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Students Learn Philosophy of Video Game Design in New Honors Course

Video game class
Students watch and discuss a trailer for the game The Long Dark.
SALISBURY, MD---For many, the phrase “video game” may conjure images of dot-gobbling yellow circles, mushroom-stomping plumbers or odd-shaped birds being flung into support beams of dubious construction as the score increases.

But what if there was no score? No set goal? No adversary (or “boss,” in gamer terms) to defeat? Such games exist, and Dr. Timothy Stock of Salisbury University’s Philosophy Department is bringing them to the forefront in a new experimental course taught through SU’s Bellavance Honors Program.

In the class, Stock, who has worked on custom software design teams, discusses the philosophy of art in socially responsible video game design with 22 students. Throughout the semester, they will study four independently created games, debating such topics as how art and simulation overlap in the gaming world and whether a game really has meaning if it can’t be “won” in a traditional sense.

The latter was a question many gamers collectively asked upon the 2013 release of Twisted Tree Games’ Proteus, one of the titles featured in the course. Many could not see the point of the game, during which players explore a virtual island with sound and visual clues, but no score.

“The reaction to it was crazy. Gamers just lost their minds. I thought it was brilliant,” said Stock, adding that he plays it with his two children, ages 2 and 5, who also enjoy it.

Other games studied in the class include Hinterland’s The Long Dark, Tale of Tales’ Sunset and 11 bit studios’ This War of Mine.

In The Long Dark, players assume the role of a crash-landed pilot struggling to survive the frigid Canadian wilderness after a global disaster. In Sunset, they take on the role of a housekeeper working in a fictional South American country in the midst of a civil war in the 1970s. In This War of Mine, they play as civilians in a war-torn country, scavenging and avoiding snipers while attempting to survive until a ceasefire is called.

While these games are played more for entertainment value, Stock noted that some games have real-world implications. Bandit’s Shark Showdown, created in conjunction with neuroscientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, helps alleviate the monotony — and sometimes pain — of physical and cognitive therapy in stroke victims as they use hand motions to help an on-screen dolphin navigate its way through shark-infested waters.

“People will tolerate vastly longer hours of physiotherapy in a simulated environment,” said Stock. “They’re concentrating on the game and having fun.”

While part of the course focuses on the games’ play and aesthetics, Stock also wants his students to put into practice what they learn from those discussions. Half of the classroom time is devoted to student-comprised teams charged with developing their own game design documents by the end of the semester.

“The great thing about these games is that a lot of times they come from two people who just sit down and decide to make them,” he said. “It really speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Developers of the games studied in the class — some from as far away as Europe — are corresponding with the teams, answering questions and providing feedback via email, Stock said. In contacting the developers, he learned some of them also studied the philosophy of the games they were interested in creating before moving to the design phase.

Teams meet weekly with Stock, who monitors their progress as the games’ “producer.” By the end of the course, students should have all the tools they need to approach potential investors or market their games on crowdfunding websites should they decide to move forward with making their creations a reality.

Will any of these games end up as the next Pac-Man? Probably not. But that’s not the point. Stock would much rather see one of his students create the next Proteus instead.

What Students Are Saying

For most of the students, designing video games is a world away from their normal class work. At the same time, many are finding an unlikely familiarity among their assignments — and not from spending too many hours playing Super Mario Bros.

“It’s really making my degree come together,” said Maggie McBain, a junior philosophy major from Howell, MI. While discussing the philosophy behind some of the games being studied, she is learning more about philosophers touched on in classes she took during her first two years at SU. Most of them, she admitted, probably never guessed their philosophies would be applied to video games. But that’s the point — while philosophers historically have assessed traditional art, students in Stock’s class are taking that discussion to a new level in the digital age.

It’s an approach sophomore Cecelia Reif of Aberdeen, MD, can appreciate. An art minor, she is used to discussing art history and culture in other classes, but in this one, she is able to consider how similar conventions can be applied to non-traditional art. As a psychology major, she also enjoys seeing the reactions — both conscious and subconscious — that her classmates have toward the games.

“We’re definitely learning a big psychological lesson,” said McBain, noting she had come to sympathize with some of the characters from This War of Mine.

Meanwhile, gamers in the class, like sophomore psychology major Marcus Sowell of Frederick, MD, are learning to look at the medium in a different light. Rather than focusing solely on blasting zombies or tearing through virtual war zones during his gameplay outside of the class, he is starting to consider the visuals, backgrounds and thought that went into designing those games.

“It makes me appreciate their aesthetics,” he said.

During the course, students deconstruct the games they are studying in preparation to use that information to design their own, a concept junior elementary education major Alaina Gostomski called “a cool parallel.”

Maddy Joyner, a senior biology major from Chestertown, MD, agreed, adding that learning about the philosophy that went into some of the games’ creation has been transformative: “It’s giving me a whole new outlook. It’s taking something I thought was really simple and making it really complex.”

Some of the lessons learned through the process aren’t necessarily about the games themselves. Gostomski admitted that the class didn’t really have much to do with her major. But as a project leader of one of the four groups, she is learning about teamwork and gaining leadership skills she predicted will come in handy during her teaching career.

Computer science major Paul Fischer of Middle River, MD, hopes the class will help him in his career, as well. Of course, his path will be a little more direct: He hopes to become a video game designer.

“I like to think about why games are popular because I want to make popular games,” he said, noting that the class gave him the opportunity to better understand what elements have meaning to people who play video games — from the casual iPhone user to hardcore gamers like Sowell.

While the students come from diverse areas of study, they all agreed on at least one thing, summed up by Joyner: “It’s different than any class I’ve ever taken.”

Reif added: “And we get to play video games.”

A Template for Honors Courses

The collaborative nature of the student teams — relying on diverse backgrounds in philosophy, art, computer science and more — made it a natural course to approach the Honors Program about, Stock said.

Dr. James Buss, director of the Bellavance Honors Program, agreed. He understood that while such a class may not have fit neatly within any of those subjects, a cross-section of majors from each of them would make the course possible.

“He went student by student and curated the class,” said Stock.

While the requirements for the course were slightly unique in that respect, Buss said he hoped classes that might not fit neatly within the established curriculum of a major become the norm for the program, which soon will transform into a new Honors College. Faculty interaction plays a key role in those types of courses, he added.

“This is basically what we want to do in the Honors Program — provide projects for students and faculty to work on together,” he said. “Honors is an incubator for creativity on campus. It’s kind of a sandbox for faculty who have ideas for these types of courses.”

Those ideas can lead to others. He said Stock was already considering follow-up courses should this experimental class prove successful, including a class in video game programming. (Fischer said he was ready to sign up if it comes to fruition.)

Buss hopes some of the courses whose roots are developed in the Honors Program eventually move out of the “sandbox,” becoming part of SU’s mainstream course offerings. His philosophy: The more disciplines that students interact with academically and the more perspectives they are exposed to, the more well rounded they will become.

“That’s what Honors is all about,” he said.

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