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Video Games and Human Values Initiative

1iliad Last March I was contacted by Roger Travis, who teaches Classics at the University of Connecticut, about a project he had in mind that would bring together scholars from various disciplines - as well as high school teachers, students, and the broader community of gamers - to create an online center for participatory learning about video games.

The premise was simple: video games engage us on multiple levels: culturally, rhetorically, pedagogically, and otherwise. The dynamics and the effects of these engagements are worthy of collaborative study. Roger's own work, for example, examines games' relationship to Homeric epic. From his "Living Epic" course description:

The Living Epic demonstrates that the most important aspects of video games are as old as the Iliad and the Odyssey, and just as potentially beneficial to society. Video gamers reawaken the ancient epic tradition of the Homeric bards, and learn about such essential cultural values as the nature of virtue itself, just as the ancient Greeks learned those values from their epics.

I happily accepted Roger's invitation, and we were quickly joined by Jeff Howard from the University of Texas at Austin and author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. Together, we outlined a set of goals for the project and constructed a preliminary proposal for funding. Since then, others have joined us as Fellows with expertise in literature, technology, drama, education, communication, and modern languages. Thanks mainly to Roger's tenacity and hard work, final proposals for support were submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the MacArthur Foundation.

All of this means we're now moving forward to create an online nexus for courses and scholarship to advance our understanding of how video games and their culture can constructively shape our values and enrich society. We believe a rigorous approach to considering these issues is necessary to properly account for the many ways games provoke us to consider the world and our places in it. Gamers may have a strong sense of this from first-hand experience; but our culture at large remains mostly unaware that games can possess and express this powerful dimension.

Building the infrastructure for such a center will take time, and we plan to roll it out in phases over the next two years. But to get things started, Roger will offer the Initiative's first two courses very soon: a two-week online non-credit course “Living Epic,” specifically aimed at elementary and secondary school teachers and parents (enrolling now!), and a semester-long for-credit course “Gaming Homer,” aimed at advanced undergraduates, to be offered this spring. I will offer a course on the art and history of video games (and possibly a version of my RPG course) in the summer and/or fall of '09.

As I said, we're still in the construction process, but thanks to Roger we have a dedicated Video Games and Human Values Initiative website, as well as a wiki with lots of useful background on the project. I'm delighted to be involved in this work and hope it will contribute in positive ways to the ongoing conversation about video games.