computer screen with gaming system

Game Time: UTM will begin offering a minor in game studies this fall

John Lorinc

Most of today’s students play video games. Why not study them, too?

At the beginning of each course, Larry Switzky asks students in his undergraduate gaming studies class to share a brief gaming experience that “moved” them.

“There are no two accounts that are entirely alike,” says the associate professor of English and drama at U of T Mississauga. “Some people talk about playing games since they were kids, some people talk about picking up games in high school. Gaming got a lot of people through the pandemic because it was a form of being social or having purpose in a meaningful activity when a lot of students felt devoid of purpose, or they didn’t have any connection to their peers because they had to be locked away in their homes.”

I turn the mini-assignment around on him: what was a gaming experience that moved him? After thinking for a moment, he mentions an interactive text-based game he played when he was a kid, called Planetfall. It featured a robot companion named Floyd who was childlike, funny and often outrageous. But the game’s logic drove toward a difficult eventuality: “At a certain point, Floyd volunteers to die, and I remember being devastated by this as a kid,” he says. “I had to step away for a while and think about whether I wanted to continue.”

Reflecting on those conflicted childhood feelings, Switzky observes that he became deeply engaged with what he admits was a technologically rudimentary game. The experience struck a nerve in a way that other media – such as books and TV – didn’t.

His oblique and insightful prompt to his students opens the door to a discipline that has taken off in the past 20 years. Game studies is part of a much larger and older scholarly exploration of the vitally important role of play in human life. With its more contemporary focus on digital and video, game studies touches on a wide range of fields – from drama and literature to sociology, business, psychology, design and history.

The global gaming industry is valued at more than $200 billion a year, dwarfing both the book and film industries. Today’s students are just as likely to have a favourite game as they are a book or movie. Yet scholars who study gaming have – at least in the past – found themselves forced to defend the discipline in ways that their colleagues in literature or cinema studies do not. Siobhan O’Flynn, a longtime instructor of video games at UTM, likes to flip the question and ask, “Why aren’t we studying them?”

To that end, UTM will begin offering a minor in game studies this fall, marking the evolution of this field of study from a loose collection of design and analysis courses into a more coherent program. Students seeking to graduate with the minor will be asked to think critically and analytically about the games they study and to create a portfolio of games as a culminating exercise.

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