class caught the interest of Tom Elliott, although the student never considered himself anything more than a “casual console player”. Elliott, who had yet to declare a major, “thought it would be particularly fun to study [games] from an academic perspective” and pictured an “easy A” course in which he would do nothing but play games.

“The only class that actually sounded engaging”, remembers Nelson Barre, was ‘In The Future We Will Play’. “I found the discussion of video games as a cultural phenomenon intriguing.” Barre had attended high school in Colorado, five miles from the tragic school shooting at Columbine in 1999, a massacre whose perpetrators had played – in a connection conspicuous to the mainstream news media – copious amounts of the archetypically violent shooter Doom. “It’s easy to point the fingers [at video games] but when one is so accustomed to playing video games oneself, there is the tendency to defend them.”

The class’s 15 vacancies were filled very quickly, Michael Abbott was told.

***

“There’s no text for me, there’s no textbook, there’s no guidebook, there’s not existing literature.” The pipe dream now a reality, Abbott found his ambitions waylaid by practicalities. The course called for old arcade games, but making even modern video games available for 15 students to play on their own time was enough of a challenge.

The students would be there every Tuesday and Thursday, with the interim over the weekend assigned to game playing, and Wednesday and Tuesday night set aside for “reading and reflection”. Abbott didn’t lecture in the conventional sense, nor did he use PowerPoint; instead, he prioritised discussion and conversation. The advantage of the tutorial format, he notes, was that “once you’ve chosen [your topic] and establish it, you can use it as a starting point to develop something more.”

By the time the 15 students first appeared together in the classroom, Abbott had written to them to gauge their interests. He knew that he had a lot of fans of sport and racing games; “a lot of guy games, I expected that. But I also had a core group of really serious RPG players, and some strategy guys and some sim guys.” Abbott had once co-taught an upper-level Shakespeare class for English majors, and his teaching partner had prescribed assignments based on the student’s areas of specialisation; whether creative writing, or history, or verse. The stratification of video games by genre would easily lend itself to the same tactic, and everyone in the class could spend part of the semester as the resident expert in their preferred kind of game.
In establishing the terms of the course, Abbott confirmed that it would involve a fair amount of game playing, but the students would be required to take comprehensive notes. The idea was not to enjoy themselves without consequence but to witness the evolution of the medium through the use of hands-on examples.

Abbott was conscious that a college class on video games might be perceived around the campus as a free ride. “I’d say there was a stigma around the class itself”, says Tom Elliott. “You’d tell someone you were studying video games, and the invariable response would be a laugh, or something to the effect of ‘that must be so hard.’” At the time, Elliott didn’t necessarily disagree. “Even being in the class I doubted the academic rigor of the subject…. my thought of video games as a serious subject would be on the same level as ebonics or dancing, you just can’t quite consider them serious.”

“I think it motivated me to make sure that no one could accuse that class of going easy on work,” says Abbott, who despite a freeform, conversational teaching style, set a rigorous assignment schedule. “I really socked it to them, probably too much, because I was so concerned about being seen as offering a lollipop course…. They wrote a lot. They read a lot. I gave them supplementary reading materials on virtually everything we did, and they had to constantly write response papers and analytical papers on stuff we played.”

Students like Nelson Barre remained invested in the class, heavy workload notwithstanding. Barre, an English and Classics major, admired the course’s latitude. Abbott would digress along the course objective to engage the students in discussions of whether games were art or why the public at large were not paying attention. “Our class covered everything from ethics to gender, politics to narrative”, says Barre. “I readily see all these things in video games, but when I first took the course, I was not quite expecting the amount of depth Michael covered in class.”

***

Abbott proposed a debate between two students over a game-related topic, and Tom Elliott took up the challenge. Elliott, who says as a gamer he’d only ever “gotten on board” with the Super Nintendo console (which had been released thirteen years prior) would develop an interest in performing stand-up comedy, and Abbott was starting to see him as the H.L. Mencken of Wabash College. He belonged to a fraternity that in Elliott’s estimation could claim at least one game console in every room. Elliott wanted to argue the case of Dance Dance Revolution, the Japanese music game in which players stand on a plastic mat marked with coloured arrows and step in time with the beat of certain songs. “I said I would defend the idea that Dance Dance Revolution is the greatest game ever. Abbott suggested the topic might be a bit broad, but not wanting to back down, I said I would argue that DDR was the healthiest game ever.”

