The electric blue bean bag chairs and “Legend of Zelda” posters tell the story: The Gaming Lab at Smith College is unlike any other learning space on campus.
The lab in the Imaging Center on the third floor of Hillyer features a video arcade cabinet with more than 100 games and five stations for playing everything from classic Nintendo titles to the latest indie and virtual reality games.
Since it opened last year as a hands-on learning space for students in Film and Media Studies game-studies courses, the lab now draws video game enthusiasts from engineering, studio art and other fields.
“Friday nights, everything here is filled,” says Faith Kim ’19, one of two students who manage the lab’s open hours. “Some people come in knowing what they want to play, and others come in never having gamed before.”
Kim and fellow lab assistant Rebecca Wolf ’20 are passionate about video games—and about having a space where women can feel comfortable playing them.
“People can be very toxic online,” says Wolf, an engineering major who has been interested in games since middle school. “We all have screen shots of nasty comments about women gamers. Smith’s lab is a safe space to experience gaming—a place to fall in love with interactive storytelling.”
Kim, who is majoring in computer science, says it’s empowering to have a chance to play games featuring non-white, female and LGBTQ+ protagonists.
“The message I get from those games is that my potential is limitless,” she says.
The presence of Smith’s gaming lab reflects a growing interest in the field of game studies—both on campus and at other colleges and universities, says Jennifer Malkowski, assistant professor of film and media studies, who launched the lab last year.
Smith stands out in encouraging participation by women, people of color and gender minorities—groups that are still underrepresented in the gaming industry.
“Video games are extremely important works of popular culture,” says Malkowski, who is co-author of the book Gaming Representation: Race, Gender and Sexuality in Video Games. “It feels especially important to be teaching game studies at a women’s college.”
The gaming lab aims to foster learning about video-game media and offer resources for students beyond those interested in game studies. This semester, for example, students in Paramjeet Pati’s engineering class on sustainable cities are creating group projects using games in the lab.
“Most student laptops won’t meet the high-end hardware requirements that city-simulation games need, but the gaming lab provides access,” says Pati, Picker Professor of Practice (Engineering). “As the lab becomes more well known at Smith, it can be a fertile ground for novel interdisciplinary projects, such as exploring gender and identity through role-playing games or developing systems-thinking through strategy-focused games.”
On a recent afternoon during the lab’s open hours, Maggie Sellers ’20 was settling into a bean bag chair for a session of “Dragon Age: Origins,” a game she enjoys because it allows her to play the role of a female warrior.
“I don’t actually own a game computer,” Sellers noted. “So I come in whenever I can steal a moment.”
Across the room, Anna Casasco ’19J was playing the team combat game “Overwatch.”
“It’s a way for me to de-stress,” Casasco says. “I like that there is such a wide variety of characters to pick from.”
Wolf and Kim are excited to see more members of the Smith community using the lab, and they are working to get the word out through a new Facebook page that includes a full game inventory.
“This space is such an educational resource,” says Kim, who has had experience creating as well as playing video games. “I’d love to see more students doing game development on campus.”
“It’s a great place to break down barriers,” adds Wolf, “so people can discover this new mode of storytelling.”