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Just a Game?

Written by Annie Beckmann
February 27, 2012

Maybe you think video games are for shy teenage boys who aren't old enough to drive, have limited social lives and hunker down at home to play online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft (often called WoW) with goblins, druids, warriors and more as their way to explore the world, history and lore. 

Well, bust that stereotype wide open. Seattle University's Chris Paul, right, an assistant professor of communications, says more adult women play video games (37 percent) than boys younger than 17 (just 17 percent) and the average age of a gamer is actually 37.

Paul's new book called Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games explores the cultural aspects of video games. To do that, he uses the age, old tools of rhetorical criticism, what he calls wordplay, to analyze gaming.

"Dead Greek dudes analyzed speeches, which aren't the most important rhetorical artifacts today," Paul says. "Games are becoming increasingly social."

While it's not exactly akin to online dating, gaming can bring people with similar interests together in real life. "You can form interesting relationships," he says, noting he was motivated to take four trips with other gamers.

His book describes how gaming enhanced his relationship with his dad and created a common bond for them both. They became a team on games such as the Legend of Zelda where dad would grind through the routine content, then yell "boss fight," so son could jump in to kill the bosses.

"There's a difference between how different people play games, too," Paul says. "My mom might play a little every day, but doesn't consider herself a gamer. Dad, though, settles in with a bowl of snacks and plans on playing awhile."

He concedes the tech movement and gaming production have been sexist for a very long time, even though more than half the gamers of all ages today are female.

"Game design is very insular," says Paul, who wants to see sexism addressed in video games. Most games are larger than the self, he notes, where gamers seek to rule a civilization.

Another aspect that especially interests him is the comfort gamers find in predictability, even monotony, when they play games such as Tiny Tower. Those routines are called the "labor of fun" and play out much like television, he says.

"Think about the TV shows you watch when you know exactly what's going to happen. Is it really any different?" Paul asks.  

In his book, he suggests wordplay offers a way to examine the power of persuasion in video games. 

"A better understanding of what is at stake in the socio-cultural systems at work in video games offers benefits to scholars, developers and players," he writes. 

For those who have doubts about the scholarly nature of video games, Paul's research led to presentations at cutting-edge conferences on digital-game research in England, France, The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden in recent years. Closer to home, a National Science Foundation workshop in Southern California wanted to hear from him on the future of computer games.  

People who grew up playing video games now have PhDs, he points out. In fact, there's already a second generation of games scholars. Paul is sandwiched between those generations, with some six years older, others six years younger than he is.

When he studied rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, where he received his MA and PhD, Paul first explored the construct of modern-day feminist journals. Soon he developed a method for rhetorical analysis of the World Wide Web, a topic that became his doctoral dissertation.

"It became apparent that what I was doing with the web could be done with games as well," he says.  "How they're made to be meaningful and influential, the persuasive and social dynamics of games are all important."

It's Paul's fourth year at SU and he's pleased with how compelling and interesting his students are. "They can articulate what they want and don't want from their education," he says. 

Academic excellence, according to Paul, has many meanings across campus.

"For me, anyway, it's a push to do better, ask hard questions and give good answers. Academic excellence is also finding those areas that interest you and sharing them whether it's writing a book or teaching a class," he says.

He teaches two classes each term, including: foundations of rhetorical reasoning; new media communication; critical analysis of digital media; gender and film; and video games, communication and culture.  His video games class looks at numerous games, although World of Warcraft takes top billing.

Jaegar Shaw, a senior communications major and one of 18 students in Paul's video games class, says that with more than 11 million viewers and a shallow learning curve, WoW is a natural for study, especially because the game has plenty of social elements and role playing. 

When Marques Hollins tells his pals he's taking a course in video games, the response he gets is "How easy is that?" Yet Hollins and others in the class say it's the toughest of their courses this quarter. Kainoa Cambra, a senior English major, says there's so much content in each class, Paul doesn't make it easy on his students. "It's definitely harder than, say, a history class," Cambra adds.

Hollins, a senior majoring in both liberal studies and communications, had taken other classes from Paul and was intrigued by the history of video games and the strides from the days of game arcades to the modern-day internet. "The other day I accidentally downloaded the UK version of World of Warcraft. Everyone around the world is playing video games now," Hollins says. 

Osman Harb, a junior biology major, says there just aren't enough people studying video games.

"Video games are incredibly rich with their own culture, but get little in terms of respect," says Harb.

Hardback copies of Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games are now available (and on order at the SU library), then it should be out in paperback in about a year's time.

DEBATE! An animated video games debate between games scholar Chris Paul and Mara Adelman, associate professor in communication, is planned for 7 p.m. April 10 in Casey Commons.