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Dean Rutenbeck Touts Gaming With a Purpose

By Lauren Ober


To say that School of Communication Dean Jeffrey Rutenbeck was a video game enthusiast in his younger days would be an understatement. He guesses he spent thousands of dollars in quarters during his youth playing Galaga and Defender and many other classic arcade games. He would stand for hours smashing buttons and jamming joysticks. He loved the problem solving aspect of video games. If a game could be beaten, he wanted to figure out how.

As an adult, Rutenbeck has had to abandon his hobby, but his love of the sophistication and complexity of game theory and design have stuck with him. He sees a future where gaming is used not just to entertain, but also to positively impact society and culture — to get more people recycling or driving more safely, say. Or on a grander scale, games could be used to promote tolerance and understanding.

Rutenbeck discovered his interest in this kind of gaming at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., where he was the dean of the Division of Communication and Creative Media. During his tenure, Champlain became a top-ranked institution for game design, art, and animation in North America.

Dean Rutenbeck talked with AU and shared his insights on what he calls “public purpose gaming” and its future potential:

American University: What is the state of the public-purpose gaming field right now?

Dean Jeffrey Rutenbeck: Outside of traditional game contexts, game design provides a way for people to meaningfully involve themselves with information and data and ideas. And if you think about how much time and energy and money have gone into entertaining and purely manipulating people through commercial games and how much time, money and energy have gone into building public-purpose games or developing even the art, craft, and theory of public-purpose media, the latter pales in comparison. So it makes sense that current efforts in public-purpose games are primitive, they’re often ineffective, they’re underfunded, they lack sophistication, and they lack an awareness of each other.

One of the most important things people can do on the academic side is just become aware of all the other people who are trying to build games, develop game theory, and advance the field. Progress is being made compared to 10 years, five years, five months ago.

AU: How do you think games fit in with more traditional forms of media?

JR: I believe that gameplay and the hyper-complexity that games embrace are not only a more relevant form of media compared to traditional media such as print where you can master the sensibility and the aesthetic and manage a more predictable set of impacts. But in this sort of digitally powered and complex world of evolving gameplay, we are creating clusters of people who have mental acuities and abilities, and physical abilities, that don’t match up with the rest of the population. Games are powering and emphasizing emergent human abilities.

AU: How so?

JR: Whether you want to call it a more highly evolved form, or some people who would call it a more devolved form or an aberrant form, there are more and more professions that depend on lightening-quick decision-making and physical reactions paired with strategic, on-the-fly thinking. It very clearly communicates this idea that through our evolving relationship with technology we’re creating a different category of human behavior.

AU: Can you explain more about this?

JR: These are people who are either willing to implant technology in themselves, or involve themselves more immersively and consistently in technology. And that launches a different evolutionary branch of humanity. This is a long-term concern, but if you get a really skilled game designer in your problem-solving group, they can come up with truly unconventional and highly effective solutions that others wouldn’t have thought of.

AU: Why is academia interested in public-purpose gaming?

JR: The idea is that if we leave the influence, power, and possibility for games in the hands of the commercial developers, then shame on us. We would be backing away from taking a leadership role in shaping what is arguably the most compelling form of media in human history.

AU: What would a program in public-purpose gaming look like?

JR: So much of what we’re trying to work through in this increasingly mediated world is how do you even get people’s attention? How do you even create awareness? An effective program in public purpose games can create some meaningful and powerful ways to punch through that noise and complexity and provide an opportunity to create awareness, to inform people better, to maybe to guide us toward a more positive future.