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Personal Statement For Marshall Scholar application

By Nicholas Baker '03

If concerned parents ever try to argue that video games rot your brain, I think I will be their nemesis. From the age of seven, I was a video game junkie, rushing home from school to defeat the forces threatening virtual worlds. At recess, my friends and I would pretend to be our favorite video game characters, imagining our own stories and saving the world at least once a day. By the age of twelve my thumb muscles had become overdeveloped, hampering my ability to grip a pencil. I would argue, however, that this was the only unhealthy effect that playing video games had caused me. I maintained a large group of friends, developed a great imagination, and spent just as much time playing outside as I did in front of the screen.

Initially, I think the dramatic storylines and characters of video games appealed to me more than what I saw as a lackluster social reality. Like many in my generation, I grew up believing that wanting to change the world was immature and naive. At the same time, I felt deeply devoted to a set of ideals originally influenced by my Catholic upbringing. Though I had slowly grown frustrated with the hypocrisy I saw in the church, my faith had remained. As a result, I felt a need to search for a way to truly change the world for the better - to help in some way to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty and selfishness. At the same time, I felt an intense desire to pursue video game design as a career. At the time, these two passions seemed incompatible.

Studying philosophy as an undergraduate introduced me to a whole new world. I learned that I was not alone in my search for truth or ideals. Voices throughout history were there to teach me, and through them my life took on new meaning and direction. In particular, non-violent protest and civil disobedience provided an inspirational example. Heroes like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had effectively changed the world without losing sight of the humanity in their adversaries. They had used their words and their bodies to stand up against what seemed like insurmountable opposition, awakening their opponents to the folly of their own actions. I joined in peaceful protests myself against the World Bank and IMF as part of the anti-globalization movement. I knew, the first time I heard the chants of my fellow protesters and stood before a line of policemen that I had found a method to contribute to real social change. Spreading awareness of the destructive policies of the World Bank and IMF was just one of many ways that I discovered the ability to be part of the solution to large-scale social problems.

My interdisciplinary project in London demonstrated that I could combine my dual passions. Working in a team, I designed and implemented a pair of web-based, educational computer games for Science Year, a British organization that aims to make science engaging for younger students. In the process, I realized that the goal of my project was not merely to make science fun and entertaining for kids. It was to engage them with the science at a deeper level: to create a space through which they could interact with scientific ideas, developing connections and thoughts of their own.

This experience taught me the enormous potential to transform video games from an escapist entertainment into a provocative medium of communication. Such games have the ability to tell profound stories with thought-provoking characters and themes, similar to classic literature or film. At the same time, they are unique in their ability to involve the audience directly in the experience. Players are able to affect significantly the virtual worlds set before them, taking an active and immediate role. Consequently, they can direct the events of the game in their own way, exploring the different sides of a given conflict or influencing its resolution. In the process, the players can be motivated to think about their own lives and the world around them.

The majority of the media today seems to promote a passive participation. Popular television, movies, and even video games direct people towards disconnecting from their own lives. Many people appear to pass through their days bored and unaware, while so many social problems threaten their freedom and safety. I believe that video games, when designed the right way, could push these people back into reality by teaching and inspiring them. I can envision designing a video game that could vividly illustrate the reality of the ecological crisis or the devastating effects of globalization. Such games could follow the plight of characters faced with the different forces and effects involved in these problems. I also see the potential for provocative games focused on the ills of mindless consumerism, or on the importance of social activism and involvement. Video games can be so much more than an escape or a way to pass the time - they can wake you up, make you think, and inspire you to act.

I know that the idea of video games as more than mindless entertainment may seem farfetched, to the academic community as well as to the game development industry. I am, however, only searching for a chance to help the medium prove itself. As a child, I was always drawn into the drama of saving imagined worlds or fictitious characters from monsters and evil forces. Maybe now, I can live to draw others into saving the real one.

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Last modified: Aug 31, 2004, 17:07 EDT
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