Elliott borrowed a heart monitor from a friend on the football team, and measured his heart rate during an evening game of Dance Dance Revolution. He compared the results to his experience playing a “non-interactive game”: something so passive it still escapes his recollection. With perhaps the slightest degree of flippancy, Elliott presented his findings to the class. “I made a compelling argument based on the fact that my heart rate was higher playing DDR than sitting on my ass”. The “debate” was downhill from there, and Abbott watched the speakers trade personal attacks with amusement. “I think he enjoyed our creativity,” says Elliott, “even if we weren’t using the most effective debating techniques.” As students outside the class dismissed Abbott's course as an effortless waste of time, Elliott began to think that they were actually jealous.

Nelson Barre likewise heard from his friends and family that he was “lucky to be taking such an easy course”. “That’s a class?” he would sometimes be asked. “I explained it was part of being a freshman, [and] taught writing, organization, study and discussion skills”, he says, “[and] it became a slightly more respectable class.” Barre, remembers Abbott, was the kind of student who “puts things together one piece at a time, and he’s very careful. He’s very serious, I think, it’s just his personality. He looks for the big picture. He tries to make connections to things. I think he became convinced in that class that his peers, who think that games are just a silly waste of time, need to be corrected. And so he took it upon himself to do some correcting.”

***

The historical texts of ‘In The Future We Will Play’ were the early ‘80s arcade games produced by Williams Electronics like Defender and Robotron: 2084. “I bought one of those ex-arcade dual joystick things that you can plug into your computer with a USB port,” says Abbott, explaining how he solved one of the course’s several logistical problems, “and I brought this behemoth into class and we would play all those really great Defender games.” The creators of these early texts were programmers like Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar, who, unusually for classic authors studied in an arts course, were still alive. “They’re still kicking, but nobody pays attention to them anymore. So you get these [students] a little charged up about these games and they get competitive with them, and suddenly they’re doing the kinds of research that you would normally wait until later in a student’s career to get to. They were doing primary sources research, they were contacting these designers to see if they could get interviews. They were doing a kind of journalism that you would not expect freshmen to do. Purely because their interest was being driven forward by these games, I think.”

The concept of a college course that facilitated a discussion between sincere gamers was expanding. The professor was all too happy to talk about the latest games outside of class hours. Elliott and Barre each expressed interests in a theatre major, and Abbott would be assigned to be their academic advisor. “I became close with those guys, and this doesn’t always happen. I think part of that was because we just gamed together, you know.” The idea had not necessarily been to enjoy themselves, but it happened regardless.

While the class at times could entertain, neither the students nor the professor lost focus on the aspects of video games they considered to be meaningful. “To us,” says Elliott, “a discussion of the impact of Super Mario Bros. on the Western world was a serious discussion and not a joke.”

***

“For a freshman,” says Abbott, speaking with slight regret, “a 20-page paper is a pretty big deal.” Their term paper was a research assignment on an influential game creator who had affected the game medium and industry. If Abbott had increased the difficulty of a freshman tutorial to combat outside misinterpretation, his students nevertheless met the challenge. “I was able to tap into the students’ eagerness to play these games. What that meant for me was that I was able to get their enthusiasm level up before diving in to a more rigorous assignment that I might not ordinarily have been able to assign.”

When Nelson Barre saw the subjects his fellow students were choosing, it reaffirmed his faith in the idealistic notions of the course. “[Everyone] looked at topics greater than simply video games for video games' sake.” The papers Abbott received interpreted the Metal Gear Solid designer Hideo Kojima as a deconstructionist, examined gender roles in the Final Fantasy series, and considered the silent hero as a masculine ideal.

Barre, Elliott and their thirteen peers were engaged and enthusiastic beyond the level anticipated of freshmen. Abbott attributes the result in part to the course’s unusual subject matter: “I met them at the place they lived,” he says, in reference to his choice of course theme. Whatever role video games played in the students’ motivation, however, Abbott would never disparage the hand he was unexpectedly dealt. “This was just an unbelievably bright group of guys.”

