Pac-Man may be just a mouth, but he’s got an insatiable hunger and that alone means he has a story to tell, says U of T Mississauga English professor Lawrence Switzky. He spoke recently with U of T Magazine about a new course he’s teaching on video games and why he sees a place for Zelda and Mario in the canon next to Austen and Wilde.
My Grade 11 English teacher was a traditionalist who taught Shakespeare and grammar. He would have been appalled at the idea of video games infiltrating English class. What’s your rationale for including them?
Video games are in a similar position to us as cinema was to people in the early 20th century: they’re a new art form. People are sometimes suspicious of video games for this reason, but it makes sense to study them now as we would film or fiction.
As with movies and books, I’m sure there are some video games that are more interesting to talk about than others. How do you choose?
The most interesting games ask players to make an emotional investment. Sometimes that involves having a complicated relationship with a game character. Sometimes it means confronting a complex subject. The first game we play is Every Day the Same Dream. The game simulates going to work and experiencing little variety or satisfaction in your job. Then it presents you with small alternatives. The game asks you if these variations to your everyday routine are enough, or if you want more. You have to decide if you want to change the whole system – or if you can find satisfaction in the existing structure.
Are your students learning the same skills they’d learn in a typical literature class, or different ones?
I hope a mix of both. We talk about how games engage in characterization, and how our encounters with game characters differ from how we experience literary characters. We often talk about the mechanics of a game – the rules that govern a game and the constraints on you as a player. We talk about how different mechanics generate different story possibilities. What I hope comes out of this is that by undertaking the comparison in a sustained and rigorous way, you come to know something about literature as well as something about games that you wouldn’t have known before.
Video games are often criticized for violence. Does the class explore this?
We discuss a report by the American Psychological Association about the influence of video game violence on children. We also talk about why a player’s role so often takes on violence. I show slides and talk about examples of games that have been censored or banned for their violence.
We also talk about gender and race in games. We talk about ethical gaming. Many games now ask players to make ethical decisions, such as to steal or not steal. Who gets to live and who dies. There are games about the Syrian refugee crisis. Games enable students to explore how to live in a complex and often unsteady moral universe. We have some very difficult and honest discussions about whether we think games can produce any kind of social change.
What place do video games hold in the lives of your students?
My students are enormously passionate and thoughtful about their gaming experiences. A lot of them talk about being moved by a moment when they were wrong about something in a game – such as thinking that a certain character was their friend, and then realizing the character was not their friend, or thinking that an action they performed was beneficial, and then finding out that it was actually injurious.
And the place of literature?
Many of my students are interested in literature but don’t know a lot about it yet. With video games, the students, if anything, know too much about them. But this allows me to say, “Let’s look at these works you’re so invested in, and think about them critically.” They always have opinions, and come to class ready to debate.
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