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One Class, One Day: Playing Games

CAS lecturer uses video games to develop effective prose

| From BU Today | By Caleb Daniloff

Jeremy Bushnell, a lecturer in the CAS Writing Program and a game developer, has created a course that, in part, uses video games to teach writing skills. Photos by Vernon Doucette

When Alexandra Perez saw that Jeremy Bushnell’s class assignments were structured like missions in a video game—levels of increasing difficulty, the unlocking of special achievement points—she knew she’d picked the right writing course.

“The other classes were just not calling out to me,” says avid gamer Perez (CAS’13). “A writing class on The Whale? Not for me. Video games, on the other hand, are very fun.”

This is the second year that Bushnell, a lecturer in the College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program and a game developer, has taught WR150: Playing Games: What People Talk about When They Talk about Video Games, a writing course centered around the study of, well, games—whether they unfold on boards, consoles, cell phones, or online with multiple players. Supplemental “texts” for the class have been known to include “Assassins Creed,” “Left 4 Dead,” and “Metal Gear Solid.” Bushnell asks students to play at least one game observantly for each paper, so treating the writing tasks in like terms only made sense, he says.

“My course has a set of assignments, each a more challenging variation on the one that came before, so it seemed valid to use language that my students intuitively grasp.”

Under Bushnell’s guidance, the undergrads learn to analyze game functions and the sources of player reactions, from excitement and fear to amusement and pleasure—even addiction. They’re also pressed to engage, on paper, in the academic dialogue about gaming and to “try to position themselves in that dialogue,” he says.

The class of 15 students gathers on the second floor of Mugar Memorial Library. At a recent meeting, Bushnell sits on a desk, tucks a strand of loose hair behind his ear, and unbuttons the cuffs of his black shirt. A piano has been set against the wall. Outside the tall window, trees sway over Comm Ave and rain lashes the pane. There are few empty seats.

The class is wrapping up group presentations—on topics such as how game rules and moral rules relate, different types of player personalities, including those menacing trolls, and the social interactions of gamers during and between rounds of play. Sanchit Bhatia (ENG’11) stands at the blackboard talking about metagaming, or the relationship of a game to the world beyond its playing space. The addictive Facebook pastime Farmville, which boasts tens of millions of players, he says, is much more than a simple farming game.

“Farmville is popular because it entangles users in social obligations,” Bhatia says. “When users log onto Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each other’s farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free. They bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity.”

As the founder of the gaming company Dystopian Holdings, Bushnell has tapped some of his students to test his games, with several listed in the credits. His latest creation is a dark, satirical table-top game called “Inevitable,” “set in a slapstick, dystopian future.” It’s been getting good buzz since its release last fall, including a shout-out from the Gawker website io9.com. One of those student testers, Sean Catalfamo (CAS’11), whose go-to game is “World of Warcraft,” says despite the age difference, he sees Bushnell as a peer.

“He's a young, nerdy gamer who happens to teach a writing course here at BU,” he says. “I can relate to him and have more informal discussions with him than I can with my other professors.”

In his spare time, Bushnell enjoys “strange” movies and exploring abandoned buildings. A while back, he started an unusual record label that produces drone, noise, and electroacoustic and psychedelic music. In 2001, supported by a grant from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Bushnell began writing an online serialized novel called Imaginary Year, which documented in real time the lives of a group of fictional city-dwellers over four years.

“Despite the stereotype of the antisocial, lazy kid sitting at home playing games all day, I think gamers are actually quite immersed in society,” Perez says. “Gaming is something everyone does, one way or another. It’s sort of like an escape from reality, yet at the same time it’s not really that far from it.”

Perez is one of only two women in the class. Despite the lopsided representation, she says the industry is attracting a growing number of females and more games are being designed by women. She logs three to four hours per school day on games, mostly on her computer, but when the weekend rolls around, she’s married to her PS3 and Xbox 360.

“About 40 percent of gamers are women,” she says. “Many of the articles and resources that we’ve had to use for this class have been written by women prominent in the video game industry. The industry is not so male-dominated anymore. People just haven’t caught on to that yet.”

As for polishing their prose skills, Bushnell’s students say putting words down on paper about a passion has made the writing process easier to grasp. Some draw parallels between the page and the video screen.

“The structure of any well-crafted game is similar to that of any well-written book,” Catalfamo says. “You need a proper introduction, character background and development, and a story that keeps the player involved. A great video game will immerse the player within its world, just as a good book should.”

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