CentreTerm 2015: Dr. Harney’s class explores how history plays out in video games

Posted by Centre News in Academics, CentreTerm, History, News 14 Jan 2015

Harney CT15 PSThanks to CentreTerm’s flexibility and ingenuity, faculty at Centre College can design highly focused courses based on their own academic passions as well the interests of their students.

Forging the path toward a more sophisticated, scholarly understanding of video games as both art forms and texts, Assistant Professor of History John Harney (pictured above, right) has debuted a class this CentreTerm entitled History and Video Games, in which students not only consider video games from a historical perspective but also must create their own.

“Video games are a relatively young creative medium, and there has been a huge amount of advancement in the capability of games to tell compelling stories,” explains Harney. “Though video game criticism has not yet reached a mature level, this class is intended to be an introduction to students to think about the games they play in a more intellectual way. It’s part of the growing conversation about video games as an important medium worthy of study.”

The primary focus of the course will be analyzing how video games tell history, looking closely at the deliberate decisions on the part of game developers regarding depictions of race, class, gender, religion and other social constructs.

According to Harney, video games serve as a starting point for discussions about approaches to studying history.

“In truth, it’s hard to say there is one ‘correct’ way to depict history, and at the undergraduate level, it is crucial to make students understand that history is about analysis and process—there is rarely a ‘right’ answer,” Harney says.

Students collaborate to design their own video game in Harney's History and Video Games course.

Students collaborate to design their own video game in Harney’s History and Video Games course.

Moreover, as video games gain legitimacy in the academic world and the gaming industry continues to expand, students recognize the importance of the formalized study of such an influential medium.

“We must consider if games are taking advantage of history to distract audiences or if games are using history in more productive ways,” notes Stefan Kowal ’15, who hopes to pursue a career in game development. “This conversation is critical for this new art form as it comes to maturity, and I am proud to say that audiences are becoming increasingly demanding of game developers. We’re tired of playing games as time-wasting amusements; we want substance in our games.”

“One of the things that separates the video game from other art forms is its inherent interactive nature,” adds Ryan Pratt ’17, who also has aspirations of working in game design. “Video games are able to provide the player with a unique, personalized perspective on historical settings that cannot be found in film, literature or other artistic mediums.”

Since this emphasis on the interactive is what sets video games apart, it seems only fitting that the highlight of the class is a research-based, collaborative project in which students design their own games. Harney has split the class into six development teams that must work closely together to choose a historical setting, develop a plot and, ultimately, implement a game or game demonstration using software such as RPG Maker and Stencyl.

“We have the opportunity to think like game designers and historians at the same time,” says Jami Brunner ’15, whose group is designing a game about an escape from a totalitarian country inspired by the situation in North Korea. “We aren’t just discussing methodology; we are putting it into practice.”

By the end of the term, Harney believes students will have become much more attuned to the deliberate choices involved in the creation of every video game.

“I want them to really think about these games in the future and to continue developing a more critical assessment of the games they play, to think about how these creative works interact with conversations we have in our society about historical themes and dynamics” he says. “Video games that present a historical setting or aspire to treat a historical theme participate in these conversations, and Centre students have the tools to evaluate the quality of that participation. We should be aware that video games have contexts and meanings. The idea that games are ‘just’ games makes no sense.”

Learn more about CentreTerm.

by Caitlan Cole