Meet the UNLV Professor Giving Video Games a Seat at the Literary Table

amy_green_unlv_english_professor_by_krystal_ramirez_1_WEBKrystal Ramirez

UNLV professor Amy Green has fought to ensure video games receive the literary recognition they deserve. Her goal has been realized at Lied Library, where students enrolled in her literature courses can now pluck award-winning games such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Fallout 4 off the shelves as easily as a compendium of Shakespearean sonnets.

“Basically, we talk about the games in much of the same way that we would talk about literature and film,” says Green, an assistant professor-in-residence at UNLV’s English department. “Story themes, symbolism, characterization—all of that works [in studying video games], in exactly the same way.”

Green’s digital materials don’t necessarily replace reading, but they supplement it. She once brought in the video game version of Dante’s Inferno to cross-reference with “Inferno” itself. But in some cases, the games are narratively strong enough to study without a centuries-old text behind them. Such is the case with Bioshock Infinite, a game set in 1912 that thrusts you into a floating city built on the backbone of the Founding Fathers. It’s a perplexing piece of paradise, but as you dig deeper, themes of racism, elitism and fanaticism bleed through the silver lining.

Infinite offered compelling commentary on “post-9/11 America” in the midst of its economic downturn, Green says. That hot-button subject matter inspired her to take the professional risk of introducing it to her classes. One day, the professor marched into her chair’s office and laid out her plan. “I said, ‘Look, I want to do the literature side. It’ll still be literature-heavy, but then I’m going to require that students play Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite in this particular section,’” she says. “We’re going to talk about the sociopolitical race issues that come up in those games. We’re going to do it with literature that matches those same themes.”

In March, Green started a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for game consoles and titles such as SOMA, Dishonored and The Last of Us, which the professor published an article on for interactive media journal Games and Culture. The campaign garnered widespread attention, even earning a donation from Infinite developer Irrational Games. The fundraiser fell short of its goal, but that didn’t spell the end: Lied Library stepped in and partnered with Green to fund the rest of the goal.

Games have carved out a unique space in media. When you’re finished with a book, that’s it—you rarely revisit it. Games, on the other hand, encourage one to keep playing. Much of what makes students so receptive to Green’s digital curriculum is the dangling of achievement, she says, mentioning that tangible rewards (such as leveling up in a video game) motivate her students more than a book can. While the storylines of books are set in stone, students can take a video-game plot where they want it to go. This “sense of self-direction” is incredibly impactful, Green says.

“We’re going to talk about the sociopolitical race issues that come up in those games. We’re going to do it with literature that matches those same themes.”

But what about games without dialogue, such as the darkly visual platformer Inside and the Twin Peaks-inspired detective title Virginia? Green says those take a page from a long forgotten art form: silent film. The professor recalls the beauty of 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, in which facial expressions and body language told the story. With Inside, the world itself is the dialogue—not only is the game visually stunning, but it’s also telling. Barbed-wire fences and gray, dystopian hues, punctuated by the parade march of zombie-like meanderers, set the scene. Virginia challenges one to read people as text, from the quirk of their brow to the wrinkle of their lip—it’s all in the eyes.

In an ideal world, with limitless funding, Green would go beyond just gaming equipment. She says she’d create an entire digital humanities program where students could study gaming from every angle—script writing, development, art design and more. Until then, she will keep students playing—and also reading.

“When people don’t read, we end up with an uneducated populace … We have people who are disconnected from history, culture and human experience—experiences unlike their own [or] what other cultures or religions experience,” says Green. “I think that that’s dangerous. And if that means teaching [with] a video game … [if it] makes them think, then I’m happy.”