Skip to content Skip to navigation

Photo-closeup of a Hoover Tower top

Faculty and students at Stanford argue for increased study of games and interactive media

May 3, 2017
By Taylor Kubota
Photo of Dan and Dylan in AAA Lab.
Dan Schwartz, left, and GSE alumnus Dylan Arena in the AAA Lab at Stanford.
Dean Dan Schwartz says the best games are a 'wonder of discovery and rich experience.' His lab studies how games influence learning.

Three years ago, a group of Stanford faculty and staff came together to discuss the scholarly value of games and interactive media. These discussions resulted in the weekly Interactive Media and Games Seminar Series, which is open to students, the Stanford community and the public. Led by Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, an assistant professor of bioengineering, and Henry Lowood, curator for History of Science and Technology and Film and Media Collections at Stanford University Libraries, these seminars provide a perspective on the academic, societal, artistic, technical and economic impact of these media.

“People often think of games as wonders of reward – let’s teach kids math by giving them a chance to blow things up and get points. There is some merit to this ‘games à la casino’ approach, but it underestimates the great power of good games,” said Daniel Schwartz, dean of the Graduate School of Education. “The best games are a wonder of discovery and rich experience.”


Academic studies and cultural impact

The seminar features presentations by independent artists, industry professionals and academics – including speakers from five of Stanford’s seven schools. This quarter alone, they will discuss how Dungeons & Dragons survives in an age of online trolls; learn about game play from Dennis Fong, the first professional gamer; and get insights from the beginnings of the video game industry shared by Allan Alcorn, the design engineer of Atari Pong. Through a partnership with Martha Russell, executive director of MediaX at Stanford, all seminar presentations are posted online.

Interactive media, which describes any form of software-based product that responds to a user, is a massive category that includes video games, computer games, virtual reality and websites. There is a substantial history of studying these media, particularly in terms of game theory and human behavior. Likewise, research about interactive media can provide incredible insight into behavior and society.

“Consider social media platforms and how they create bubbles or spread fake news,” said Paul Wallace, a graduate fellow in the Modern Thought and Literature Program and former presenter in the seminar. “Can we look at these platforms to better understand how rule-based participatory systems operate? How do the rules work for different groups? Races? Genders? These are questions that come out of the study of interactive media and games that are immediately applicable to our current political moment.”

Even the simplest smartphone game could tell us about the nature of addiction, agency and pleasure, explained Wallace. His own research examines spatial storytelling within video games, immersive theater, installation art and virtual reality, as well as the history of rule-based systems such as Cold War-era simulations. Wallace also co-leads the Critical Gaming Workshop with two other graduate fellows, Natalie Deam from the French Department and Douglas Eacho from Theater and Performance Studies. Before coming to Stanford, he was a filmmaker, sculptor and video game trailer producer.

Wallace believes that explorable interactive media and games are exceptional tools for emotional storytelling, on par with writing and art. Riedel-Kruse agrees.

“If you look at the cultural or economic significance of video games or games in general and compare this to film or literature, you can say it is equivalent by now,” Riedel-Kruse said.

In winter quarter, Alan Meades, a principal lecturer from Canterbury Christ Church University, spoke at the seminar about his research on the social history of arcades. He studies video game culture using ethnographic methods and his arcade research materials included Ira Nowinski’s documentary photographs of Bay Area arcades in the early ’80s, a collection held by the Stanford Libraries.

Learning and research through games

Games and interactive media also affect education, a research interest of both Schwartz and Riedel-Kruse.

“A good game prepares students to learn explanations, which is the mainstay of formal education,” Schwartz said. “When I think about designing a learning game, I try not to put explanations into the games, because that is jarring to the experience. Rather, I try to anticipate the kinds of explanations that students will receive in school, and create games that will provide experiences that make those explanations meaningful.”

Schwartz’s lab integrates cognitive science, classroom experience and programming expertise to develop educational technologies with emphasis on the power of spatial cognition, or how people acquire knowledge about their environment. They’ve made educational games for smartphones and computers and other interactive teaching technologies.

Riedel-Kruse focuses his research on interactive biotechnologies, including game-like explorations of science. His lab has developed a smartphone microscope, an interactive cloud lab and a DIY robotics kit that people can use to play and experiment with and learn about biology. This blend of science and games, he explained, has a foundation in their shared sense of play.

“We say that play is the opposite of work, and that play is for children and work is for adults. That’s not entirely true, I think everyone has a relation to play somehow,” he said. “In labs, we’re exploring things, trying things out and enjoying it. That also has many playful aspects.”

A rising interest

Stanford is filled with scholars who study and develop interactive technologies, software and design thinking and is located at the center of the game and interactive media development world.

The people who run the Interactive Media and Games Seminar Series want to build on this wealth of knowledge and opportunity, while inspiring students to take advantage of what’s around them, even in the absence of an established academic track for games.

“Having a series helps us expose the students who are participating to as many different perspectives on games as possible and they can use it to figure out how to pull together the different topics they’re studying,” Lowood said. “It could also encourage students to agitate a little more for a program to address what they’re interested in.”

“Many of our students love games,” Riedel-Kruse said. “And games provide attractive opportunities to holistically learn about arts, digital literacy, humanities, engineering, history and more.”

Riedel-Kruse and others are already working on a potential lineup for the fall. They are hoping to collaborate with Stanford alumni Tom Wang (BS, MS ’07) and Stephen Lim (BS ’00) of Riot Games to cover various areas of the video game industry, including lectures from experts in game design, art, engineering and business.