I’ve never been a big advocate of serious games for the simple reason I think once games become serious they turn into mere systems in the same way that porn becomes a medical illustration once it ceases stimulating you.
So, it might seem a little odd that this semester I am teaching an undergraduate course in the University of Colorado’s College of Architecture and Planning based around videogames. “Planning in the Gaming World, “ is a class designed to encourage an appreciation for the art and science of urban and regional planning though videogames. Yes, whether I like it or not, I am now officially a part of the serious games movement.
We are only half way through the semester, but I think that the basic idea is working. Students confront serious issues of planning the human environment through the virtual worlds of SimCity and Second Life. A typical assignment has them read a bit of planning literature, try to do something in the game world (like describe an interesting place in Second Life or lay out a functioning city in SimCity) then come to class and try to put it all together.
My approach is admittedly Socratic and the students seems to vacillate between finding the whole effort intriguing and compelling or completely pedantic and impractical. To which I say, bully for the modern American undergrad that only wants a vo-tech degree from the university. My course should leave them filled with doubt and confusion for years.
I hope to generate some sort of report or academic essay out of the experience. Because whatever else I might have to say about the idea of serious games, this class is going as well as anything I’ve ever taught along the lines of confronting students with big, hard, meaningful questions and getting them to grapple, or at least gripe, about the process. As one student said, “I’m not sure what we are learning, but it sure feels like something big.”
Best of all, I’m happy to report that the thing that seems to be working the best is the videogames. And that’s because whatever academic wrapper I happen to package around the games, the students grasp the fundamental truth—these games are fun, even if their teacher is not!
(Check out the current version of the syllabus in the File Downloads section for more information).