Understanding Video Games: Interview with Professor Sean Gouglas

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Nour Aoude, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

The most economically important cultural medium out there today, a cultural touchstone for two generations of Canadians, and a fantastic medium for expression, entertainment and social commentary.

This is how Professor Sean Gouglas described video games in his interview with the Federation.

Gouglas is Director of the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Alberta, and Associate Professor in the Humanities Computing Program and the Department of History & Classics. He has been playing video games all his life, and how now turned them into the object of his university research and teaching.  Gouglas is currently offering a massive open online course, or MOOC, on Coursera called Understanding Video Games.

Much of his research is made possible by the GRAND NCE, a federal funding project that brings together researchers from 23 universities across Canada. GRAND stands for Graphics, Animation, and New Media and it makes collaboration across the Arts and Sciences not only possible, but practical and encouraged.

When I signed up for Understanding Video Games in September, it was largely out of my own positive experience with video games growing up. Little did I expect that the 11-week MOOC would present challenging material that touches on the definition of games and play, game mechanics, storytelling, sex, violence, race, and gaming culture. I suspect that, like myself, a large number of students were drawn to the course out of love for video games, and have since come out with a deeper understanding of research methods and tools in the humanities and social sciences.

While it focuses on video games, the course content is highly interdisciplinary. This is no surprise considering that video game development requires input from computer programmers, creative writers, animators and musicians, to name just a few professionals. But the interdisciplinary approach of the course, according to Gouglas, builds on the deep and careful work of traditional HSS disciplines.

“Interdisciplinary studies allows us to bring the disciplinary expertise of a whole host of people and apply it to objects of study and to research questions that we think are interesting and important to Canadians, ” says Gouglas.

This approach can apply to any question, not just that of video games. Gouglas provides the example of climate change. An economist is bound to understand climate change differently from someone in Northern studies, and because no one discipline is able to fully confront this challenge on its own, collaboration is key. Gouglas believes that universities should be giving students meaningful opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary research groups and learn how to talk to people in other disciplines. Students who have had this experience will be at an advantage when it comes to solving complex problems in their professional lives.

Professor Gouglas’ research represents a serious engagement of the humanities and social sciences with an object of massive popular appeal. In addition to casting an analytical and critical eye on this important cultural medium, it re-affirms the undiminished value of the humanities and social sciences in contributing to important debates in our society. 

Listen to the full interview with Professor Sean Gouglas.

Image: Halo 3: Open Fire! by Brian. Some rights reserved (CC BY 2.0)




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