Thanks to Bryan Alexander for linking to this post by Michael Abbott about the addition this year of a video game — the inimitable Portal — to the text list of a first-year seminar course at Wabash College.  There’s not much more to the post itself than that, except that Abbott explains some of the details about how the committee decided on Portal (largely through his support apparently) and some of the logistical concerns they’re addressing in order to roll out a game for hundreds of students at once.

However.  Although I admit I don’t read tons of academic blogs, this is quite possible the most voluminous Comments thread I’ve ever seen.  And in it, the discussion ranges fairly widely and deeply, touching on questions of access, canon selection, the nature of art, and the value of games to a liberal education.

It is this last item that seems to have provoked the most intense discussion, and admittedly it’s really mostly one commenter who carries the flag for the “games have no place in liberal education” camp.  The ranks of those who oppose this view are far greater in the thread, but the discussion itself remains fairly civil, at least by internet comment thread standards.

At one point, the following is suggested:

Yes, I have a bit of a problem with the design of the course in general, but I believe the inclusion of a video game greatly exacerbates the problems, given both the state of video game development and the state of video game studies within academia. At best, this is muddled; at worst, glossing over the differences between video games and “traditional” cultural forms devalues both. Chess is a fantastic game. Chess has no part in a humanities course.

I have to admit this caught my eye, because I realized I had been focusing my own thinking about the value of Portal on its story — the relationship between GLADOS and the player, and what is revealed therein through the player’s progression through the game — instead of its game characteristics.  By contrast, though one could argue there is a simple, generalized story within chess connected to medieval warfare, for the most part it lacks a story.  So the question implicit in this comment about chess — “Does the study of game mechanics and design have a place in a humanities course?” — is a curious one to explore.

For me, the “humanities” describes that realm of academic endeavor in which we struggle to understand the complexities of the human condition.  Approaching it this way, I would argue that chess absolutely has a part in a humanities course.  First, we should be able to recognize that chess has found its way into so many aspects of our lives and history, in books, films, and daily life, that to deliberately leave it out of “the humanities” would be denying to acknowledge one of the most enduring leisure activities in the Western tradition.

But there I go turning my attention away from the game itself again.  What about actually learning to play the game of chess?  Its rules, well-known strategies, and practices?  This is likely harder to make a case for, as to do so requires that at some level you argue for the importance of play.  And play is, culturally, often seen as the opposite of the scholarly.  “Play is playful, scholarship is serious.”  “The search for knowledge is not a game.”

And yet play is a fundamental, originating form of human endeavor.  I haven’t read Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, but I gather arguing for this claim is a large part of his work there. (Correct me if I’m wrong, commenters.)  I wholeheartedly agree.  We can study literature by reading and analyzing it; we can study films by watching and analyzing them.  So why would we not extend that same rigor to the medium of games?