Games in the Academy

Games have been an integral part of human cultures for thousands of years, if not tens of thousands of years. But it’s only been with the advent of a large and very lucrative digital game industry that large numbers of academics have begun to seriously study games in earnest. Now game departments are popping up in universities around the world.

At the request of one of my generous Patrons, today I’m going to discuss the type of academic work being done on games, and briefly mention a few universities with strong game programs. I’m not going to go into much detail, but I hope this gives a general overview that might send readers in the right direction if they’re thinking about getting into games more seriously.

Before I begin, you might be wondering what makes me qualified to talk about this. I was in a PhD program at UC Santa Cruz studying games for three and a half years, from 2008 to 2012. While I didn’t complete the program (I left to start Nothing Sacred Games), I was exposed to a lot of different facets of academic games, and met a lot of people from different schools. Now a number of the members of my cohort are at universities all over the world, starting or continuing games programs, so I’ve maintained ties to academia even though I’m very much a part of industry these days.

What does it mean to study games?

Given that making games takes many different skills and perspectives, it should be no surprise that people study many different aspects of games. I’ll try to cover as many as I can below, but I welcome more areas of focus in the comments.

Humanities & Social Sciences

The humanities and social sciences are primarily interested in games as artifacts of human culture. They’re focused on questions like: What is a game? What do games mean? How do they fit into human lives and societies?

Game Design. Before you worry about how to build games, you might first want to know what to build. This is one of the two big focuses for undergrad game departments. It challenges its students to understand what a game is and how to determine what should be included and excluded from a new one.

Art Games. Usually at the masters level, the focus is more on pushing the boundaries of what games are. This might involve creating experiences that you might encounter in a museum, it might involve alternate reality games or massive city-scale games, or anything else that challenges the status quo of gaming.

Games with a Purpose. One of the biggest focuses in academia is the goal to harness the motivational power of games for some end greater than play. (As if there was one.) This might mean developing games to encourage healthier habits or a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, or it might involve understanding how games can be used to influence political views or consumer spending habits, but it will always involve using games as a means to some other end.

Game Education. A special form of games with a purpose is using games for education. This comes in two styles. The first is having players learn about some subject matter by simply playing through a game, like learning arithmetic or a new language. The second is introducing players to computer science concepts by assisting them in creating their own games. (This was my focus for most of my research career.)

Gamification. Another special form of games with a purpose is gamification, which basically means adapting game systems like achievements, leaderboards, and quests to non-game activities, like white-collar jobs, in hopes of improved motivation. When I was in academia, “gamification” was very much a buzz word, which rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but I think there is more here than just a fad.

Game History and Preservation. People like to say we’re in a golden age when it comes to games (at least board games… the digital golden age may already be over). How will future generations remember it? What of it will we save for them to experience themselves? Here, we not only look to the past to understand how games developed over human history, we look to the future to make sure our descendents will be able to play classics when the hardware needed to run them is long gone.

Gamer Cultures. Games form the focal point for many human relationships and interactions. Here researchers are interested in understanding how people fit games into their lives, what kinds of social networks exist within gaming communities, and how those games shape the worldview of their players, especially when it comes to massively multiplayer games.

Representation in Games. The game industry is not as inclusive as many people wish it was, but thankfully academia offers an outlet to women, LGBT people, and people of color who wouldn’t have the opportunity to express themselves through games otherwise. At the same time, researchers work to understand how games shape views about these groups; Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency project is a great example of this kind of work.

Computer Science & Technology

Here, the primary questions are about how to make games. While the focus is almost always on digital games, there is definitely some overlap with analog games using unique hardware or digital supplements, like apps.

Tools & Development. Again at the undergrad level, many universities have programs connected with their computer science departments focused on programming games. These programs usually involve a subset of pure computer science coupled with classes focused on game creation and common tools, generally culminating in a keystone game project.

Graphics & Physics. One of the most fertile areas of technological advances in games is in graphics and physics, and it isn’t all happening in industry.

Artificial Intelligence. Artificial intelligence takes many forms in games, from creating realistic non-player characters to optimizing artificial players to changing the story arc based on player actions. Game companies are often too concerned with the bottom line to dedicate many resources to exploring the horizons of game AI, so it falls on academia to break new ground.

Procedural Generation. As games become bigger and bigger, they require more and more content. Procedural generation seeks to solve this problem without hiring more people by having a computer generate content (levels, characters, items, background images, you name it!). Taking procedural generation to the extreme, some researchers have actually worked on training computers to generate rules and indeed whole games. (I worked in this area a bit early in my academic career.)

Data Analysis. In the age of big data, the real challenge is figuring out what to do with all that information. Many games collect tons of data about players and play sessions, but gleaning information that can help you balance a game or nudge your players in the right way can be very challenging, and some universities specialize in this field.

Where can you study games?

As games have become a cultural force to be reckoned with, universities are starting new game departments all the time. I’m not even going to pretend this list is comprehensive, and instead request that readers in academia contribute to the list in the comments below. I also won’t explain what kinds of programs any of these schools have, but will include links so you can investigate more yourself at your own leisure.

If you’d like to learn more, and don’t mind signing up for the Princeton Review, you can also check out their top 25 undergraduate and graduate games programs.

One striking omission from this list is a program that focuses on non-digital games. While many programs cover non-digital games as an aside or to assist digital game design, to the best of my knowledge, no all tabletop program exists. If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know in the comments!

Worth Some Thought

Although I ultimately found that academia wasn’t for me, I highly recommend that anyone seriously interested in games investigate schools to find out if one is the right fit for you. Not only will you be instructed in many useful ways, you’ll be surrounded by others who love games, and you’ll get the opportunity to build a portfolio, two invaluable assets if you want to get a job in the game industry. I can’t tell you how valuable my experience was, and I know there’s no way I’d be where I am today without spending those years at UC Santa Cruz!

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