Gaming, Culture, and Industry: Preparing Students for an Imaginative Future
Valparaiso University is always looking for new ways to help students discover their passions and follow their dreams in a fast-evolving world, and few fields are evolving faster than the world of interactive entertainment media.
In many ways, it’s a race forward with new hardware and better graphics dominating much of the video gaming industry. In other ways, with groups gathering around the table with papers and dice, it’s a field harkening back to some of our oldest cultural traditions.
“Games are a prominent way in which we tell stories in our culture,” says Martin Buinicki, Ph.D., professor of English. “And they are a major industry, so we’re preparing students to engage with the narratives all around them and for potential new lines of work.”
Valpo recently added classes in video game narrative and roleplaying game writing, as well as the new game narrative and design minor, giving students the opportunity to immerse themselves at both ends of the spectrum, and the chance to join a field that’s quickly growing in demand.
Video Gaming and Literature
Professor Buinicki has been a lifelong fan of gaming. From some of the earliest iterations of Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980’s, he has been fascinated by the possibilities of the gaming space and its potential for creativity.
“I played video games a lot as a kid, then sort of took a break, then started playing them again in the late 90’s,” Professor Buinicki recalls. “I was astounded at the complexity of the games, and that just kept increasing, both in terms of the play and the stories they were telling.”
The game that sparked his academic interest in video games was Bioshock Infinite, a first-person shooter set in an alternate United States circa 1912, where the player is immersed in the social and political themes of a floating city.
“As a literary scholar, I was fascinated with what it was doing with history,” Professor Buinicki says. “That was my first scholarly article about a video game, and it was in the process of writing that article that I really came to see how games could be part of a literature class.”
Today, Professor Buinicki leads the game narrative and design minor offered by the English department. The program includes several courses in creative writing, graphic design, as well as a game design colloquium and a literary course diving into the narrative themes of critically-acclaimed games titled Video Games: Playing with Stories.
“It’s been very successful at getting students to approach video games critically and understand literary terms that apply across genres,” he says.
As an industry pulling in more revenue than film and print media combined, staying up-to-date on the field of video gaming can be a monumental job on its own. Fortunately for Professor Buinicki, it’s a task that Valpo students are more than capable of assisting with.
“It’s kind of a Sisyphean endeavor,” Professor Buinicki says. “Something like 10,000 games a year are produced, so I ask my students to do a presentation on what games they think are important and that scholars should pay attention to. I use their presentations to inform my planning and my coursework because I just can’t keep up.”
Roll For Initiative
Professor Buinicki’s primary games interest, however, revolves around tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) such as Dungeons and Dragons. Playing since childhood and throughout his life, he has seen professional success with his RPG writing. Since 2018, he and his company, Gaming Honors, have been writing adventures for Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics game system and appearing on their Twitch channel with biweekly content.
As he pursued academic studies in English and literature while writing his own adventures for tabletop play, he noticed some striking parallels between his two areas of interest.
“I looked at the skills required to write a roleplaying game and I realized that they are really fundamental writing skills. You have to understand rhetoric, you have to understand your audience, you have to be able to provide clear and concise instructions for the person running the game while also having a rich and detailed world for the people playing it.”
In an attempt to expand Valpo’s games-related course catalog, Professor Buinicki is now in his second year of teaching students how to write the kind of role-playing games he creates with his company. Joseph Goodman, owner of Goodman Games, talks to class via Zoom to share his love of creative writing and roleplaying games, as well as about his success in turning that love into a full-time job.
“I myself ended up with a paying job in this field because of my early exploration of creating my own D&D adventures,” Joseph says. “I’m happy to pass the torch and help support skills development in what may be the next great group of D&D game designers.”
Gaming as a Career
Many people, including students and their parents, may harbor some skepticism in the potential of a degree in gaming to result in a paid job. Going by the numbers, however, finding a career in interactive entertainment is more likely than many would think.
“According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 71% of children under 18 play video games,” Professor Buinicki said in a grant proposal related to his gaming education efforts. “The ESA projects the industry to produce $200 billion in revenue in 2023.”
Video games aren’t the only form of entertainment seeing a recent boom. Thanks in part to the prominence of tabletop gaming in hit shows like “Stranger Things” and the successful “Dungeons and Dragons” movie, pen-and-paper RPGs and trading card games are also seeing surge in demand.
“The tabletop game industry, which includes card and roleplaying games, is projected to grow by over 13% each year through 2028 to reach almost 40 billion dollars in revenue,” Professor Buinicki says.
Joseph Goodman has seen the results of renewed interest in tabletop games firsthand.
“Our own product, Dungeon Crawl Classics, experienced phenomenal growth starting in 2020, as gamers discovered Zoom, Twitch, YouTube, and other ways to share the game online,” he says. “Goodman Games has had significant growth since the pandemic, even as the world has come back to physical interaction.”
Valpo alumni are already finding their way into the industry. Drew Simmons ’23 was able to get an internship at video game company Bungie — the company behind the wildly successful Halo series — and now works for them as an assistant production engineer.
Making an Impact Across Campus and Community
Members of the Valpo community don’t have to sign up for a specific minor to be impacted by the exploration of gaming on campus. Rollin’ With RPGs: The Valparaiso University Tabletop Roleplaying Club is building a community of players from all corners of campus to share in the joys of collaborative storytelling. Professor Buinicki acts as faculty sponsor for the group, which recently took a group trip to GaryCon (a convention celebrating Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax).
This fall, the Valparaiso University Theatre will perform “She Kills Monsters,” a stage production revolving around a young woman exploring a Dungeons and Dragons adventure written by her deceased sister. To help the actors understand the world they were portraying, Director George Potter invited Professor Buinicki to run a single-session adventure for those who had never played the game before. Performances of the play will be November 2 and 3 at 8 p.m. and November 4 and 5 at 2 p.m. at the University Theatre.
Thanks to funding from the Ball Venture Grant, Valparaiso University will soon be home to a Center for Games and Interactive Entertainment, a collaborative space for students to explore ideas revolving around game development, virtual reality, entrepreneurship, streaming and more. The center is currently scheduled to open in early 2024.
All of these programs and initiatives are helping prepare Valpo students to interact critically with a field that goes beyond just a potential line of work.
“Games are a prominent way in which we tell stories in our culture,” says Professor Buinicki. “It’s important for those of us who are interested in the humanities to begin to do this work. I’m really excited to see the future of this program at Valpo.”