Updated: 13 hours ago
I'm a nerd, let's get that out of the way. I grew up immersed sci-fi, fantasy, movies, television shows, anime, video games, board games, tabletop games, and even read certain textbooks for fun (still do, looking at you A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to The Present). My childhood pre-dated critically and commercially acclaimed comic book movies, the ability to make a living by streaming video games online, and the widespread adoption of video games for everyday audiences (think mobile phone games, or the Nintendo Wii in the mid-2000s). To put it simply, it's a lot easier to openly embrace nerdy culture now than it was during my childhood.
The social stigma and ostracization of being a "nerd" led me to hide many of my hobbies and interests from friends and family for most of my life. Sadly, I still hear echoes of these feelings in students I work with today. It's not uncommon to hear a student say, "It's easier to just say nothing than try to explain my interests, hobbies, or passions." This breaks my heart, and for this reason I've become more open about my nerdy side and encourage students to do the same.
So what does all this have to do with the college search and application process? As an admission officer and a college counselor, I've read too many essays and applications focusing on students telling me what they think I want to hear. What they don't realize is that the thing I want to read about is an authentic, introspective, and self-aware portrait of who they are as a person. Families tend to reinforce this censorship of a students personality, often both knowingly and unknowingly. We all see the stories of the 4.0 GPA, 1550 SAT, honor society student and that's what has become the standard of success. What most families don't see, but I have, is the student with an average GPA and test score that can successfully articulate why they actually participate in extracurriculars; explain their values; describe what problems they want to solve in the world; and write a unique essay that reflects who they are as a person, not just what they've accomplished. I've read thousands of essays by this point in my relatively young career, and the handful that have stuck with me had nothing to do with the students' grades, test scores, or accomplishments.
So, over the next few blog posts, I want to write about a topic that seems to grow more common each year I work with students and families: video games. It's a tale as old as the ~1980s: a parent is concerned because their student is spending too much time playing video games and not engaging with the world. I'll be the first to concede that not all students who play video games should be writing a college essay about them, and sometimes video games are just a temporary escape from the stress of life (same as movies, television, books, and any number of other hobbies). However, I'm going to posit the idea that there are a lot of students out there who have a true passion for video games and, with a little introspection, can turn that passion into a powerful asset for their college application.
During this multi-part college essay blog series, I'm going to review a few different ways to tackle the topics of video games:
The Personal Impact of Video Games
The Impact of Video Games on a Student's Professional or Academic Path
Video Games as a Catalyst for Pursuing a STEM Education (Coming Soon...)
Video Games as an Interdisciplinary Collaborative (Coming Soon...)
As a reader, I want you to keep in mind two more universally understood concepts into which we can distill these essays:
An introspective look into how a form of culture has shaped a student's ideas, beliefs, values, and personality.
An introspective look into how a student began a journey to help shape others through the act of creation or innovation.
The Personal Impact of Video Games
Yes you, the person reading this blog!
I want you to stop everything that you are doing (including reading this blog) and sit silently thinking about something for at least 30 seconds:
I want you to think about a piece of culture that helped make you who you are today. This can be a piece of music, a movie, a book, a video game, a family tradition, or even a story passed down generation to generation.
Ok, now that we've all had our small serving of guided mediation for the day, let's continue forward. I will start by sharing what first came to my mind:
The year is 1999, I'm wandering up and down the stacks at my local Movie Gallery. I'm still young, only seven, but trips to Movie Gallery have become significant to me because they mean either a new video game in which I can escape reality OR a new movie that will create a short, but much-needed, moment of "family time" in the household. As I lurk through the copious VHS tapes and video game cartridges, a holographic shine catches my young eye and I am introduced to an unknown movie called Princess Mononoke. On the cover, a young man clashes holographic pearly swords with an unknown enemy and in bold letters at the top it reads:
One of Roger Ebert's Top 10!
"The Star Wars of Animated Features"
-New York Post
Now that's a lot for a seven-year-old. As much as I'd like to claim I was some young cinephile and the prospect of an animated film on "Roger Ebert's Top 10" motivated my selection, that would be a lie. The selection process was much simpler: I like Star Wars, the blades on the front of the tape shined like light sabers, the cover mentioned Star Wars and animated films, thus I thought I had discovered a Star Wars animated movie. I had no idea that this movie would become my favorite film of all time and a defining cornerstone of the person I would grow to be.
