Games as Common Texts for Universities

If you could recommend a game as a community-building activity for your school, what would you recommend? I thought about some of the arty Jason Rohrer games, but maybe those would be more appropriate for a “How can games lead to deep thoughts” pre-discussion, something I might use to get buy-in from the non-gaming community (including those who wouldn’t have the patience to play through a full-length game). I also wondered about Heavy Rain, but I would have a difficult time justifying the sexual content. (I know they’re just pixels, and the images they represent are no worse than many mainstream movies, but if we’d be requiring students to play the game, well, we are a Catholic college, so I would look elsewhere.) A colleague sent me this link… I’m quite excited.

Wpshrine_Portal_198_1024x768 This year, for the first time, a video game will appear on the syllabus of a course required for all students at Wabash College, where I teach. For me – and for a traditional liberal arts college founded in 1832 – this is a big deal.

Alongside Gilgamesh, Aristotle’s Politics, John Donne’s poetry, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the Tao Te Ching, freshmen at Wabash will also encounter a video game called Portal. If you’re curious to know how it happened, read on.  —The Brainy Gamer

Portal has many plusses.
It’s available on many platforms, so students could more likely play it over the summer before coming to class. The protagonist and antagonist are both female (well, one is an evil computer with a female voice), and your role as the protagonist is to avoid being killed, rather than to kill anyone, but there is still plenty of action.

The game has a narrative, it’s set in a lab where you are the subject of an experiment, physics and momentum are a big part of the gameplay, but so is the characterization of the antagonist, the way the game designers tease you on with the hope of a reward, issues of surveillance and your implicit buy-in when you make your character perform meaningless actions just to see what happens in the next level… Existentialism, human rights, a metaphor for the desire for an afterlife… Graffiti scrawled in the walls of the test chambers, presumably by other prisoners/subjects/victims, include passages by Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, and HW Longfellow. Each level has a sort if key that uses graphic design to indicate what threats the player will face, and I spent quite a bit of time staring at unfamiliar symbols, sometimes gathering hints from this designs that helped me through the level. The game originally started out as a student project, but the game company Valve hired the whole design team. A version of the game has been released with voice-over commentary by the designers, so you can hear them talking about what psychological effect a certain game element was aiming for. What am I missing? I’ll look into this again after all my classes have met… back to syllabus-creation for me.

I could go on.
Portal 2 is supposed to come out sometime late in 2010, and that game company has a reputation of building on their success rather than putting out lame sequels.
Bioshock is based heavily on Ayn Rand philosophies, and it is possible to try to avoid and minimize conflict in that game, but it’s set in a violent world, which of course makes the player’s actions have dramatic consequences. (Some of my colleagues are fans of that game, though I only know it by reputation.) The latest sequel in this series should be out next year, and it too is available on multiple platforms.

5 thoughts on “Games as Common Texts for Universities

  1. There is also an ASCII version.

    I haven’t yet finished Portal, but I’ve avoided listening to Still Alive so far because I want to hear it in context.
    I showed my wife the Wil Wheaton version of My Monkey last night… It brought a tear to my eye.

  2. There is also a flash version of Portal – online for free. The narrative is still there, and the people who wrote it made it available as a world for people who bought Portal [or put it on their Mac when it was free :) ]. My favorite thing about Portal is the fact that Jonathan Coulton did the closing credits song (“Still Alive”)and is supposed to do one for Portal 2!

  3. I second that vote for Portal. Now that Steam is available for Macs, there’s even less of a platform hurdle for Portal. It doesn’t require nearly the commitment (both in time and technology) that Bioshock does, but it still delivers a discussable narrative punch.

  4. Yes, that’s part of why I was thinking Portal really is a good choice. It sounds like the Wabash folks had some difficulty getting Portal installed universally, but we’d have time to plan ahead and learn from their experience.

  5. I think Protal would be a much better choice than Bioshock. Portal is short and doesn’t require the “twitch” reflexes that a shooter like Bioshock does. The complex inventory system and player upgrades of Bioshock would also likely be a turn-off for non-gaming students. Let them eat cake!

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