Kelsey Hontz

Author Kelsey Hontz posing with the YouTube star of her presentation. 

“Hello everybody, my name is Kelsey Hontz. I’m a junior here at NAU and my presentation is called ‘Markiplier and Me: Why We Watch Others Play Video Games Instead of Playing them Ourselves.’ Recently, I was looking for gaming stuff on YouTube…”

As I said those words on March 28, a familiar sense of anticipation and fear settled upon me. It was a sunny Saturday and my friends were out hiking. I was, however, at the podium of the large lecture hall in NAU’s Liberal Arts Building, speaking to a hodgepodge of a crowd about how video games affect our society.

It takes a strange combination of anxiety and certainty to stand in front of fellow students, faculty, parents, and elderly people with tiny, disruptive dogs as you talk about your favorite YouTube star who plays video games for a living.

For the last two years, the Interdisciplinary Writing program at NAU has taken the strange combination of those two elements and put on a symposium all about video games.

I have participated in this symposium both times. In 2014 I was a part of the first-ever video game class at NAU and we were assigned to participate in some way, so I gave a presentation about video game difficulty. I have learned that the experience is so much more than it sounds, that video games can teach us a lot, and that people from all walks of life will show up to hear about Assassin’s Creed and PewDiePie.

Dr. Nicole Pfannenstiel led the charge towards the symposium last year with her Language, Literacy and Bias (ENG 313W) class. Though the formal title might sound misleading, it was actually a course centered around video games and how they relate to literacy. During that ambitious spring semester, I and 18 other students were assigned homework of 40 hours of gameplay with a game genre we had never attempted before. We also had to bring in and discuss games, write a research paper relating to a literary topic within the class, and ultimately, either present or assist with the video game symposium.

Linguistics student Aisha Shelton has also presented at the symposium the past two years and was in the original 313W class. “Being part of the first video-game class at the symposium was just insane, in a good way,” she said. “I think a lot of us in that class were just generally surprised we were talking about video games, and that it was intensely academic.”

That much was certainly true. We frequently found ourselves reading 30-page articles with dense academic jargon which we were somehow tasked to connect to the scary game we played in class. Though sometimes we felt like guinea pigs, we were very academic guinea pigs.

“Being able to be the ‘beta testers’ for the symposium and the video games and literacy class was an experience that I'd basically wanted unknowingly for the entirety of my young life,” Shelton said. “It was a chance to talk about video games in a professional environment and show people that there's a growing place in academia for video game studies— and not talk about how it rots your brain.”

There was a lot of nervousness involved when it came time for this year’s symposium, not only on the part of the students who had no idea how many people they would be presenting in front of, but on the part of the coordinators of the event, including Dr. Pfannenstiel as well as the Interdisciplinary Writing community. Nobody had any idea if people would show up to the Liberal Arts building on a Saturday morning to hear students and faculty discuss an aspect of media that is sometimes written off as being nothing more than an easy way to numb minds and foster violent children.

But it was a rousing success. Approximately 120 people attended the symposium, including the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, the Provost of NAU, faculty not in the English department, lots of students and friends alike. There were presentations about companion quests and how that represented dependency, analyses of decision-making in post-apocalyptic games and, for my part, a discussion of how the difficulty of a game affects one’s desire to play it.

To host a successful symposium, Dr. Pfannenstiel has learned that it takes not just hard work but also allowing students multiple opportunities to participate and support the event. There were student volunteers to greet everyone who came in. As well as being presenters, students had the chance to act as panel chairs who gave introductions and kept things flowing smoothly.

While the first year was almost entirely driven by students within that first 313W class, who mostly focused on English elements related to their degrees, expansion was needed for year two. The Interdisciplinary Writing program made connections with the community outside of the English department, expanding the symposium to include an event called the STEAM Affaire, which supported STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students. The event was conducted over multiple days, with a game night and the STEAM Affaire taking place on the days leading up to the official symposium. The hosts also brought in a keynote speaker from the game company Zynga, the omnipresent creators of the Farmville franchise.

Will Coats is the senior software engineer at Zynga games, a tall, lanky man who took long pauses in his speech but was very articulate when he did force the words out. He said that games are valuable because they are ubiquitous to all life and an integral part of human existence. When he spoke about his job as software engineer, there was a softness to his voice. “Coding is art, not mathematics. It’s an infinite canvas,” he explained. People often try to put engineers into boxes in which all they are allowed to do is crunch numbers and build devices. But Coats sees himself as a creator using a canvas, not just a machine pressing buttons. He discussed his passion for creating games that stemmed from his desire to beat others at them in his youth. “It wasn’t enough to win a game and get paid for it. I wanted to do something more.” This desire led him to design his own games.