Now I don't want to give away much of the movie, as I believe every person should at least give it a chance (Disney has bought the rights for physical distribution and HBO Max has it available for streaming). The film focuses on a young prince from a small village of a disenfranchised ethnic minority. He is magically cursed defending his village from a monster and must be excommunicated and travel westward to find peace between an expanding industrious humanity and a spiritually rich forest full of ancient animals (the most literal man vs. nature theme one can think of). It is a film that deals with coming of age themes, confronting stereotypes, the relationship of humanity and nature, the idea of early religion, themes of racism, sexism, disenfranchisement, environmental issues, the all-consuming power of greed, discovering compromises between opposing ideologies, determination, grit, bravery, and sacrifice. Good and evil are not so clear-cut, rather they are ambiguous and exist on a spectrum with a tremendous amount of overlap (much like life). As a child being raised by a single mother, perhaps one of the most important aspects of the film was the multitude of strong, smart, and capable female characters which defied the "damsel in distress" archetype seen in most children movies. Growing up, this film became an integral piece in forming my sense of ethics, morality, values, and who I wanted to be in the world.
I present this exercise because I could easily write a book about the impact this movie has had in my life. More often than not, proper guidance, support, and an attentive ear can shepherd students to discover or expand upon their own piece of cultural media that has helped shape them in some way.
If any of this sounds remotely interesting, look into the rest of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli's filmography [aside from Princess Mononoke, I'd also highly recommend the 2003 Academy Award Winning Best Animated Feature Spirited Away). Many critics hail Miyazaki as the "Walt Disney of Japan," but I think this is underselling his works (not to mention the problematic nature of forcing a comparison of an Eastern animator to a Western animator to give him legitimacy to international audiences....).
Artistic, Emotional, or Developmental Impact of a Single Player Game
The story begins during a global pandemic. A single father and daughter are attempting to escape Austin, TX as society begins to collapse into chaos. The plan fails, the father is injured, and the daughter is killed. Fast forward 20 years: the father is weathered, downtrodden, and hides his deep-seated emotional trauma and guilt behind a gruff persona who uses survival as a justification for his extreme, violent, and criminal actions. Once a construction worker, he now works as a smuggler bypassing government quarantine measures to transport goods for payment. His life is devoid of joy, filled with savagery, and ultimately without any hope for a brighter future. This all changes when he is tasked with smuggling a 14-year old girl out of Boston to a research facility in Colorado, because her immune system might hold the secret for a vaccine. So begins an extended journey across the United States, where the father must confront his repressed guilt for his daughter's death, come to terms with his history of violence, and restore his faith in the possibility of a brighter future.
No, I'm not describing the newest Oscar-nominated drama or popular indie film from SXSW. This isn't the description of the hottest new post-apocalyptic young adult novel sweeping the nation. This is a rudimentary description of The Last of Us (2013), arguably one of the most critically and commercially acclaimed single-player video games of the past decade, developed by the gaming studio Naughty Dog and published by Sony Computer Entertainment on their popular PlayStation videogame consoles. The game is emotionally powerful, performances are sublime (both voice acting and motion capture), Guastavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel, Making a Murderer, Jane the Virgin) composes a harrowing and heartfelt soundtrack, and the writing is top-notch from beginning to end. In fact, HBO is currently developing a The Last of Us television series written by Neil Druckman (writer/director of the video game) and Craig Mazin (HBO's Chernobyl) starring Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones, Narcos, The Mandalorian) and Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones, Hilda). When I think of a game that can create a personal impact on a person through storytelling, it's hard to think of a better example than The Last of Us.
When writing about the artistic, emotional, or developmental impact of a video game, the essay is going to focus on bridging the experience of a video game with its personal impact on a student. In this scenario, it is important to remember that the video game is not the star of this essay. Instead, a student needs to dig deep and find a meaningful connection with the video game and how it has helped them grow and develop as a person. Even then, a student will need to go a step further and not only talk about how this development is connected to a video game, but how they have adopted, adapted, and integrated those thoughts, lessons, and beliefs into their everyday life. This is the time when a student will need to provide evidence of this personal impact through examples in their life: academics, extracurriculars, life lessons, meaningful hobbies, important relationships with friends/family, etc. Lastly, the student needs to be mindful of how their growth and experience will impact their future, especially when thinking about their participation on a college campus, and their academic, professional, and life goals.
By the end of this essay, the student has displayed their way of thinking, level of introspection, journey in forming their beliefs/values, and ultimately connected the video game to how they live their life and what they hope to accomplish. Here are some suggestions for outlining this type of essay:
What is the history of the student with the video game?
When did the student make this connection?
What was going on in the student's life at this time?
Why did this particular video game affect them on a personal level?
How has the video game impacted them on a personal level?
How has a student taken this impact and integrated it into their life, beliefs, value system, etc.?
Moving forward, how has and how will the student take agency of this impact and affect the world around them (e.g. their school, community, family, friends, clubs, organizations, etc.).
I hope that after reading this students feel a little more empowered to be vocal about their passions and families feel a little more comfortable with the prospect of their student writing about the personal impact a video game might have had on them. In part 2, we'll take a look at how a student can take their experience from competitive multiplayer games and turn them into an interesting essay topic.
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With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors