'Video Games and the Meaning of Life': A Look into One of Dartmouth’s Most Popular Classes

by Zach Gorman | 9/30/20 2:05am

by Grace Qu / The Dartmouth

Though the College prides itself on its small class sizes, there are certain courses that are in such great demand that they fill even the largest lecture halls. While Zoom has made such classes a bit more acceptable to the claustrophobic, courses like COSC 1, “Introduction to Programming and Computation” and ECON 1, “The Price System: Analysis, Problems and Policies” still feature well over one hundred students each. Another one of these giant courses is one that may come as a surprise: MUS 46/FILM 50.04/COLT 40.07, “Video Games and the Meaning of Life.” Although music professor William Cheng, who teaches the class, initially intended to hold the course as a seminar capped at 12 students, demand was so high that he ultimately admitted 223 students — and had to turn away a few dozen more.

A mere glance at the course syllabus’ bright colors, clip art, comic strips and emojis makes clear that this is no typical Dartmouth course. The course’s grading scale from A to E is diagrammed next to pictures of Pokémon of corresponding value; assignments are graded in XP rather than in percentage points.

However, the irreverence of the syllabus and the peculiar nature of the grading structure does not mean that “Video Games and the Meaning of Life” should be dismissed as a frivolous course. As its title suggests, the course connects video games with important social and cultural topics, touching on a range of issues found within video games and gaming culture. During one week of the course, students will consider how dying within video games relates to one’s personal conception of life and death. In another week, the course delves into issues present in the gaming community such as racism, sexism, trolling and cheating.

It is not lost on Cheng that the course explores a subject that is viewed by many to be a trivial diversion, despite its popularity. Cheng thinks this view is one reason why video games are, in fact, a worthwhile topic of study.

“Games are significant both in spite and because of their reputation as entertainment and leisure,” Cheng said. “Sometimes, games are associated with the juvenile and the frivolous. [They are] sometimes characterized as a waste of time. That is, in part, precisely why they are worth examining. … Games have really exploded in their significance and their claim of capital in the modern world.”

Cheng additionally sees video games as useful tools for analyzing philosophical issues. He hopes for his students to consider what video games can tell us about real-world human thoughts, feelings and behavior. For instance, the course explores how the notion of a person controlling a simulated character reflects upon concepts of personal agency and free will in the real world. 

“The course asks us to think about video games as a lens through which we can understand the human condition,” Cheng said. “We explore themes such as authority, obedience, violence, pacifism [and] mortality. … The course leans on video games as heuristic keys which we can use to unlock various mysteries of life. We do analyze games, but largely, we are leveraging the games to ask broader questions about everyday life.

The course also delves into the effects that video games can have on the people who play them. During one of the course’s modules, students read an array of scholarly articles that reach various conclusions on the extent to which violent video games can cause violent tendencies. Selina Noor ’22, one of the course’s one of the course’s five teaching assistants, finds value in the course’s consideration of how video games can affect people — for better and for worse — in the real world.

“A lot of people play video games, and it’s interesting to see [how] they have an impact on the way that people develop and how it helps them think and solve problems,” Noor said. “Analyzing those kinds of things can be beneficial to developmental research as well.”

Neelufar Raja ’21, another teaching assistant for the course, agrees that it is integral to study the cognitive effects of video games. She is especially interested in the course’s focus on how games can help to satisfy a need for companionship.

“Video games can have a really profound impact on people,” Raja said. “Not only [can] a solitary person play a game and resonate with certain characters, [which] can be a really important aspect of self-identification, but people also find really good communities through video games, which can bring people together.”

“I don’t think this is a traditional layup, as students say. I think this is in its own category, never before seen.”

Though Cheng and his teaching assistants believe that students’ enthusiasm for video games is a significant reason for the course’s immense popularity, they recognize that another factor may be students’ assumptions about the rigor of the course. Another of the course’s teaching assistants, Nikhil Lele ’21, recognizes that achieving a high grade in "Video Games and the Meaning of Life” may not require quite as much work as in other Dartmouth courses. Nonetheless, Lele feels that Cheng has successfully built an engaging and informative course that encourages students to put in the effort that can turn the course into a valuable learning experience.

“Yes, [the course] is not as rigorous as a given STEM class, per se,” Lele said. “But the effort that Professor Cheng puts into the course is so involved that it really makes students want to put a lot of effort into the course. They want to go to class every day and see what he has to say. They want to go home and read more about what he had to say. I don’t think this is a traditional layup, as students say. I think this is in its own category, never before seen.”

Cheng hopes that students see the course as a fruitful educational experience regardless of the grade they ultimately earn. Near the beginning of the course’s syllabus, Cheng included a letter to his students explaining his philosophy on teaching the course. In the letter, Cheng makes clear that he hopes for the course to be a positive environment in which students can focus on learning rather than fretting over their grades.

“Whatever grade you receive, take ownership of — and pride in — what you learn,” Cheng wrote. “Know that I will not judge you, no matter what grade you ultimately obtain. If anything, I will be wholly appreciative that you’ve chosen to be part of this class at all.”

Raja is a member of The Dartmouth staff.