University of Wyoming studies video games

The English Department at the University of Wyoming has provided funding and lab space to study video games at the "UW Games Lab."

Maybe former Donkey Kong world champion Steve Wiebe can apply for a teaching position at the University of Wyoming.

In an old dairy building on the University of Wyoming campus, Jason Thompson and Aaron Perrell have been studying, dissecting, discoursing and playing with the world's most widely used medium.

And even though they're dealing with material that grossed $12 billion worldwide last year, it's a subject that has been understudied, neglected and even maligned for years. Thompson thinks this is because people don't like studying what some consider being nothing more than play.

But if video games are nothing but games, then Hamlet was right on when he called his book nothing more than words.

UW Games Lab

"It's all discourse, it's all a moment in time and it reflects that moment and we can learn from it," Thompson said, standing among the consoles, computers and games in the UW Games Lab, which resembles something of a mix between the basement where "The Wire's" investigative detail spent their time in season one and an estate sale of a very interesting and eclectic technology buff with a few graduate students thrown in the mix as well.

"I'm part of a research collective called the Learning Games Initiative; it's a group of people that do research on games, do development on games and keep an archive of games printed matter such as manuals, games, systems, all of it. We really look at games as cultural artifacts; things that reveal theology, things that reveal power. Things that should be studied in the academy," Thompson said.

Loser in the basement?

While video games have been around for more than 30 years, it's a medium that has largely gone unnoticed by academia. But what started as a medium with a very small niche market has grown into a global phenomenon, Perrell said.

"Games are pop culture now, but 10 years ago they were what the loser did in his basement. Ten years before that, they were the obscure thing that only people who programmed liked to do. So it started out in its life to be heavily relegated to a niche market and then expanding," Perrell explained. "Today, the average age of a game player is 34 but the common conception is that it's what your 16 year-old kids do to kill time."

Games are also fun — something that has made some academics reluctant to consider video games a legitimate narrative medium, Perrell said.
"That stigma of being a thing that people do for fun, a time waster, degenerate thing has been really off-putting to people who consider themselves serious academics," Perrell said.

English Department supportive

But UW's English Department has been very supportive and "open-minded" about the project, recognizing that games do more than just pass time — they educate.

"The department, by giving the lab space and funding, are pointing toward this kind of future, saying we can expand our notion of what text and study is; the idea that it might be fun doesn't necessarily preclude it's study," Thompson said.

Both Perrell and Thompson see great promise for future utilization of video games. Perrell explains that he sees great potential for video games to be used in the same capacity as today's college textbooks.

Why play video games?

But games are already teaching those who play, Thompson said. That's what makes it so imperative that academia study the medium.

"Why do people like games? Because you learn. Why do people enjoy that activity? Because learning is inherently enjoyable. And in that case it doesn't necessarily matter what you're learning, it's the activity of learning that's rewarding you," Thompson said. "And if games can teach, then as teachers shouldn't we understand what kind of teaching's going on?"

Games not only educate, but are also somewhat international. While books are often published only regionally, games are specifically designed for release in any market around the world. It's a medium that is also extremely indicative of all being equal, Perrell said.

"It's impossible for the Queen of England to find a better copy of Halo than mine. It's globally equal," Perrell explained. "Through all of history mediums have always had the lowbrow and the stuff that's available only to the higher-ups but no matter who you are, video games are the same."

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