Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

Kristin Bezio is comfortable with contradictions. She’s a Shakespeare expert and a pop-culture critic, a leadership professor who encourages her students to question everything she tells them, an academic and a video gamer, a woman in traditionally male-dominated fields, a literary scholar who says the worst thing for scholarship is getting siloed in your discipline. And in her office in Jepson Hall, surrounded by books and under the steady gaze of a Shakespeare portrait, the assistant professor of leadership studies is chasing amorphous blobs across the screen on her computer monitor.

The game she is playing is called flOw, and for those of us who might think that video games are a mindless black hole where SAT scores and ambition go to die, it’s worth noting that this particular game began as the mesmerizingly beautiful product of its creator’s MFA thesis project. It’s one of the games students play early in Bezio’s seminar Games, Game Theory, and Leadership, and it poses students with a question both literal and metaphorical: How do you figure out what the rules are when nobody tells you what the rules are?

Without explanation or introduction, flOw simply begins with a white shape — really just a string of three small circles with a C-shaped appendage at one end — adrift against a soothing blue background, accompanied by hypnotic electronic music. That you quickly intuit that the shape is some kind of wormlike creature floating in a featureless sea, and that when another shape pulses onto the screen you know your creature is supposed to “eat” it could tell you something right off about how the mind works to make sense of familiar movements and patterns.

You almost instinctively reach for a controller — mouse or track pad or other device — to move the creature through the space, an impulse that suggests how thoroughly our digital devices have trained us.
Strangely captivating, flOw is also, at first, bewildering. But slowly, you realize, you’re learning to play the game by playing the game, cued by visual and sound elements and errors that you figure out how not to make again.

You could pause here to consider how our minds are attuned to learn, to pick up and apply information we’re not always even aware we’re absorbing; you started out not really sure where you were headed or what your goal was, and you had to begin spotting the cues, reading the signs, connecting cause and effect, devising a strategy, and figuring it out step by step. It might even remind you of something. College maybe? Life?

Of course, you don’t have to think about any of these things. You could just play the game. But “not thinking about things” is exactly what Kristin Bezio doesn’t want you to do. As a scholar and as a teacher, she explores how games and other forms of popular entertainment implicitly and explicitly shape, reflect, and question our view of the world. This is the thread that connects her two apparently disparate fields of inquiry, early modern drama and contemporary gaming.

“Whether 400 years ago or today, popular culture has the capacity to change the way we think about things, sometimes without us even being aware that it is doing so,” Bezio says.

In her teaching, then, Bezio asks her students to be aware, to ask: What are the default presumptions we operate with? Why do we believe what we believe? Why are things the way they are, and does that mean they are necessarily the way they should be?

“So often students come in trained that things are a certain way,” she says. “They don’t ever stop to think whether they have to be that way or should be that way. And I want them to think about that. The most practical thing I can give my students is the ability to critically evaluate what is in front of them and think for themselves — to evaluate evidence, find information, process what it all means, and come to a conclusion.”

Dude, you’re a girl

On a spring afternoon, Bezio is sitting in a coffee shop near the University of Richmond campus talking about Shakespeare and popular culture. 

“In his day, he was Steven Spielberg,” she says. “He wasn’t a super-important high-culture guy. He was catering directly to the masses.”

When Shakespeare was writing, she says, “Elizabeth was well past the average life span, with no children, so the big question was, ‘What’s going to happen next?’” With uncertainty about who would succeed Elizabeth, “on the stage the question was: What happens when people try to come in and impose their will?” And again and again in Shakespeare’s plays, she says, “the idea is that kings are accountable and that they should be accountable, and that if they really blow it, people have the right to take them down.”

Did Shakespeare’s plays shape public opinion about what a leader should be? In studying Shakespeare, Bezio says, you look at “the conversations that are happening on the stage relative to what is going on politically around those plays.”

In the same way, she says, you can look at contemporary popular culture and ask what is happening in the world and how it is being commented on, reflected, or even shaped by modern media in a deeply complex feedback loop. What is cause, and what is effect? How does popular culture sometimes simply amplify what we are, and how does it sometimes offer a vision of what we could be?

You started out not really sure where you were headed or what your goal was, and you had to begin spotting the cues, reading the signs, connecting cause and effect, devising a strategy, and figuring it out step by step. It might even remind you of something. College maybe? Life?

On the one hand, popular culture is arguably a vehicle for social progress. Did the fact that a black actor played a U.S. president on a popular television series in the years before the 2008 election help make the idea of an Obama presidency viable to the show’s audience? Did the television show Murphy Brown make single motherhood more socially acceptable? Did Will & Grace help pave the way for the legalization of gay marriage?

“If it becomes normal, then it becomes normal,” Bezio says. “That idea — of normalizing having different people around you — goes far more to decrease bigotry than pretty much anything else.”

On the other hand, popular culture can also reinforce or even promote regressive stereotypes and unquestioned conventional ideas. Bezio grew up in the world of computer and video gaming and technology from the time she was a young child; she was playing computer games you’ve never heard of — Lode Runner? Face-Maker? — before most of us had ever heard of computer games. She’s as digitally native as you can get. Yet the mere fact of being a woman in gaming subjects her to persistent suspicion, harassment, and even abuse, and Bezio says she doesn’t like playing with strangers in online multiplayer environments.

