Virtual Realities in the English Building: Exploring the New Video Game Classroom
By Meghan McCoy, English, '18
When you think of video games on campus, there’s a good chance that what comes to mind is a group of college students playing Super Smash Brothers at 1:00 in the morning.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Video games, especially at Illinois, can create a sense of community and can help us think through real-world problems. And most importantly, video games are fun.
Video games exist at the intersection of entertainment and education, incorporating both while being fully neither. Now, two professors are bringing the dual identity of videogames--fun and smart--to the forefront of their teaching in a new classroom devoted to video gaming.
Renovations began last May, and the Video-Game room saw its first use in the Fall 2016 semester. Already it has made a big impression in the English department.
Spearheaded by Professors Jodi Byrd (English/Gender and Women’s Studies) and Trish Loughran (English/History), the video game room helps expand and explore people’s relationship to technology, and how video games shape how we view the world around us.
For Professor Byrd, who previously taught American Indian Studies, video games are an important part of how America’s colonial past is represented and interpreted. “My research questions are focusing on Indigenous critical theory and colonial studies,” Professor Byrd explained. “From there, I link those things into critical ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, and tie it to technology studies.”
The Video-Game classroom, which was once a thirty-screen computer room used for Business and Technical Writing classes, has now been transformed with two Apple TVs, a projector, and various video-game consoles such as Xbox, Xbox1, Xbox360, and PlayStation3. The AirPlay LCD TVs are able to sync with any Apple laptop, tablet, or iPad, and hook up with any other brand of computer through a simple HDMI cord.
A number of people and departments were involved in making the video game room come to life, which has been a lengthy project. Close to fifty people were involved in making this room a reality, including Derek Fultz who is the Director of Facilities for Liberal Arts & Science (LAS), Heidi Gharst from Technology Services who helped loan class equipment, and the many dedicated people from Applied Technologies for Learning in the Arts and Sciences (ATLAS) and Facilities and Services who helped bring it all together.
David Reid has been with ATLAS since 2003 and manages instructional spaces for the college. He explained what went on behind the scenes to help the room take shape. “The physical project of the room began in May of this year, but we had to evaluate a lot of spaces to find a room that would work with the technology we wanted, so the process of finding a room began over a year ago,” he explained. Once the perfect room was found, it had to be completely remodeled. But nothing went to waste. “The computers went to a classroom in the Math department and for ATLAS staff, and considering how much was in the room when we started, very little equipment was sent to surplus or just discarded.”
The remodel was guided by active learning principles. Konstantinos Yfantis, the Assistant Director of ATLAS, explains that active learning has been growing on campus and around the world. Active learning classrooms allow for “increased flexibility in the classroom, as the tables, chairs, Airplay TVs, and projector let the professor and students teach and learn in ways that promote collaborative learning more than the traditional classroom setting,” says Mr. Yfantis.
When I visited Professor Byrd, I had the good fortune to actually try out the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality set by playing the game Windlands, which is based around grappling hook exploration. Shaped like big, black binoculars you put on your face it was, without any doubt, one of the coolest pieces of technology I had ever used, and surprisingly comfortable.
Weighing about as much as a bicycle helmet, the virtual reality headset allows you to be in the world of the game. When you play a videogame, what you’re normally doing is looking at a picture on a 2-D screen. However when you play a game through a virtual reality headset, you get the feeling that the waterfall you see in the distance is something you could actually walk up to and touch. The player truly does feel as if they are immersed in the world they are seeing through the 3-D headset.
While I played the game, my character, and in extension myself, jumped multiple feet from cliff to cliff, sailed through the air, and at times even missed the landing and fell to the ground. Falling was the most unsettling feeling, as anyone who has ridden a roller coaster knows the flips and turns your stomach takes along with the ride. While the game did not feel as real as riding a roller coaster, when my character missed the target you would watch as they, as well as you, fell to the ground, often making me check to make sure my feet were still firmly planted to the office floor.
After speaking with Professor Byrd, however, playing the virtual reality game did take on another meaning than just a fun way to pass the time. As Professor Byrd explained, “If games are tied to historical cultural processes such as colonialism, racism, then how are those histories shaping what we imagine games to be? How does it shape how people create video games?” While I would not describe Windlands, the game that had me jumping and falling, as overtly racist or colonialist, it did have details that I could see having the ties Professor Byrd described.
Windlands was based around an ancient mythological society that I had to “rescue” from the Titans that had overrun the city. Effectively that meant I was the outsider brought into this world to save it and its people, and assuming I eventually beat the Titans and won the game I would probably receive some type of prize or upgrade for my character. Even glancing back at America’s history, I could recognize similarities between the two.
Like most other games, how video games are presented to the overall public is based off what is believed to be important, valued, and interesting to the player. As video games, the games on our phones, and virtual realities increasingly become what people spend their time playing, then how the characters and setting are portrayed needs to matter.
As we interact with technology, “It’s important to make sure we think about the multiple scales of interaction” Professor Byrd said. “What does it do to us as humans, how do we think about race and gender, how are we physically interacting with the games and what are the questions that come up from that? Those are the things we’re really trying to focus on.” These questions are one of the many things Professor Byrd is exploring in her classes, and a room that is designed with the technology to delve into these topics is almost guaranteed to expand the understanding of how people interact with, and are shaped by video games.
We all hear a lot of conversation about how video games may cause people to become violent, they’re a waste of time, or sometimes even just plain silly. And honestly, I may have agreed with one or two of those points. But after speaking with Professor Byrd about how much video games really can teach us, and we in turn can make more socially aware video games, you may just find me signing up for this class next semester.
All pictures provided by Meghan McCoy