Oct. 25, 2012 at 5:39 PM ET
If you love playing the epic fantasy-themed game "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" then right now would be a great time to be a student at Rice University in Texas.
After all, if you take the English course being taught by instructor Donna Beth Ellard, then you'd be playing the enormously popular role-playing video game for homework ... not to mention for credit.
Ellard is an instructor in the private university's English Department. She specializes in medieval literature, and starting next spring she'll be teaching a class she's created called "Scandinavian Fantasy Worlds: Old Norse Sagas and Skyrim."
Up to 19 lucky students will have a chance to partake in this junior-level class which will have them reading selections from Old Norse and Old Icelandic sagas while they play different quests within the game.
Though Ellard told me this is the first time she's used a video game in a class, she is part of a growing number of college instructors who are incorporating games into university-level course work. For example, at Wabash College in Indiana, "Portal" was made required "reading" for all students. Meanwhile, World of Warcraft has been used at Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania as part of the intelligence studies program. And at the University of Texas at Brownsville, one instructor has used PlayStation 3 video games to teach physics.
I had a chance to talk to chat with Ellard — who, perhaps surprisingly, does not consider herself an avid gamer — about the class, what she hopes playing "Skyrim" will teach her students and why fantasy is so important to our modern lives. Read on ...
Q. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Ellard: I’m an Anglo-Saxonist, which means that my research deals primarily with literature that spans from about 700 to 1150 (although those dates are very flexible). This literature is written in Old English and Latin.
Although my research field is the early medieval period, I am deeply committed to thinking about its connection to later periods. To these ends, part of my work focuses on the role that Scandinavian literature played in the development of my field, Anglo-Saxon Studies, during the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
This period — from the French Revolution to the end of the Napoleonic Wars — was a time when England was at constant war with France, a time when it was busy expanding its colonial territories, and a time when its antiquarians and historians were engaged in writing Anglo-Saxon history.
Where does Scandinavia fit in to all of this? During the late-18th century, very few Old English texts were known or readily available, while Scandinavian poetry had been circulating popularly in England since the mid-18th century. Aided by the dim understanding that Anglo-Saxon England was populated by tribes from northern Europe (including Scandinavia), Scandinavian literature and history became a critical source for early Anglo-Saxon Studies.
In other words, Anglo-Saxon Studies developed during a period of war in which England was struggling to define itself as a nation and as an empire. And Scandinavia came to function as a “fantasy” culture that was folded into Anglo-Saxon history. Its pagan warriors from which Anglo-Saxons descend and against which they fought (read: the Vikings) became figures that allowed the English to address modern questions of nation and empire.
Q. How do video games fit into your life? Are you an avid gamer?
Ellard: I am not an avid gamer. I had heard of the Elder Scrolls series, but it wasn't until I saw someone playing "Skyrim" last year that I became really taken by the game. I started playing it myself not only because I found it beautiful but also because its investments in a fantasy world of dragons, draugrs, trolls, and magic (concepts that are not exclusive to but relate extensively with the sagas) are coupled with a politics of national identity and Empire that resonate intimately with those of late-18th and early-19th century England.
Q. How did you come up with the idea to use "Skyrim" in the classroom? What inspired you?
Ellard: I had wanted to teach a class on fantasy for both theoretical and historicist reasons. For one, fantasy is probably one of the most important components of our daily psychic lives (how many times do we catch ourselves daydreaming?). Likewise, I believe that it’s critical for undergraduates to understand the high level of interactivity between medieval and contemporary literature and culture.
Because my field (English) organizes literature according to historical period, undergraduates can be led to believe that their survey of 18th-century literature doesn’t have anything to do with, say their survey of 20th-century literature. And in this paradigm, you can imagine how remote and unrelated medieval literature could seem to those of later periods. A course about fantasy seemed like an effective way to bridge medieval and modern literatures and cultures.
I didn't have to choose "Skyrim" for the class. I could have paired Scandinavian sagas with modern fantasy fiction (e.g. Tolkien) or with contemporary film (e.g. "13th Warrior"); however, "Skyrim" seemed like the most logical choice. Not only would it allow us as a class to think about the immediate cultural and political implications (both national and imperial) of why this particular game is so incredibly popular but it would also enable us to have conversations about the critical role that video games (unlike other media) play in reshaping medieval fantasy.
Q. What do you hope your students will ultimately take away from this class?
Ellard: I hope that they leave with a basic understanding of how fantasy works as a psychological concept. I hope that they are introduced to medieval Scandinavian literature and its relevance to modern culture. And I hope that they learn about the politics that percolate below the surface of our Scandinavian fantasies.
Q. Do you expect all of your students will be gamers? Or do expect to have some non-gamers join?
Ellard: I really don’t have any idea. The students I know who plan to take it in the spring are interested in medieval literature, but I can see that it would appeal to gamers as well. I might limit it to folks who have some experience playing the game, but I’m not sure.
Q. Can you give me an example of what a homework assignment will look like?
Ellard: I’m still working out the class, so I don’t know yet. As the primary materials are Norse and Icelandic sagas and theoretical readings on fantasy, most homework will be text-based. For me this is a very experimental class, so I don’t know to what extent 'Skyrim' will be a participant in regular assignments. I have thought about structuring reading units around different quests, but I’m not sure.
Q. You said this is the first time you've used a video game in the classroom — does that present any unique challenges for you as the instructor?
Ellard: Anytime you teach a new class the learning curve is pretty steep, but I don’t have a pedagogical model for discussing a video game in a classroom especially in relation to textual materials. It’s not like a film clip, which can be viewed in class and then discussed.
Video games are interactive, personal experiences. You’re a player only when you operate the controller, and in 'Skyrim' the quests you experience in the game are contingent upon the choices you make.
Q. I have noticed video games appearing more and more as part of college-level course work. Do you have any thoughts about why games can be a successful teaching tool?
Ellard: Personally, I don’t see "Skyrim" or any other game as a teaching tool. I see it as a “text” just like film and television are texts, just like visual and performing arts are texts. Each engages with and refracts contemporary culture.
As a medievalist, I’m not interested in advocating video games in the classroom; however, these games are as integral to popular culture as other "more respectable” art forms and should be acknowledged as such.
One might pause for a minute and recognize that it wasn’t so long ago that film wasn’t considered worthy of study, and film studies departments are now part of most university arts and sciences programs. The same thing could be said for studying fantasy and science fiction in English departments. Twenty-five years ago undergraduates weren’t reading Tolkien in university, and now no one thinks twice about it.
Q. Is there anything else you'd like people to know about the course you're teaching and why you decided to use "Skyrim"?
Ellard: I’d just like to press upon the point that this is not a class about playing video games. It’s not even a class about "Skyrim." It’s about medieval fantasy and about acknowledging the very important role that it plays in the recreational pursuits and the serious politics of contemporary culture.
To dismiss fantasy and to ignore the impact of the Middle Ages on modern psychic life is to remain unaware of how and why we structure some of our most basic belief systems.
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.