Video games are more than just technology — they also have the power to communicate. Through story, setting, characters, and dialogue, game developers guide players through an experience that reflects a certain set of values, ideas, and beliefs.
That is where Claire Joly comes in. A professor of Humanities and Social Sciences (and chair of that department) at DigiPen, Joly’s job is to impress upon her students the importance of language in both making games and understanding their place in our culture.
“DigiPen students don’t often do research on games — they build games,” Joly says. “They code, they program, but they don’t think about the cultural implications of games.”
Originally from France, Joly studied English literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, earning a master’s degree before coming to the United States on a university exchange program. She earned a second master’s degree in theater at Smith College in Massachusetts, followed by a doctorate degree in comparative cultures from the university of California at Irvine. She began teaching part-time at DigiPen in 2000 and joined the college full-time in 2006.
Having taught at numerous universities on the West Coast, Joly quickly found that DigiPen students are in a different category than those of other schools. “DigiPen students come here on a mission: They want to make games,” she says. “So unlike a lot of college students who go to college with very open-ended goals, students come here pretty much knowing ‘I want to be a programmer,’ or ‘I want to be a designer,’ etc.”
Joly’s challenge is to take her area of expertise — language and sociology — and make it relevant to her students, but “without catering to their desires as gamers,” she says. “I plug in game design elements or bring in examples from video games because students are more motivated if I show the connection between what I do and what they do.”
Initially, Joly was surprised by how her students responded to this approach. “One thing I’ve found is that a lot of these students are far more interested in the subjects I teach than they even realized, because it’s not an interest that has been tapped into,” she says. “These are very creative students. And when you study language, or literature, or culture, your creativity comes to bear. They just apply it differently.”
Joly is not just teaching her students, however; she is learning from them as well. When she arrived at DigiPen, Joly says, “I had no clue how hard it is to make a game. To see how hard the students work to make even a small project … I really developed a genuine appreciation for the work that goes into it.”
She has even developed more of an appreciation for the medium as a whole, though she confesses she is more interested in casual games than the next big-budget blockbuster. “The more I look at the projects students are making, the more I realize that games are very diverse,” Joly says. “The world is yours with games, pretty much the same way it is with any art form, whether it’s film, literature — you name it.”