Coats was an interesting choice for the keynote speaker because there is some controversy surrounding his employers. Zynga has recently gotten into hot water for their “freemium” model of gaming, in which the game is free to download and play but upgrades cost real money. Some people become addicted to the thrill of leveling up or improving their items and pour thousands of their dollars into the games, which some see as exploitative for those with gambling tendencies. “Do I work for a good or a bad company? What does that look like? I’m not the judge. I’m just the architect,” Coats said. There was no shame in his voice, but he also assured the audience he did not come out merely to defend his company. He truly believes in creation without complication. “There are fixed rules, but infinite possibilities for games.”

For the rest of the Saturday of the symposium, there were 18 student presenters from sophomore business majors to senior English majors. Aisha Shelton and Ethan Kuvent returned from the year before, Kuvent having also shared the academic guinea pig class. Shelton presented about the idea of paying to win a game, using World of Warcraft as an example, while Kuvent discussed the different elements of villains within games with his panel “So You Want to be a Villain?” The audience scattered around the large lecture hall was made up of inquisitive and excited community members. “[They were] people who were genuinely interested in hearing what the presenters had to say,” Shelton said. This was evidenced by the long question-and-answer session following our presentations in which the audience grilled us every which way.

Other presenters included sophomore Nathaniel Levy, who gave a topical presentation about pay-to-play game dynamics, like those mentioned by Coats. Levy employed the example of a Skinner Box, in which a rat trapped inside of a cage will repeatedly pull a handle that once delivered food even after the handle no longer gives any satisfaction, until it dies of exhaustion. Derek Stokes, also an English major with emphasis in Creative Writing, discussed the idea of “speedrunning” in games, in which a player can perform very specific actions within a level to hack the game’s program in order to progress swiftly. He contrasted this sort of hacking with the idea of cheating and asked the audience what they thought of the moral conundrum. Alex Wilson, the significant other of Ms. Shelton, presented about the scientifically accurate portrayal of nuclear warfare in the popular series Fallout. Though I could not attend latter presentations, these included a discussion of the interplay between historical accuracy and video games as well as an exploration of role-playing games and making choices in the real world.

I felt a change in my approach to the presentation when I took the stage for a second year in a row. Last year found me shaking in my high heels in front of a podium, wondering if anyone would take me seriously if I said that some video games are just too hard and that there should be a less-punishing learning curve. Why should the audience listen to little old me, and why should they care that I talked about video games? This year, I strode around with confidence, knowing that the crowd was there to talk gaming. Within one short year, it became established that NAU would be a place for that conversation, and that no one had to be shy when it came to talking about games.

Once the excitement settled after another successful symposium, Dr. Pfannenstiel talked with me about the way video games are going in society. She is not only the creator of NAU’s first video games class and the head player in organizing the symposiums but she is also a social media advocate, young mother, and enthusiastic supporter of a future education model that ties in to video games. “Games can teach new ways to read, write, and be tested. With games there is the idea of failure. You are expected to fail and then learn from it and continue. They do that naturally,” she said in regards to literacy. She added that if games were part of our educational experience, we would become self-aware enough to recognize our failures and learn from them instead of just giving up.

So why teach college students about video games? “Because you play them! You are the generation going into the workforce not looking for a boring 9-5 job. You are looking to make it better,” Pfannenstiel said.

We can use our skills in video games to bring literacy and take away the fear of failure in the workforce. Video game education can be ushered in if we take steps towards that type of literacy. “Start by teaching people how to talk about games. Technology and education have huge systemic issues. We don’t teach teachers how to use technology,” Pfannenstiel said. “We should not look to make lesson plans, but instead make an impact on students’ lives by utilizing the technology readily available in this day and age. We can use all of the ifs and buts of gaming to address the intricacies of education instead of making it a one-lesson-fits-all type of program.” Pfannenstiel is an advocate for introducing simple games for kids up to five years old so that they can learn some of the new education they will encounter in their lives. She believes we should implement a gaming model in our schools and give rewards, like leveling up, for success, and only learning opportunities for failure.

Shelton agrees with this. “I feel like video games definitely taught me that it's okay to have a ‘do-over’ as long as you learn from it. There's a ton of fear of failure in the real world, which I think stems from this idea of finiteness in actions. Video games kind of taught me that a lot of life's actions are repeatable, and that it's okay that you messed up at work once or twice. You learn from your mistakes and work past it.”

Life’s actions are repeatable, as is the success of the symposium. The presenters, organizers, and audience have all learned from, if not failure, our first attempts, in order to move on and make the discussion about video games a more pertinent one in the NAU and wider community. I stopped shaking in my heels and instead found confidence in my own knowledge of gaming. Shelton and the other presenters brought so many different facets to the conversation that no one can claim that gaming rots your brain any longer. Coats showed the listeners that it is not who you work for but what you can create that counts, in both the gaming world and beyond.

Dr. Pfannenstiel’s words of wisdom were: “Play games, play games, play games.” There is no better way to enter into the rapidly-changing world of technology than just by jumping in and playing with it and, in this case, gathering for a symposium in which we talk about it.

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