“If I speak out loud and they hear my voice, then I have to deal with all these people accusing me, ‘Oh, it’s really your boyfriend playing,’ or, ‘You’re not really a girl,’” and demanding pictures to prove it, she says.

She recalls the time she’d been playing skillfully but silently with an otherwise all-male team in an online game. When she finally offered a comment, she was greeted with silence followed by an astonished, “Dude, you’re a girl?”

Why is this so? More than 150 million Americans and more than a billion people worldwide play video games. Almost as many adult American women (48 percent) as men (50 percent) engage in playing them, according to a recent Pew Research study. Why, then, should routine harassment and stereotyping be the particular entry price of gaming while female? Why, too, are female characters, if they appear at all in video games, so often cartoonishly sexualized, Kim Kardashian bodies scantily outfitted in laughably improbable outfits that defy the laws of physics, not to mention pragmatics? (Who girds for battle in a metal bikini and thigh-high dominatrix boots?) Why, despite the actual demographics, do a majority of both men and women, including more than half of women who actually play video games, “believe that most people who play video games are men,” according to the Pew survey?

And why does asking these questions, as a woman, in public forums — blogs, gaming conferences, news outlets — run the real risk of earning the asker a torrent of abuse, including graphically violent death threats?

Death threats.

Over video games.

When Bezio wrote a piece for The Seattle Times addressing a particularly contentious (and, to anyone outside the gaming community, almost incomprehensibly arcane) controversy about sexism in gaming known as “GamerGate,” as a precaution her university contact information and CV were hidden from public view, and she used a secondary email address that routed to the University’s communications office to insulate her from the anticipated backlash — not the usual stratagems called to bear when an academic pens a thought piece for a regional news outlet.

But this is why asking questions — why are things the way they are, and does that mean they are necessarily the way they should be? — is the vital role that university scholarship plays and the one it models for students.

“Since we are constantly seeking new knowledge,” Bezio says, “scholarship is always questioning.”

Games People Play

The cake is a lie

Back in Bezio’s office, the visually arresting flOw is replaced on the monitor by ZORK, a truly old-school computer game created by MIT students in the 1970s, and another game played by students in Bezio’s game theory seminar. It’s interactive, but purely through text, opening with this rather opaque introduction:

This is an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.

There is a small mailbox here.

A rubber mat saying “Welcome to Zork!” lies by the door.

Once again, how do you figure out the rules when nobody tells you what the rules are? In this game, you have to enter commands, and the game provides you information and feedback — not all of it particularly illuminating — based on what you type.

>enter house

I can’t see how to get in from here.

>walk to house

You can’t see any such thing.

>walk

You’ll have to say which compass direction to go in.

Among the things ZORK teaches, besides one’s tolerance for frustration, is the importance of specificity in language, a point English teachers often struggle to convey and which undergraduates often struggle to learn.

“ZORK,” says Bezio, “teaches the students how to communicate in words.”

As Bezio’s seminar progresses, the games grow increasingly complex — visually, narratively, interactively, and thematically. Each game builds skills the students will need in the next one, but each also introduces increasingly murky layers of misdirection and even deception.

In Gone Home, a visual “narrative exploration” in which players explore a house where no one is home, there are red herrings that create confusion as the plot is revealed. In Portal, a wildly imaginative extended exercise in physics puzzles overlaid with a dystopian plotline, a disembodied computer voice named GLaDOS offers guidance and instruction while leading your first-person character through a series of progressively harrowing “training exercises” with the promise of cake as the reward. But GLaDOS is an unreliable narrator.

“The game eventually betrays you,” Bezio says cheerily. “Instead of cake, there’s a fiery pit you have to escape.”

As proof of the reach of pop culture, “The cake is a lie” has taken on a meme life of its own (you can buy it printed on a T-shirt). It’s a phrase that sums up what the game is teaching Bezio’s students beyond the gameplay itself.

“Why are you listening to the voice?” Bezio asks. “Why do you believe what she’s telling you? The game trains you to think about that.”

And from there, Bezio says, some students get to exactly the “aha!” moment she’s hoping for them.

“Should we question what YOU tell us?” they ask her. “And I say yes.”

Choose Wisely

In a traditional literature class, students examine how characters behave within a narrative, look at the choices they make and the consequences of those choices, and consider what the author might have been saying or what they as readers might conclude from those consequences. Can they imagine themselves into the minds and the motivations and the decisions made by a murderous king, a feckless lover, a benighted and troubled hero? Would they have chosen differently?

In the games students play in Bezio’s seminar, however, students not only examine the narrative and its meanings and imagine themselves as its characters, but they actually step into the narrative and assume the role of the lead, the one making choices, and experience directly, within the rules and the environment of the game, the consequences of those choices. By the time the students encounter BioShock, the final game they play in the class, they find themselves embedded in a multi-character narrative (an extended critique of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, according to Bezio) where allies and enemies aren’t always clear, and players are forced to make ethically complex choices with uncertain outcomes.

