For Junior, A Major In ‘Mario Kart’

Video games are more than child’s play in ‘Interactive Media’ concentration

Few Harvard students can afford to spend their last two years in college thinking about video games. But for Ben S. Decker ’08, his special concentration in “Interactive Media” requires it.

Decker, a former psychology concentrator, learned over winter break that his unusual plan of study request would be granted.

“Let’s not beat around the bush... my intention is to study video games,” his application read.

Decker’s concentration in “ludology”­—the study of video games from both a technological and humanities perspective—encompasses several academic areas. He plans to take classes in psychology, economics, computer science, and media studies, cross-enrolling at MIT for the media studies courses.

“I’m not nearly as hardcore a gamer as some—I’m certainly obsessed with a couple of games, but I have a lot of faith in the medium going forward,” Decker said yesterday, citing online video game systems that can be used to model real economies with near perfection as an example of the field’s potential.

Decker’s interest in the area stemmed in part from a sophomore tutorial paper exploring the psychological basis behind why video games are enjoyable.

“Being inside a media experience instead of just watching one creates a deeper sense of presence,” he said.

The academic discussion of video games has even surfaced in one departmental course this spring.

Mark C. Szigety, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Business School, is teaching a section of the Economics 970 sophomore tutorial titled “Child’s Play No Longer: The Grown-Up Economics of Video Games.”

“There were a lot of managerial and economic topics that were relevant to the evolution of the [video game] industry,” Szigety said. “We’re using the video game industry as a context to study independent theories of innovation and creativity.”

While other schools–including MIT—­­offer classes in ludology, the University of California-Santa Cruz took the academic study of video games one step further by making it an official major in 2006.

Furthermore, this scholarly take on a traditional college pastime has manifested itself in a new student organization on Harvard’s campus.

Decker recently founded the Harvard Interactive Media Group with the assistance of Alice J. Robison, a visiting scholar at MIT. Decker said that the organization seeks to be a recreational and academic presence on campus for students interested in interactive media.

The group is currently working to produce a journal featuring articles by student contributors, professors from Harvard and other schools, and figures from the gaming industry.

They also plan to hold a monthly colloquium of speakers and panels on topics pertaining to interactive media and to create a development group through which students can produce video games.

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.