***
Abbott had tried to use video games to instruct those fundamental liberal arts skills other mediums were widely considered capable of teaching, and the students came to see these connections between media. “I added a Theater major,” says Tom Elliott, “because I enjoyed his teaching and the field in which he worked, which I see as interconnected.” Elliott still doesn’t believe games are “important enough” to be studied individually, but praises the tutorial. “The basic instruction in writing that I learned in the course is still valuable to me. I think my ideas on good vs. bad games also expanded during the course. I began to see the merits of some more online and multi-player games and also learned to appreciate a compelling story in a game as much as great graphics.”

“I always felt I was learning something from Michael,” says Nelson Barre. “He had a sense about him that only comes along in a professor with whom you really connect.” Barre would sign up for more of Abbott’s courses, though none of them were about video games, and he would become increasingly interested in Abbott’s original field, the theatre. He remembers ‘In The Future We Will Play’ fondly: “Michael's class taught me to be a better writer, speaker and thinker. I first developed my writing sense in that class, and Michael's ability to inquire and help in the writing process allowed me to flourish in the class and all the others I took in undergrad. I consider it, still, my favorite course in the four years I spent at Wabash.”

***

Michael Abbott was impressed by his students' dedication, and while he wondered if he had pushed them too hard, they had responded. “[What] I’m really teaching is critical thinking, analytical reading, collaborative discussion skills, clear, concise writing, research and public presentation. If I could make measurable progress in these areas with my students, I think my college would let me teach dog grooming.”

Regardless of the positive results of his experiment, and the personal plaudits he earned from his students, Abbott was not fully satisfied. ‘In The Future We Will Play’ was too broad, he thought, and they had not been afforded the time or the luxury to cover topics in-depth or linger on specific details. “We didn’t do enough reading of texts or enough close analysis to accomplish what I hoped.” He knew now that his students would have been ready for it.

“The problem, I think, with it was that it was mostly an overview course. That’s okay, but as a teacher, overview courses, survey courses, it’s hard to generate a lot of enthusiasm for that over and over.” He considered less general subjects; subjects that could sustain wider conversation and persuade the skeptical. “There’s a pretty strong resistance amongst students, even college-age students, to the idea of studying games. They just don’t quite buy it yet. At least that I see.”

Conversation was productive, especially for an art form as comparatively undeveloped as video games. “If you believe that video games, like any art, are a way of seeing, a way of seeing a world, or experiencing it…” Abbott never had a textbook because the rules were not written yet. “It’s partly why I think it’s good to have so many people thinking about them.”

The class could have been longer.

4 comments:

Denis Farr said...

There was also one other professor at Wabash, Stephen Morillo, who taught a Freshman tutorial on Swords and Sorcery, taking a look at the fantasy genre, my freshman year there (instead, I took a class on Russian Literature and Film 1850-1950). He managed to sneak in some games such as Diablo II to further examine the subject matter and how the genre was expanding, but this was generally seen as okay because it was merely a sidenote to the course.

Unfortunately, this course was offered far later than I could take the class, so I merely heard about it. With Abbott's symposiums and freshmen tutorials, there was definitely an opportunity to talk about games--especially as the campus by and large plays them. Whether its sports titles, RPGs, or what have you, an all-male campus has gaming consoles everywhere.

As one of the founders of Dork Club (we really took the defunct 'Anime Club' and altered it for our purposes), we faced much the same campus resistance at the time. Because Student Senate determined our funds, not the college, we entered into battles with some opinion writers in The Bachelor, our newspaper, about why gaming was important. Suddenly this was seen as frivolous spending, and the founders merely people who were wasting time they could be using to study.

The Dork Club managed to push on and with the aid of professors such as Abbott, Morillo, and the Warhammer fan in the science building, we hosted our own Dorkapalooza and Dorkstock where we also hosted speakers on games as a medium.

Of course, I have no idea how the gaming cultures at other colleges work, but I look fondly back on this one--especially as these courses brought people like Tom Elliott and Nelson Barre to the theater, where I became fast friends with them.

Terrific article. It definitely got me thinking and reminiscing.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I really enjoyed this. It was great to read about Abbott in action and hear how the courses have been going.

Ben Abraham said...

How do you KNOW all this Duncan?

Steve gaynor said...

Nice article.. this seems like the kind of thing that could run as a human interest piece in Edge magazine.