'Citizen Kane' to 'Call of Duty': The rise of video games in universities

How the history of film influences the future of video games in higher education.

Ashley Pinnick

Picture an art school. Visualize the hallways of a university dedicated to the arts, the classrooms lined with paint tubes, charcoal sticks and nude models. Imagine the galleries where outgoing seniors present their final projects. Consider the thick-framed glasses that sit atop students' noses as they sketch, sculpt, write and design the things that lurk in their wildest daydreams. Now picture a creation so strange that the school's professors aren't sure how to critique it from an artistic angle, let alone how to assign it a grade.

In Pasadena, California, Art Center College of Design graduate Ashley Pinnick faced this problem in her last semester, with her final project: a video game.

Specifically, Pinnick's project was a quirky exploration game for Oculus' VR headset called Dead Bug Creek. It was wildly different from her peers' creations in the Illustration degree program, but not because it was more experimental or nonsensical: It was the only video game on display because Art Center didn't have a technical video game development program. Pinnick taught herself how to code and design a game, all in her final year of school and with the confused blessing of her professors.

"There definitely were [teachers] who couldn't hold a video game controller when I tried to demo it for them," she said. "It's just not in their wheelhouse. They had no idea."

It may seem contradictory for a school founded on creativity to not fully recognize the artistic merits of a modern medium. Pinnick's teachers weren't old-world leftovers disconnected from modern society and Art Center itself wasn't a backward-facing school. Still, many of her mentors couldn't critique the art that she created because it took the form of a video game. They could see individual pieces as art -- the 3D models, concept designs and environment work -- but presented as a whole, most of her teachers were stumped.

Dead Bug Creek, Ashley Pinnick's final project

She would try to explain it: "This entire thing is art. But it's not a piece of fine art that I'm just going to make to not make any sense. ... You don't have to be afraid to call it a game."

The problem isn't that video games are new. After all, Atari released Pong in 1972. But, video games have long carried a reputation of being childish, and recent mainstream stories about harassment and bullying do little to dissuade this perspective. Reluctance to see video games as art may stem from the fact that, to an academic audience, gaming is still infantile.

A lot like film used to be.

Déjà vu

Today's college students don't question the inherent artistic value or social impact of films. With glitzy awards shows, widespread celebrity obsessions and hordes of critics prepared to praise and skewer films of all sizes, the movie-making world has a secure spot in the art universe.

"The reason for that is because those battles have been fought and won within academia," says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University. "It's not that they weren't ever there. It was a struggle. And based upon those people doing work in those areas, getting that work published, teaching courses, demonstrating to students and colleagues that there was great value in doing that -- that doesn't happen overnight."

A still from The Conformist, a 1970 Italian arthouse film

Lehman knows that film wasn't always seen as a "serious" pursuit in academia because he was there when it made the transition. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, now one of the top film schools in the United States, in 1967. At the time, the school didn't offer a single film class. He returned to Madison just four years later, intent on pursuing a Ph.D. in English -- and he discovered a fully fleshed-out film program, all the way to the doctorate level. Lehman ended up being one of the first graduates in the film Ph.D. program at Madison.

Film studies began to catch on in universities nationwide by the mid-'70s, driven in part by a rising cultural awareness of the medium. Lehman lived in New York right before receiving his doctorate and he describes the city as a hotbed of cultural activity with an "explosion" of interest in film. Cinemas showed old Hollywood films, silent movies, retrospectives and foreign flicks, and publications like the Village Voice ran critiques of the industry. Film resonated with young people, including Lehman himself.

During this time, movies struggled to find their footing in the academic world. Lehman says that, in hindsight, the industry faced two clear obstacles: literature professors and foreign films. Many English teachers taught film only via adaptation, from novel to silver screen. This structure tied film to literature, a field that was already considered an intelligent pursuit. These classes presented film as a less artistic, less culturally significant medium.

