Come January, let the games begin at American University.
Along with courses in fundamental journalistic skills like writing, editing, photo and data, students will be able to take a class on the fundamentals of games.
“The Design of Game Play” is taught by Lindsay Grace, a well-known designer of games who previously started a similar program at Miami University.
The course represents not only a new 500-level elective but a larger shift in thinking Grace hopes to cultivate where games form the center of interdisciplinary study. When psychology was on the rise in the last century, people started seeing that psychology was in everything, he said. Games present a modern-day parallel.
“I’m a real champion of games being a kind of liberal arts education in the 21st century,” he said. “Games are a case study in how to construct interesting experiences.”
At a time when news games are becoming more prevalent and media companies are seeing more clearly the value of audience engagement in their products, games-centered classes are starting to populate more journalism schools. Besides American University, the University of Nevada, Reno has been active on the games front, and a year ago Iowa University tried its hand at a course to teach aspiring journalists how to write about and review games.
Could this be the start of a games revolution in journalism schools, or even academia at large?
Games as part of an interdisciplinary education
Grace, who came to American University in the fall, said he believes games are a medium of the future. People have always played them, but there’s a greater recognition that games are more than just frivolous pastimes and can be an agent for change or a practice space for human behaviors.
The most acclaimed game Grace has constructed, “Wait” is based around the notion of stopping and smelling the roses.
“As they walk, the world disappears, and if they stay still more of the world is revealed,” he said. ”Players are rewarded for taking the more exploratory approach.”
In the same way, games courses he has previously taught in Miami University’s Interactive Media Studies program — and the one planned for American — are a “fly-by view” of how different disciplines view fun, play and games. The class involves theory and discussion and also some basic game-building. It’s not incredibly technical, he said, but a starting ground to understand the place of games in the world. The curriculum is still undergoing approval, but Grace said building a basic paper or design prototype of a game will likely be part of the class, because the exercise is akin to a vision quest in how much it challenges someone.
Most important to him is to involve a wide array of students. The course falls in the School of Communications, but it’s not restricted to communications students. Most majors can find value in studying games and can excel in this area of study. In fact, in Miami some of Grace’s star students were pre-med.
“I believe in an interdisciplinary approach,” he said. “If you have someone who’s a communications student, and you sit them next to someone with a background in business, they’ll come up with two entirely different experiences and notions around what audiences need.”
At the same time, he sees specific potential for games to positively benefit journalism and is excited by the growth in news and editorial games.
“Games let us participate and invite us in,” Grace said. “When you see 12 people reading it doesn’t inspire ‘I should read a newspaper too.’ But a game creates a relationship and a way to connect.”
Teaching audience engagement by building working games
Larry Dailey got into games by accident. Almost a decade ago he was teaching journalism at Ball State University. The university was building a digital media minor and needed something highly interactive in the curriculum. Dailey’s first thought was games. On his own he learned about all facets of the games movement and, from there, formulated a class around games and interactivity.
“If you argue that one of the things wrong with journalism is a lack of engagement with the audience, games are the most effective way to get at that,” he said. “You literally can’t play the game unless you’re engaged.”
Seven years ago Dailey was hired on at the University of Nevada, Reno where he was able to bring his new-found expertise in games to the university’s journalism school. He proposed an experiential games course, “and they jumped all over it.”
Dailey teaches Game Design for Journalism once a year and is trying to launch a games minor. Like Grace, at AU, he does everything he can to foster diversity in the class and doesn’t restrict the course to journalism students. This is key to maximizing creativity and innovation.
Unlike a First Amendment class that has a pretty fixed trajectory and structure, he never teaches a games class exactly the same. Often the semester will start with an exercise calls “Sucks or rocks” where the students play and evaluate games to gain an understanding of the qualities that make for an immersive game.
Then it’s on to building their own games so that by the end of the semester students have a functioning game to their name. Along the way, Dailey takes them through brainstorming exercise he’s adopted from Google and renowned design firm IDEO, they do rapid paper prototypes and then building working models. The students also do usability testing every step of the way in a process that bears great resemblance to the scrum cycles of software development.
“Most have never done anything like this before, but I’ve never had anyone not come out of this with a game,” he said.
One game built by a student that particularly stood out to him was “Are You Smarter than an Illegal Alien?” — a game that essentially revolved around quizzing players on the constitution to show what an immigrant would need to know upon entering the United States. Another was a recycling-centered game that positioned the player at the bottom of a screen and made him or her think fast as objects dropped down on them as to whether they were recyclable. And one student, inspired by the proximity to Nevada casinos, fashioned a one-arm bandit machine called “You Win, You lose.” When pulling the handle produced, for instance, three images of schools the player won, but also discovered troubling facts about the poor quality of the state’s public schools.
Daily said when they’re done with the class, close to half of the students build games again or go through the rigorous process involved but that what he’s teaching them is bigger than the games themselves.
“I’m not so interested in the game thing as I am telling them that serious topics can be dealt with in a variety of ways,” he said. “If they never program a line of code again, I don’t care as long as they’ve learned new ways of doing things, new ways of working together and innovating.”
Journalism, in particular, is particularly change-resistant, in Dailey’s opinion, so games reveal a path in which the audience’s needs guide what news organizations produce.
“When I was a photographer I knew how to win a contest. I didn’t know if my photos resonated with the community, though. I look back and that’s sad to me,” he said.
The best games immerse players in the experience.
“When my son plays Minecraft or Skyrim he’s in this totally other world. If we want to engage a more sophisticated audience, we have to immerse them in this way,” Dailey said. “I go to conferences, and they talk about how people need media literacy. I think it’s the other way around. We need to develop human-centered media.”
Covering, reviewing games as an artform
At the University of Iowa, the games class that Ph.D. candidate Kyle Moody taught last fall took a different spin on the medium. Instead of learning to build games, his course, in partnership with IGN Entertainment, was focused on preparing aspiring journalists to cover and review games.
Moody sees gaming as a game changer both in its impact in society and as a new specialty beat that journalists can write about intelligently in order to advance understanding. He treated games as important cultural works meriting study in the same way books and works of art do.
“The number of people who play videogames has quadrupled over the past 10 years,” he said. “As programming skills become more normalized we need people that are better at covering this trend. Videogames are being used more often in industry. Why and where is this coming from? This was the void that I was trying to fill with my course.”
The 21 students in the class were all undergraduate journalism majors with at least an avid interest in gaming. Throughout the course they spent a lot of time developing their writing skills with substantial editing feedback from Moody. Thanks to the partnership with IGN, many classmates were published during the semester.
To better analyze games, Moody also gave them what he calls the greatest assignment in the world: Play logs of videogames they tried.
“My interest was getting them to take better notes thinking about principles of design, what could be improved about their experience,” he said. “The assignment wasn’t just from the perspective of ‘This is fun,’ but how does this reflect the world around me.”
Moody’s hope is to teach the course again. So far it has only been offered once at Iowa.
“(The class) contributes to a greater dialogue about videogames in the world that I hope continues,” he said.
Dena Levitz is the manager of digital strategies for the Newspaper Association of America while also pursuing a master’s in Media Entrepreneurship at American University. Dena has freelanced for publications like the Washington Post and The Atlantic’s Cities website, been a news writer for the Washington Examiner and the Augusta Chronicle, and worked as a weekend White House stringer for Bloomberg News. In her spare time she enjoys drinking a hoppy beer, chomping on a cheeseburger or quoting from one of the Rocky movies.