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One Class, One Day: Playing Games

CAS lecturer uses video games to develop effective prose


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

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

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.

Photo by Vernon Doucette  for Boston University Photography.

Photo by Vernon Doucette for Boston University Photography.

“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 tabletop 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.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


17 Comments on One Class, One Day: Playing Games

  • Anonymous on 04.21.2011 at 9:56 am

    One thing....

    I just really really dislike how hard it is to get into this class…..it’s too late now, as I’ve already almost finished my WR150…..

  • Anonymous on 04.21.2011 at 10:05 pm

    jst want to point out there is a reason why 15/20 kids in this class are jrs and srs..take this later in ur years at BU if u want a fun wr class

  • BS on 04.25.2011 at 9:47 pm

    "Scorn delights and live laborious days?"

    I’m sure these students will learn more about writing by playing video games than they would by reading Plato or Shakespeare or Burke. And playing “World of Warcraft” sounds far more intellectually worthwhile than, say, studying the French Revolution or Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or Picasso’s “Guernica.” Thank goodness BU has done away with “Learning, Virtue, Piety,” and embraced “Fun, Games, Informality” as the purpose of higher education.

  • Anonymous on 04.27.2011 at 12:11 am


    Do I detect a hint of jealousy in the comment below? Maybe I’m confusing it with simply the inability to be open minded about what should or shouldn’t be taught in a college class. It’s a lower level writing class that is not intended for majors or students really interested in English.

    When cast members of the Jersey Shore are delivering commencement speeches, bring out the hate. Otherwise, perhaps you should reconsider damning the University over the content of one class.

  • Antoine on 04.28.2011 at 4:08 pm

    To the "Scorn delights" poster

    Please Google “Extra Credits” and his lecture series of Video Games and art. Video games can be a medium as deep as any form of literature or cinema. I believe that in the future years as cost and ease decreases as well as the increasing flexiblity of video games to depict actual environments, we will see increasing number of games that explore subjects as creative as Shakespeare, as thoughtful as Plato, and as insightful as Tolstoy.

    What keeps games from being that level (though some have started to come out with the past few years) is the technology didn’t allow us to pursue it (and the subsequent first 25 years as a medium only for children whereas movies, didn’t have that handicap that required more time to depict the world in on a few bits and began only as a toy). But are reaching that point that the technology can pursue it and able to pursue it without such a tangent need to delve into only coding.

  • Andy on 05.04.2011 at 2:41 pm

    To the close-minded one.

    I’d like to respond to the “Scorn delights and live laborious days?” poster.

    I actually took this class, and I DID learn more from that class than I ever did with Shakespeare. Videogames can be very, very similar to a play. Except there are even MORE elements, since the user interacts with the play. While I’m not saying that Shakespeare is pointless, it is highly irrelevant nowadays. It is simply outdated.

    You gave the example “World of Warcraft”. I’ve learned more about how society works from playing that game and analyzing it then I ever did from reading Shakespeare or other related work. Why? The game is relevant and current. The language is modern (in fact, the game actually created a huge subculture and a large amount of new language). And you play with other, real people in this world.

    I remember some researchers analyzing how a virtual plague spread through the game, and how they could study how infectious diseases could spread given some parameters set by the game. Much of it related to the psychology of human panic.

    I believe I remember Prof. Bushnell said once in class that videogames are the modern version of Shakespearean plays and older movies/TV shows. I now see how right he is. We’ve gone from a static form of entertainment of a presentation/play to a dynamic interaction that involves the user. The only advancement I can see now is a videogame that changes (I mean as in the source code changing itself) as the user interacts with it.

    Don’t think of videogames as a kid’s form of entertainment, but of the next step in entertainment. 500 years from now World of Warcraft will be studied the way Shakespeare or Tolstoy is now.

  • Anonymous on 05.14.2011 at 6:34 am

    To the "To the close-minded one" poster of 5/04

    Now I was who posted on 4/28 who spoke in your defense against that poster. And while I pretty sure you’ll never read this at this point, I have to state that I cannot stand by and agree that Shakespeare is highly irrelevant. Even worse, to state that World of Warcraft is equal to Shakespeare is insulting both to the potential of gaming as an art medium and to Shakespeare.

    Gaming have just recently broach the threshold where it can start to push storytelling and interaction in more meaningful way. I hate to cite this naysayer, but one man made a great erudite point. Rodger Egbert in his infamous article “Video games can never be art” cited the primitive film Le Voyage dans la Lune released in 1902 as an example of how even a film that primitive still show more imagination. I can’t agree with him that video games can never be an art (and he did pulled back from that), but he’s correct that games have started to nip at the level of imagination and artistry that the 1902 film in taking advantage of the medium.

    Finally, your points that back your premise is even more infuriating.

    First, using more modern language doesn’t equal a superior work. That’s like saying The Last Airbender is better than The Godfather because it is 20 years younger with 20 years of language evolution. Even with 2000 years, it is the content, not the words that matter.