An image of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

This phenomenon plays out in everyday life, even today. Most of us have heard someone say, "The book is better than the movie." Sometimes, of course, this is true. But, as a knee-jerk reaction, it can be linked directly to film's presentation in these pre-1970s classes, according to Lehman. Today, video games face this adaptation issue, but with a twist: Film is the dominant medium. "Now it's like, why would anyone make a movie based on a ridiculous video game?" he says, laughing. "It's almost like we've reversed where we were."

Film faced a second obstacle, Lehman says: Even American movie buffs were reluctant to give domestic films equal status to foreign efforts. American movies were seen as "entertainment," while foreign films were viewed as "art." Pictures shown in small theaters to niche audiences, those were "art." Westerns, comedies and science-fiction spectacles were not.

"In academia, it was not uncommon to find a resistance against the idea that popular, mainstream, Hollywood films could be profound and knowledgeable," Lehman says. People would say, "It's fun; it's popcorn, but it has nothing to do with art. For real art, you'll have to go and watch these foreign films," he says.

Replace "foreign films" with "indie games" and this critique transfers directly to the video game industry. It's easier for a mainstream audience to view small, independent video games as "art," especially when they directly tackle issues such as immigration (Papers, Please), socioeconomic inequality (Cart Life), LGBT rights (Gone Home) and mental health (Neverending Nightmares). It also helps if they're abstract and open to interpretation, like Starseed Pilgrim or Proteus. Massively popular games such as Call of Duty or Destiny -- the experiences most people think of when they hear "video games" -- are generally placed in the "entertainment genre" that Lehman mentions.

The many accolades bestowed upon Gone Home

Some video games and some movies are clearly designed to be entertaining, fun and explosively distracting, and many of these are wonderful to play. However, the existence of "entertainment-only" films or video games shouldn't negate the artistic value of either medium as a whole, Lehman says. Few people assert that fast food is on par with fine dining, or that Fifty Shades of Grey is comparable to The Grapes of Wrath, for example. Similarly, Pixels can't negate the cultural impact of Selma, and Aliens: Colonial Marines doesn't reduce the significance of Sunset.

"It was hard for anyone to take people that worked in Hollywood entertainment genres seriously as artists in comparison with 'art' filmmakers," he says.

There are still a few familiar barriers facing video games in higher education, Lehman notes. Stigma is one of them.

"There's a fear that they're violent; they involve all of these undesirable things, but also kids spend too much time playing them," he says.

Video games today

Despite hardline objections from some, Lehman is optimistic about the future of video games. And, if the history of film is any indication, he has a right to be. For one thing, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (Lehman used to be president) includes video games in its research and outreach efforts. It views video games as a natural evolution of new media and Lehman notes that many universities are adding or expanding classes on gaming and society.

"[Video games] are certainly considered part of the field now of film studies and of the professional organization, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies," Lehman says. "And people do research on video games; people include video games in their curriculum. ... If we've got kids that are coming into universities now that are used to playing video games all their lives and have that skillset, it's real smart to think about ways of using them as part of their education."

An entry in E3 2015's Enter the Pixel gallery show (inspired by Far Cry 4)

Lehman witnessed the cultural shift around movies that helped make them so prevalent in today's society, and he sees a similar process happening within video games. The industry now hosts increasingly decadent award shows and has spawned countless art exhibits and gallery shows. More than 150 million people in the United States alone play video games and the industry generated $22 billion in revenue in 2014, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

Film resonated with and inspired a young audience, who then brought this perspective to academia and beyond. Today, the ESA estimates that the average American gamer is 35 years old, and 74 percent are 18 or older. That's young enough to have a history with video games and old enough to be taken seriously by their peers in academics.

Plus, average American families have a generally positive view of video games: 63 percent of parents surveyed by the ESA in 2015 say that video games are a positive part of their children's lives. This perception has evolved over the years, rising from 52 percent in 2013 to 56 percent in 2014.

GNOG, a game made by artist collective KO-OP Mode

Of course, this is a broad sample of the entire country, not academia specifically. However, plenty of universities -- including art-focused schools like Savannah College of Art and Design and Parsons -- offer video game programs that cover technical aspects alongside concept work.