“The game is designed to force those ethical choices,” Bezio says. “And the point is that it is complicated, and it is not obvious what you should do.”

For students who have come up through the current education system with its focus on bubble-sheeted standardized testing with a limited set of defined choices, a pop-culture video game set in a dystopian virtual world that asks them to confront ethically ambiguous situations and make difficult decisions turns out to be a helpful way of rehearsing their way through the kinds of dilemmas they will face in their real-world futures.

“We want students to begin to think about the many dimensions of solving a problem, of analyzing a situation,” says Jacque Fetrow, Richmond’s provost and vice president of academic affairs. “By giving them opportunities to see how other people have done it” — whether it’s a historical figure, a Shakespearean king, or a weapon-wielding character in a video game — “they can begin to think about ‘why did they make that choice,’ and we can help students begin to know how to make their own choices in the moment.”

Today’s students are graduating, as they are ever reminded, into an increasingly complex and unpredictable globalized world with a career environment radically different from the one their parents were educated for only a generation ago.

“For today’s students graduating from college, the average number of jobs they’re predicted to hold is in the double digits,” Fetrow notes. “We’re educating students not for a single job but for a lifetime of jobs, some that don’t even exist today. That means that throughout their lives, they are going to need to be able to learn new skills, to solve unscripted problems, to do things that were not necessarily required of previous generations, and they are not going to be able to be successful unless we help them develop those skills necessary.”

These skills, Bezio says, will help them navigate the unpredictable. “Students will ask me, ‘What should I do in order to get a job?’ wanting a clear and obvious path,” she says. “But that is not how life works. There is not a clear path. There is not a series of check boxes.”

Leveling up to leadership

On Bezio’s monitor, the introduction to BioShock Infinite, a sequel of sorts to the first BioShock, is playing. When Bezio’s students have made it this far, they’ve mastered the skills and the knowledge to mine a video game’s narrative for meaning, to navigate its gameplay, to consider their choices, and to make difficult decisions. They’ve learned to question everything.

However, Bezio says, “once you have that base knowledge, you have to do something with it, and what you do with it is not something that anyone can tell you.”

One thing they do with it in Bezio’s class is make games of their own. In teams, students spend the semester devising, planning, creating, and troubleshooting games built on an open-source platform called ARIS that makes it possible for non-programmers to develop GPS-based games for smartphones.

Listening to many voices does not mean that you automatically give each of them equal weight, that we have to accept what they say as equally valid. But if we don't listen, we will never know.

Each team keeps a blog during the process. Reading the arc of the entries, from initial brainstorming through team role assignments, trial-and-error to completion, is to see at work the human capacity for endless ingenuity: Here, take this tool you’ve never used to create a game that doesn’t exist, drawing on skills you might not yet know you have, within a random group of people who have never worked together before.

The students have to choose roles for themselves — who will be the programmers, write the script, be the artists, keep the team on task and on schedule. They have to agree on a concept, develop a detailed execution plan, master a working knowledge of ARIS’s capabilities, devise workarounds for its limitations, identify glitches, delegate problem-solving, and maintain communication through everyone’s class schedules and extracurricular demands. Chronicling each team’s navigation through these expectations and challenges, blog posts are by turns hopeful, reflective, urgent, pragmatic, and celebratory.
There is insight: “The only way we can produce a fun and diverse game is by pulling ideas from a diverse set of minds.” There is building excitement: “Our game is really starting to be something to get excited about and I can’t wait to play it in the near future.” There is frustration: “gazebo quest half works”; “lots of issues with the water bucket”; “why isn’t ‘yes’ an option??”

And there is pride in success: “I believe we accomplished everything we imagined and more. We took an idea, expanded on it, and ended up with a unique game that forces the player to contemplate each and every decision.”

And if the tangible result of this process is fighting mutant geese or escaping a Richmond-campus plague or taking a virtual tour of campus via riddles, what actually goes into figuring out what should happen when you hit the digital triceragoose with a bucket or why the game crashed between the Commons and Gottwald is, for one thing, realizing “how incredibly complicated it is to create a game,” Bezio says.

More than that, however, the students have moved from reading the character to playing the character to creating the character, from analyzing choices to navigating them to devising them. For “The Richmond Plague,” the team even decided to include an ethically ambiguous situation — a “selfish” and a “selfless” path, determined by a single decision, each leading to different outcomes in the game.
In studying, playing, and working together to create the narratives of games, the students in Bezio’s seminars keep having to reset their perspectives and consider different stories and different points of view. In our current cultural moment, marked both by an expanding list of pressing global issues and a concurrent retreat into ever more polarized, partisan narratives and selectively curated realities, the expectation that students must entertain perspectives not their own is perhaps one of the most widely underappreciated values of a liberal education.

“Listening to many voices does not mean that you automatically give each of them equal weight, that we have to accept what they say as equally valid,” Bezio says. “But if we don’t listen, we will never know.”

Or as Development Team Uno put the stakes succinctly on its blog: “We all have to work together effectively if we want our game to be truly successful.”

Caroline Kettlewell is a freelance writer based in Richmond and the author of Electric Dreams.