Games people play

In Kristin Bezio’s leadership seminar, video games aren’t a distraction: they’re the main attraction

Kristin Bezio is comfortable with contradictions. She’s a Shakespeare expert and a pop-culture critic, a leadership professor who encourages her students to question everything she tells them, an academic and a video gamer, a woman in traditionally male-dominated fields, a literary scholar who says the worst thing for scholarship is getting siloed in your discipline. And in her office in Jepson Hall, surrounded by books and under the steady gaze of a Shakespeare portrait, the assistant professor of leadership studies is chasing amorphous blobs across the screen on her computer monitor.

The game she is playing is called flOw, and for those of us who might think that video games are a mindless black hole where SAT scores and ambition go to die, it’s worth noting that this particular game began as the mesmerizingly beautiful product of its creator’s MFA thesis project. It’s one of the games students play early in Bezio’s seminar Games, Game Theory, and Leadership, and it poses students with a question both literal and metaphorical: How do you figure out what the rules are when nobody tells you what the rules are?

Without explanation or introduction, flOw simply begins with a white shape — really just a string of three small circles with a C-shaped appendage at one end — adrift against a soothing blue background, accompanied by hypnotic electronic music. That you quickly intuit that the shape is some kind of wormlike creature floating in a featureless sea, and that when another shape pulses onto the screen you know your creature is supposed to “eat” it could tell you something right off about how the mind works to make sense of familiar movements and patterns.

You almost instinctively reach for a controller — mouse or track pad or other device — to move the creature through the space, an impulse that suggests how thoroughly our digital devices have trained us.

Strangely captivating, flOw is also, at first, bewildering. But slowly, you realize, you’re learning to play the game by playing the game, cued by visual and sound elements and errors that you figure out how not to make again.

You could pause here to consider how our minds are attuned to learn, to pick up and apply information we’re not always even aware we’re absorbing; you started out not really sure where you were headed or what your goal was, and you had to begin spotting the cues, reading the signs, connecting cause and effect, devising a strategy, and figuring it out step by step. It might even remind you of something. College maybe? Life?

Of course, you don’t have to think about any of these things. You could just play the game. But “not thinking about things” is exactly what Kristin Bezio doesn’t want you to do. As a scholar and as a teacher, she explores how games and other forms of popular entertainment implicitly and explicitly shape, reflect, and question our view of the world. This is the thread that connects her two apparently disparate fields of inquiry, early modern drama and contemporary gaming.

“Whether 400 years ago or today, popular culture has the capacity to change the way we think about things, sometimes without us even being aware that it is doing so,” Bezio says.

From University of Richmond magazine: Read more

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