"There are younger scholars in the field now that have grown up with video games, and they're maybe equivalent to young people to whom movies were so important... in the late '60s and were part of this sudden interest in promoting film culture to a new level in the United States at that point in time," Lehman says. "Something similar to that is definitely going on with video games. And it is beginning to affect the curriculum and research in academia."

A quiet revolution

Back at Art Center, Pinnick played a part in video games' quiet academic revolution, whether she realized it or not. She challenged her art-school teachers to view video games -- or at least her video game, Dead Bug Creek -- as art. And they listened.

Dana Duncan was one of Pinnick's teachers at Art Center. She's the designer of the school's digital media classes and she was an Art Center student herself -- Duncan graduated in 1993 and was immediately hired by the school to teach digital design. "I knew more than the professors attempting to teach it at the time," she recalls.

A student demos Pinnick's Dead Bug Creek during her final show

Duncan says when she was a student at Art Center, there were no digital classes at all and she had to teach herself a lot of the basic concepts. This mirrors Pinnick's experience in teaching herself the basics of VR and game development.

For Pinnick, Art Center didn't offer any programming classes and her degree path in Illustration mentioned game development as a concept, not necessarily a direct goal of the program. She turned to the internet, visiting forums, watching tutorials and learning how to develop a game in Unity for the Oculus Rift.

Duncan notes that Art Center's Entertainment Design major offers more of a focus on video game careers, although it doesn't touch on technical aspects of development.

"The Entertainment Design major is already placing many students in major video game studios," she says. "It is focused mainly on the art and story of the video game. We do not really have a background in the tech areas of video game development like programming, or creation of games from the ground up."

But, Pinnick wasn't in the Entertainment Design program. Because of her chosen major and with her final project approved, Pinnick had to find supplemental classes and then get signatures to take them.

"Then she had to fight with her 'Fine Artist' style teachers every step of the way to plan her hard show," Duncan says. "They wanted her to approach her graduation as if she was going to do gallery work and she wanted to go full-on VR and new technology as her focus. I was her cheerleader for sure. There were moments when it was really frustrating because many of the other teachers had no idea as to what she was doing."

In her final semester, Pinnick secured a seat in an exhibition class in the Environmental Design program. It focused on ways to move people through a space and how to make an audience look in specific places and do certain things. In terms of developing a VR exploration game, it was a good fit. This is how Pinnick operates and probably why she succeeded at a prestigious art school: She sees how disparate pieces can fit together to create something new. It's also why she should make a great game developer.

Dead Bug Creek as viewed through the Oculus Rift headset

Pinnick ended up getting an A in the Dead Bug Creek class and she successfully pulled off an installation show starring the game. She graduated in April and now works at the Los Angeles ad agency Part IV, which recently showcased an augmented reality exhibit at Disney's D23 fan convention. A lot of her fellow Illustration graduates sustain themselves on freelance work and gallery shows, but Pinnick is happy to have a steady job with a technical edge.

"It's exactly what I wanted," she says. "It's super fun and it's all augmented reality, so I'm glad that taking risks so far has paid off."

As for Art Center, Pinnick is pleased with the education she received. She has a solid foundation in illustration and design, but she wanted to take those skills in a direction that the school hadn't yet embraced. She understands that, even to her creative and artistic teachers, video games are a new industry that often evolves more rapidly than curriculum itself.

"People want to do more; people want to learn more," she says. "But it's also a question of what can you bring to school that is viable enough that you can teach it to people and feel confident that it'll be something they can use later. I feel like everything's changing so fast for everybody that it's hard for programs to keep up. They go off what they know. I get that."

If the history of film has taught us anything, it's a good bet that universities of all sizes and disciplines will soon "get it" when it comes to video games, too.

[Image credits: Ashley Pinnick (lead image, motel); Paramount Pictures (The Conformist); Warner Bros. (The Lord of the Rings); Fullbright (Gone Home); Ubisoft (Far Cry 4 tiger); KO-OP Mode (GNOG); Ashley Pinnick (student playing Dead Bug Creek, final image)]