The Smoke Signal, MSJ's Official Newspaper


Gaming in College

     In 2009, UC Berkeley began offering a class in competitive Starcraft, a renowned science-fiction real-time strategy game, with a basis in Calculus and with the goal of improving real-world decision making skills. University of Florida followed suit in 2010, adding a course called “21st Century Skills in Starcraft”, and Wabash College placed the critically acclaimed 3D puzzle game Portal on its mandatory “reading” list for freshman. Video games, deemed mindless entertainment since their inception, are now rightfully being considered by academic institutions as a serious art.

     Like a good book or movie, a good video game challenges the player to use higher order thought processes like analysis and evaluation. Starcraft accomplishes this by using a balanced mechanism where no unit or strategy can guarantee success and by employing “fog of war”, which limits vision to a small range within a player’s own units so that players always face uncertainty. The metagame, or the strategies and thoughts that transcend the basic rules, approaches the level of psychoanalysis. What was the opponent doing when I scouted him? How should I counter this? Is this his actual plan or is it a mind trick to cause me to prepare unnecessarily? Players sometimes have seconds to decide whether to defend or counterattack before both options become invalid, leading to inevitable defeat.

     College courses in Starcraft train students to make these kinds of decisions under high stress conditions and to thoroughly evaluate what went right or wrong. Moreover, these skills, which are traditionally learned through trial-and-error in real life, can be learned in a game where mistakes do not mean the end of a career (unless said career is in professional gaming).

     Life skills aside, games are now as powerful at communicating messages as literature has. In Portal, a supercomputer called GladOS disguises itself as a benevolent administrator testing a newly developed portal gun. Players soon learn, however, that in order to survive, they will have to question what they are told. Another award winning game called Braid explores the possibilities of a world where every mistake is reversible, but demonstrates in the finale that the mistakes in the foundation of a person’s mindset cannot be fixed even when time can be reversed. Because video games involve close interaction with characters, sometimes from a first person perspective, they are perhaps even more effective than literature at sparking thought on such philosophical questions. Our elders often warn us that video games are dangerous and addictive. For many games this is true, but doesn’t reading novels like Twilight waste just as much time? Most of America has yet to embrace video games as a positive addition to academia, but as our generation, one that grew up amidst Nintendo and Xbox, takes the torch, this new and immersive form of entertainment will undoubtedly join books and film as a media for learning.

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