All Work and No Play

February 12, 2003

A Baylor seminar in which students play video games as part of their research? What is the world coming to? Cyberspace would be one answer. The fact is, the video game industry has morphed into a powerful form of mass communication, and professors in Baylor's communication studies department believe trying to understand this phenomenon is time well-spent for a new generation of media specialists.
The video game industry is influential, productive and highly lucrative. For example, two years ago, the industry generated more than 220,000 jobs and, as of 2002, had raked in more than $10 billion dollars in revenue, according to surveys conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. Approximately 145 million Americans turn to games such as "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" for a little rest and relaxation, the Hart surveys report. Although most people younger than 30 have no problem accepting this new form of media entertainment, it often gets a bad rap from the general public. Critics blame video games for everything from teen violence to brain drain to carpal tunnel syndrome. 
In a three-credit-hour seminar titled "The Impact of the Video Game Industry," offered for the first time at Baylor last fall, Dr. Corey Carbonara, professor of communication studies, and Dr. Michael Korpi, chair of communication studies, are leading students on a quest to explore messages, conduct research and understand how and why video games have become such a pervasive form of mass communication. As they study these pixilated puzzles, students draw corresponding conclusions about the impact of the games on education, culture and society, Dr. Carbonara says.

A contextual view

"Like other forms of entertainment and information, there are many issues and impacts associated with video games," Dr. Carbonara says. "These are a result of several factors that affect the video game industry and act as drivers that need to be addressed. We are approaching the study of the industry by taking a contextual viewpoint looking at the social, cultural, regulatory, political and technological influences in order to truly analyze this impact on our world today."
In addition to exploring the influence of video games, the seminar, which in the fall had 18 students, looks at the technology that enables the industry to proliferate. 
"All the mass media are based on technologies, but technologies change. When sound came into movies, things changed. That's always the case," Dr. Korpi says. "What's really interesting about video games is that the technology changes at such a remarkable pace. We've never had a communication medium where right at the core, the medium changes so quickly."
The class attracts undergraduate and graduate-level students in programs such as computer science, sociology, business and communication studies, Dr. Carbonara says. It can help prepare students for careers as multimedia producers, marketing executives, video game designers and media analysts. The seminar also can count toward an elective for nonmajors or toward a bachelor's or master's degree in communication studies, he says.

Team environment
Simulating the working environment of the video game industry, the class combines undergraduate and graduate students in a team environment to write papers on subjects such as content creation or political and regulatory issues. They gather data, engage in critical research analysis and conduct the necessary field research by playing games such as "State of Emergency," "Final Fantasy X," "Kingdom Hearts" and "The Sims." 
The class also explores the educational component of the games. "We take a very sophisticated look at the role of game theory and game play and the role of play or discovery in a new educational setting," Dr. Korpi says.

Realistic simulations

The effectiveness of video games for instructional purposes already has been illustrated by the military, which uses the technology to train marksmen and tank drivers, Dr. Carbonara says. "The military recognized that those young people coming into the armed forces have spent time playing tank video games, and that phenomenon started to turn the light bulbs on. This translated into very sophisticated simulations created by the military that really have made our forces top-notch in the world," he says.
For those who question the value of games such as "Pokemon" or "Metal Gear Solid," keep in mind that video games have significantly more to offer than an opportunity to pump up thumb muscles, according to a 2002 consumer survey by The Interactive Digital Software Association. For instance, 71.4 percent of individuals play for the challenge (mental stimulation), 18.9 percent play to keep up with technology and 42.4 percent enjoy the social interaction. 
"Video games are a mass market entertainment," Dr. Carbonara says. "Core users have aged from teenagers to adults. Millions of people are joining the side of casual video game playing." 
Blake Thomas, a second-semester graduate student in communication studies, says he and his friends frequently play video football games because the time together promotes fellowship. "It's fun to watch people, talk to your friends, engage in that competition. Playing has become a social event in the same way as watching TV or going to the movies," Thomas says. 
There's also the fantasy element of the games that allows players to live vicariously through the characters, which Thomas and his friends enjoy. It allows the player to "live out a fantasy you wouldn't do in real life but for some reason are curious about," he says.

Communicative act

The ability to engage the participant in role-playing can be as powerful as the effect of good literature, Thomas says. "As more games place players in control of characters that have vast worlds to explore and various choices to make, it will become clearer that letting players view the world from the perspective of that character can be just as strong a communicative act as a book that tells readers a story through the eyes of the main character," he says.
Thomas also says he's found that some video games stimulate ethical problem-solving skills on social and political levels. In one game, the main character has just been released from jail and constantly must choose missions that are either "good" or "evil," with subsequent consequences, he says. 
But make no mistake about it -- for most, playing is about entertainment. Even though great graphics are important, "no amount of visual trickery is going to make up for a game that's not fun," Thomas says. 
With more strategy-based, competitive and educational titles on the market, video games now appeal to a wider segment of the population. Approximately 38 percent of frequent PC game players are female, and 40 percent of all players are 36 years of age or older, the IDSA survey reports. In fact, the number of gamers in the United States is so high that video games and equipment no longer are a niche market, Dr. Korpi says. "Gaming is already a bigger market than movies in terms of dollars," he says. 
With their widespread influence, video games aren't a communication tool educators can afford to ignore. Rather, they are "one of the most important explorations of the 21st century," Dr. Carbonara says.
"What is communication? What are the roles of game playing and simulation in relation to learning and the transfer of knowledge? And how do these elements relate within a video game domain? These are some of the questions we are postulating in our seminar," he says. "This focus allows us to begin to explore the impact of a new type of world -- one that has different characteristics from the world of real atoms -- one called a cyberworld."

Kline is a freelance writer who lives in Frisco, Texas.