What it means to be a cool academic

Herrle-Fanning makes video games cool again at Last Lecture on Earth

Jeanette Herrle-Fanning: prof by day, video game enthusiast anytime else.
Jeanette Herrle-Fanning: prof by day, video game enthusiast anytime else.
Photo courtesy of jonassmith.dk

The world of academia is an interesting place.

As a prof, you could produce a dissertation on Shakespeare’s possible political conspiracy movement or produce an existential argument on whether character really exists or not.

Or, if you’re Jeanette Herrle-Fanning, you could decide to defend the realm of video games—often dismissed with a label of “bullshit escapism,” as she puts it, or just uncool—in the framework of fantasy as a literary genre.

And yes, she did convince me on that count on an otherwise uneventful Wednesday night—the second installment of the Last Lecture on Earth series, run by the AMS Academic Affairs Commission. Kicking off the lecture with Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” (yes, really), Prof. Herrle-Fanning’s lecture embodied her essential qualities: casual, funny and downright quirky.

“What I’m trying to do here is to apply critical paradigms established for fantasy literature to video games,” she told the crowd assembled at Alfie’s.

She then introduced the two sub-genres of fantasy people often use to categorize works: the consolatory and the subversive. Consolatory is the lighter, escapist kind of fantasy, and subversive is more serious and uses fantasy as a “mirror” to our own world. Her question of the evening was: “can you have something that is both consolatory and subversive at the same time, or are they mutually exclusive?” According to Herrle-Fanning, both the narrative and interactive qualities of video games act as catalysts to close the gap between the consolatory and the subversive and achieve the overall effect of a bona fide fantasy. She explored this point further by discussing the extent of virtual reality and freedom one has in the game realm and the “cognitive dissonance” that a game player may experience between his/her contradictory role as both a spectator and a player at the same time.

She demonstrated this seemingly complicated “Cartesian dualism” by showing the rather infamous “Leeroy” clip, a hilarious screen scene of a multi-player game of Warcraft. A team of intense online players has a detailed plan to advance in the game, but are rudely disrupted by the flailing solo charge of “Leeroy”—who runs in heedless of his angry teammates and gets them all slaughtered. The palpable anguish that comes across in the voiceovers convulsed Herrle-Fanning’s audience with laughter.

With her opener, “let’s talk about why that’s so funny,” a rather interesting discussion among audience members took place, encompassing topics like whether the scene was staged or not, and the strange aspects of online multi-player games. The discussion elicited some heated responses on Leeroy. One guy exclaimed, “[how the game is played is] just … wrong! That’s not how you play that!” Although the crowd had slimmed down by the end of the night, the level of dialogue of those who were engaged in the discussion was impressive.

As much as I enjoyed the lecture, I derived greater pleasure from having the opportunity to have an hour-long “interview” with Herrle-Fanning the day before. We ended up discussing not just the subject of fantasy and video games, but other subjects like ranging from “afronaut” science fiction rap music to the reality of academia in general.

A passionate believer in the active learning model, Herrle-Fanning is known among students for her casual and conversational teaching style, which is a result of her first experience at Lehman College in the Bronx. She said adapting her informal teachings style helped her students—most of whom were underprivileged—learn.

“I mean, for some of them, being able to identify continents was a triumph,” she said. “[During an exam], a guy put up his hand and asked, ‘is China considered [a] part of Europe?’

“If you didn’t get right in there with them and directly engage with them, no learning would’ve happened. It had to be intense.”

What does she think of the Last Lecture on Earth series as a whole?

“I thought the concept was good. I mean, that’s what university should be all about ... people coming together, using their intellectual skills to discuss topics of interest to them and having fun with that.

“[I hope that] many gaming aficionados in the audience … apply the same skills in literary analysis, having learned a new way of looking at this stuff.” She added that to try to classify video games as “good” or “bad” was not a useful way to discuss them.

“Because video games are a relatively new medium, and one under tremendous

commercial pressure, we really haven’t seen all the possibilities inherent in the medium exploited yet,” she said.

Like Harlequin romances in literature, the possibility of producing junk in every medium isn’t a feature of video games exclusively.

“You can’t tar everything with a same brush,” she said.

“Because video games are a relatively new medium, and one under tremendous commercial pressure, we really haven’t seen all the possibilities inherent in the medium exploited yet.” —Jeanette Herrle-Fanning, Professor of English

Like the parents of the ’50s, who worried about the supposedly sexual and radical rock ’n’ roll, there is a tremendous fear of video games in our generation, she said, noting that she doesn’t see much differences between playing video games and watching TV.

“[If people cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy, they] have a pre-existing mental problem,” she said.

But she said she does believe that people should be more selective about the content of video games—for that reason, she won’t let her five-year-old son play Grand Theft Auto, because explaining the context of being an African-American outlaw in a way he would understand is just “impossible.” As time was running out, I had to ask the obligatory favourite book question—because she is an English prof, after all.

“Ooh, that’s hard,” Herrle-Fanning said, hesitating. “OK, if I was condemned to have one book for the rest of my life, [it’d be] Don Quixote … [it’s a] masterpiece of authorial virtuosity, and it’s hilarious.”

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