Local Nerd’s Hot Take: Freshman Studies’ missing ingredient

Here at Lawrence, practically all of us share the experience of Freshman Studies and have various memories and opinions about the works we looked at, fond or otherwise. Some of these works were simply novels, while others were plays, operas, movies, graphic novels and even paintings. But one creative medium that has not entered the canon of Freshman Studies is that of video games. And so, you guessed it: in this article, I will be arguing why the Freshman Studies Committee should consider including a video game in the Freshman Studies curriculum within the next few years. 

Now, I know what you are thinking: “Why would a medium that includes something like Minecraft or Fortnite even be considered for Freshman Studies?” If you are not any kind of video game fan, then this would indeed seem like a valid question. Video games are known for being the pipeline to excitement that cannot be accessed in the real world, like racing Ferraris on the streets of L.A., fighting a dragon in a fantasy locale or jumping on mushroom creatures to save a princess. However, there is a notable selection of video games that go beyond the basic entertainment factor and into more creative territory. In fact, these games have existed for some time now, but have often been ignored by the spotlight. Nowadays, be it because of the rise of social media or a change in culture, games with a greater creative focus are gaining more attention and are thus being produced more frequently. This results in an ample selection of games that would provide a class of freshmen much to analyze and discuss.

But what exactly constitutes a “game with a creative focus?” Well, as I have already discussed, it is certainly true that some games function as base entertainment first and foremost; think “Call of Duty.” These games may have creative elements and full credit goes to the people in the industry who put so much time and effort into that work, but overall, such games are meant to be enjoyed for the dopamine rush playing them provides. On the other hand, some games put a greater focus on telling a story, exploring a theme, experimenting with the medium, causing an emotional response, creating an artistic experience and so on. This is not to say that every creatively-designed game aims to achieve all of these goals — a conscious and concerted effort to achieve any such goal is evidence of creative design. 

And so, many forms of artistic interactive media result from this kind of creativity! My personal favorite game, “The Last of Us,” is perhaps more traditional in its creativity, as its focus is its incredible story about love and loss, which it develops through incredible motion-capture cut scenes and meaningful dialogue. On the other hand, there are more artistic games like “The Unfinished Swan” and “Journey,” the former of which has the player throwing black paint at their surroundings to make sense of the white world around them, and the latter of which makes the player traverse a beautiful desert environment with no verbal direction and only the ability to jump. 

Furthermore, there is a subset of these games focused just on the experience of playing the game rather than reaching some kind of goal. If you search for gameplay in the game “Proteus,” you will find videos of pixelated natural environments that offer little interaction and no clear meaning, because the game is meant to be enjoyed for its peace and simplicity. You may have noticed that earlier I used the term “interactive media,” and this is where that comes in: some more artistic and experimental games bring into question what exactly constitutes a video game and what those creations can be classified as if not as games. Sounds like a good discussion for Freshman Studies, if you ask me. 

Nevertheless, the question still remains of how exactly students can engage with a video game in the same way that one engages with a book like “The Republic.” Well, as you can imagine, based on what you have just read, analysis of a game depends on the game itself, but there are some general topics that can be explored meaningfully. What the creators of the art form were trying to express is a question that can be applied to any Freshman Studies work, and that remains true here. For instance, what themes might the creators have been trying to explore in the game’s events? How do the visual, audio and other sensory design decisions affect the experience? Moreover, every game has an element of interactivity to it, which in itself can drive a multitude of discussions. How does the game introduce the player to the game’s mechanics? When does the game make the player make decisions and when does the game trigger its own events? This is by no means the full extent of what can be discussed about a video game, but these four questions alone applied to the right game could easily fill 70 minutes of class time. 

While I am by no means a professor — for now I am happy with getting just a bachelor’s degree in four months, thank you — let alone a professor of Freshman Studies, it is a fact that there are plenty of video games available that can provide a future Freshman Studies curriculum with a valuable asset. Thus, I encourage you, Freshman Studies Committee — do some research on video games. Play one that strikes your fancy. Expand your horizons. I hear it is an essential part of a liberal arts education. 

Food for thought.