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A PhD in Mortal Kombat

A pioneering USC group tries to get into the heads of players to learn if the pastime harms or can help.

June 06, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Ever since they were children, Steve Choi, Ethan Levy and Elaine Chan have been told by people who never met them that the great passion of their lives, the thing that captivated and moved them, was the enemy of intellect, emotionally damaging and quite possibly the end of civilization as we know it.

Choi, Levy and Chan are gamers. That is, they play video games with serious devotion and intensity. They are also students at the University of Southern California -- Choi and Levy, both 22, are entering their senior year, and Chan, 21, is working on her PhD. But far from merely overcoming their digital predilections to succeed in college, these three and others like them are using their knowledge of games like Mortal Kombat and the Sims to further their education. As members of USC's Computer Games project, they are the local vanguard of a new academic discipline: video game scholarship.

Choi recalls that his mother gave him a computer when he was 8 because she felt computer science was the career path of the future; she was, however, less then thrilled when her son began spending much of his on-screen time playing games.

"All our lives we've heard how terrible it is," Choi says. "I wanted to offer the other side of the question."

Created through the Annenberg School for Communication, the Annenberg Studies on Computer Games is a multidisciplinary, multigenerational, multilingual research group dedicated to the study of computer games. The year-old group is one of several game-related projects springing up at universities around the country. MIT, Stanford, the University of Michigan and Northwestern University have various projects researching different aspects of interactive media. But USC's computer games project is probably the largest and most diverse collection of professors and students studying the vast yet mysterious world of video games. The research at USC focuses on the gamer rather than game design or development, and much of what they are doing is groundbreaking.

The project is the creation of Peter Vorderer, who heads the school's entertainment studies program, and Ute Ritterfeld, a German research associate professor with a background in health sciences and psychology. "We are trying to find out not only what is bad but what is good," Ritterfeld says. "Every new technology is met with fear and criticism. When picture books first came out, people said they would ruin children's imaginations; with radio it was the same; movies, television the same. We are trying to find out what is real and what is just fear."

After years of snubbing video games as a phenomenon not worth researching, scholars are now frantically attempting to catch up with an interactive media industry that is increasingly prevalent, seemingly permanent and still so new that the people developing it are the ones who are using it.

Ritterfeld says the topic itself is polarizing. "The nongamers consistently criticize the games, the gamers defend them. They honestly can't imagine any harm in them. What's really needed is more research."

Chan knows what true gamers face -- she spent one summer doing nothing but playing the online role-playing games she favors. Over the years, though, she has learned to keep her gaming habits to herself. "Whenever I mention that I'm sort of obsessed with video games everyone is shocked and horrified and asks, 'Well, how did you make it to USC?' " she says. "Even in the computer group," she adds with a laugh.

The 20-person USC group is an international lot, including members from Germany, China, Ukraine, India and Korea as well as all over the U.S. In the past years, it's developed or launched studies into areas as diverse as the effect of violent games on brain activity, the motivation of gamers, the benefits of interactive learning, and the role of narrative and character development in the games themselves.

While two of the studies will focus on the hot-button issue of violence, most are geared toward discovering what psychological needs the games fill and what role they can have in education and mass audience entertainment.

In one study planned for this summer, researchers will test the conventional wisdom that interactive learning is more productive than rote. "Everyone assumes children will learn more if they are playing a game," Ritterfeld says. "But we do not know that because it has never been tested."

Vorderer, who has edited several books on the psychology of entertainment, is already compiling a book about gaming, which he believes is changing not just the industry but the definition of entertainment.

"When we started, we thought, 'Well, games are cool and under-researched so this will be a good area,' " Vorderer said. "But the more work we do, it is so striking how everything is connected to games. The military, the movies, education, everyone is doing games."


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