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The Arcade and the University
October 4, 2011 - 9:00pm

What will the university be like in 30 years?

In 1981 I was 12 years old, growing up in Brookline MA, and spending lots of time in Cambridge where my dad was a professor. We would take the T to Harvard Square after school, go to my Dad's office to beg for some money, stop in at Elsie's for an Elsie's burger, and head to 1001 Plays (located at 1001 Mass Ave).

1001 Plays is long gone now (an Indian restaurant now occupies the address), and so is Elsie's. I'm betting that the video arcade in which you spent too many hours of your youth back in the 1980s, and too many quarters, is gone as well. Is the university destined to follow the same path as the video arcade?

1001 Plays was, at base, a place. A destination. A building, with maybe 50 video games, each able to play only one game with at most 2 players at once. Asteroids, Missile Command, Defender, Gorf, Donkey Kong - one arcade game, one arcade cabinet.

The game cabinets were tough. They had to be with the constant abuse that teens and pre-teens dished out to the joysticks, buttons, and screens. The vibe was semi-social, as we'd usually go in groups to the arcade and play against our friends until our quarters ran out. Each arcade always contained a few gurus, masters of the universe, who could sit at Galaga or Centipede for hours on 1 quarter, racking up insanely high scores. We'd watch these players with awe.

Video arcades started to close down when home video games and consoles began to approach them in the quality of gaming experience, delivered at much lower prices. The Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) were early warnings for the future of the video arcade. They co-existed with the arcades, as they were still far inferior to the experience one could get with a dedicated game device that cost thousands of dollars, and could only be played a 25 cents at a time.

Very quickly, Moore's law took over, and the quality of the gaming experience available through Sega Saturn (1995) or Sony Playstation (1995) began to rival that of arcade games, and by the time Xbox (2001) arrived the contest was over. And this account totally ignores the rise of games available on the PC, games which did not directly act like arcade video games, but offered different and more immersive playing experience, complete with complex narratives.

Is the university like the arcade?

Are today's online courses, accessed through a browser, equivalent to the early home video games played on the Atari 2600?

Like the video arcade, the university is a business model built on high fixed costs that requires a steady stream of tuition paying / quarter dropping young people to walk through its doors. Campuses and arcade buildings are expensive to own, expensive to rent, expensive to keep up.

Is the single game arcade console equivalent to a university course? High quality, but not really scaleable above the number of players (students) that can play the game (attend the class) at any one time.

Today, my daughters can play a huge number of amazing games on our home Wii, interacting with the games with their whole bodies through the Wii controller interfaces. Friends with XBox Kinect systems don't even need any controllers, as simple motion capture cameras allow the beginning of a fully-body immersive experience. The games are still social, as even when playing alone at the house they can play against gamers from around the world through the system.

The arcade went away very quickly. Today, specialized arcades still exist, catering to subgroups of gamers. These specialized arcades are high-end, offering expensive 3D environments or large scale kinetic sports games that cannot be duplicated with home consoles, computers, or tablets. Most kids don't go to these specialized arcades, as the home game consoles and platforms work fine for them, and besides they can't afford them.

Will the university follow a path similar to the video arcade? Will the future of higher education delivery resemble the story of the video game industry?


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