    Second, your point of how World of Warcraft created new language and subcultures does not subtract at all classical works. Do you know how much Shakespeare influenced modern English? Did you know that he personally coined 1,700 words and countless phrases we use that don’t realize? You vastly underestimate his influence versus WoW.

    Third your citation of how WoW uses real people is EVEN MORE INFURIATING. I could first point to the large number of parodies of how people behave in WoW that cast doubt how on much one can learn as they gank you… But I think I will focus that your statement indirectly attacks games that doesn’t use multi-player and focus on narrative. Your statement dismisses games that use other techniques to advance the medium. Way to attack your own cause.

    So in short, the reason you learned more from Video Games than Shakespeare is because you never gave it real interest to actually understand it. Not because it is out of date and irrelevant. Shakespeare and any other work contains PLENTY of insightful ideas we can learn directly from the story or indirectly from analysis of particular works.

    Now I apologize that I have to rip you a new one for we are in alliance that games can be art. But I cannot stand to read your counter-argument and find that it is so poorly argued. All forms of art have its place. Games is the new form that will join its ranks in the future. With enough time, we will have game designers that will rank up with greats of all art forms including people such as Shakespeare, Picasso, Keats, and Hitchcock. Also, there still much more evolving to do. Do you think we are really done yet? There’s still much more.*

    *I also want to note as a CS major that your idea of a game rewriting source code is naive to say the least, but that’s a separate thing to write about.

  • Rationalist on 08.04.2011 at 9:02 am

    Addressed to "Scorn Delights"

    Gaming isn’t a medium comparable to Plato or Tolstoy? Ever play Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto IV, or even Call of Duty 4? You haven’t??? I rest my case…

  • Anonymous on 08.04.2011 at 5:06 pm

    There should be a 'Like' feature!

    Dear BU Today, please include a like/thumbs up feature for comments. I would’ve loved to like this comment:
    “To the “To the close-minded one” poster of 5/04″

  • Anonymous on 08.06.2011 at 2:53 pm

    I think games are beneficial to students. A successful game, for example, World of Warcraft, includes a completed story background and interesting structure which is so important for students to give some ideas to improve their writing skills.

  • Aizhou Liu on 08.07.2011 at 3:12 pm

    One Class, One Day: Playing Games

    An Interesting article! Although I am a girl who seldom plays video game as they are too difficult fir me, I agree that the video game could be one of good sources to inspire students’ interests, attention and even passion on the things what they learn at the class.

  • Anonymous on 08.07.2011 at 7:38 pm

    Teaching and learning are not only to get knowledge and information from books and professors, but to try to make use of some ways in which students can grasp points more easily. Video games include some similar structures as writing, and games can better inspire students to focus with their passion, creation and intelligence. In this successful case, we can see that this kind of education is highly popularized and accepted in BU. And of course, students can both learn more and feel free when they are talking to their professor.

  • Anonymous on 08.07.2011 at 9:19 pm

    I agree some of that.. It would be fun and intersting for students who have studied only in books. It also might encourage students to concentrate on their study more easily. But, there are some questions.. Can students really learn about society or personality of gamers or social interactions through game?? Also, can students really apply those things that learned by game in real life?? i don’t think so.

  • Anonymous on 08.07.2011 at 10:34 pm

    teach students according to their aptitude

    I am really into this kind of teaching method. Although I am a girl, I like playing games a lot, especially the World of Warcraft. I played the map called ZhenSanguoWushuang” for almost two years. And from this game, I learned many things about related history. So in my opinion, this teaching method combined writing courses with games will work effectively. By playing PC games, we can acquire knowledge as well as enjoy ourselves, why not?

  • Zachary Bos on 04.13.2012 at 10:59 am

    True: A useful college writing course may be developed around any topic of study, including video games.
    False: The study of video games in a college writing course is an equivalent substitute for the study of Shakespeare.

    True: The medium of video gaming has the potential to contain works as substantial and lasting as those in other media like literature and cinema.
    False: The medium of video gaming has already issued works as substantial and lasting as those in other media like literature and cinema.

    True: A college student may argue, without any hint of self-awareness or intellectual humility, that “while the study of Shakespeare is not pointless, it is irrelevant nowadays, and simply outdated”.
    False: A college student may argue persuasively, without any hint of self-awareness or intellectual humility, that “while the study of Shakespeare is not pointless, it is irrelevant nowadays, and simply outdated”.

    True: 500 years from now World of Warcraft may be studied the way Shakespeare or Tolstoy is now.
    False: We need not be concerned that the trends seems to indicate that 500 years from now World of Warcraft will be studied the way Shakespeare or Tolstoy is now.

    True: The medium of gaming is comparable to Plato or Tolstoy.
    False: When compared to Tolstoy and Plato, Bioshock and GTAIV look like works of substance.

  • To the haters on 05.23.2012 at 11:28 am


  • Alonso on 06.10.2012 at 3:31 pm

    Yeap, youa are right

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