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Courses like "Tolkien in Online Gaming" are swindling desperate students

To be fair - this course is probably really fun if you like MMORPGs.

Would you like to meet your tutor online in a "polygonal Shire"? Photograph: Getty Images

Science fiction is a great vehicle for satire, since it lets writers isolate the embryonic madnesses of the present and cultivate them, through the medium of elapsed theoretical decades, into true absurdity.

In 2011, visual effects artist Freddie Wong created a YouTube comedy series called Video Game High School: a pastiche of countless American coming-of-age stories set in a near future where students go to school to study the theory and practice of video games.

Its protagonists are flunked for not spending enough time gaming, and compete not for places on the school football team, but for a chance to make the school First Person Shooter squad. VGHS’ jocks are just different nerds, in a world that values skill in games with the same ferocity as our own values academic and sporting talent.

These reversals make for lots of fun tropic subversion, but also nod heavily to societal reality. The show presents an end-state to the growing cultural acceptance of games as a hobby for well-adjusted adults, a growing industry, and a credible art form.

It’s far from complete fantasy. Competitive pro-gaming, televised and flooded with sponsorship money, has been commonplace in Korea for years and is an inevitability in Western markets.  The games industry represents a respectable and rapidly growing slice of the global economy. Barely a week goes by without a media debate on the case for games as art, and magazines embed journalists in online wars.

And now, students can enrol on online courses to study Tolkien as applied to online gaming. Here is a course where students meet their tutor online in a polygonal Shire, and spend seven weeks "discovering the culture heritage of online games" to achieve a certificate of completion.

For a start, I’m not going to bash Coursera, the educational technology company on whose platform the course appears, for this. Giving free online access to education is a phenomenally good idea for the world, and initiatives like Coursera run a staggering number of useful courses. This is just not one of them.

I’m also not going to splutter derision at this from some imagined cultural height. It would be very easy to plough into a generic howl about the dumbing-down of academia, "mickey mouse" courses and grade inflation, of the kind some pundits use to soothe their own fear and incomprehension of a changing world.

But people should be able to study what they like, and - to be fair - this course is probably really fun if you like MMORPGs.

A friend of mine who works in the field of Terrifyingly Advanced Mathematics takes Coursera courses for fun. Some are about astrophysics, but others are about the history of rock - a course he told me is "probably no sillier than the online gaming one".

But, crucially, he already has an Oxford maths Phd. He isn’t studying Chuck Berry and The Monkees in the hopes of getting a job out of it.  

Every year, hordes of young people leave school with a meagre set of grades, facing the prospect of a "no room in the inn" labour market that is especially brutal at entry level. They are desperate for higher education - for anything that will give them an edge in earning a living - and are willing to do an awful lot, even take on staggering debts, to get it.

On the half-sunk ship of the austerity job market, courses like "Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative" are offering them no more than a comedy foam hammer to use in the bloody struggle for the lifeboats.

But if the course is free, you may argue, what’s the problem? Surely sensible people can do this sort of thing for a laugh while earning their real qualifications?

In answer to this thought, it’s worth remembering it’s not only money people invest in their education - it’s hope.

The introduction to the online gaming course entices prospective students with the following blurb: "The twenty-first century gaming industry has become a creative and economic powerhouse.  It engages the talents of some of our brightest writers, artists, composers, computer engineers, game theorists, video producers, and marketing professionals, and in 2012, it generated an estimated $64bn in revenue."

This language drips with the implicit promise of work and a slice of economic pie. For a desperate young person in the early hours of the morning, staring at a grim set of exam results and facing the prospect of taking on a huge financial burden to get into university, it might just be seductive enough to spark the delusion that a job in the games industry is only seven short weeks away. It’s a cruel prospect.

There are questions Video Games High School never had to answer, because it was a comedy show: what kind of economy could support massive educational establishments devoted only to gaming, and what schools would train the rest of the vast workforce required to keep it going? What happens to the VGHS graduates that don’t make a professional games team?

While we may well be moving into a future where pro-gaming is big money TV sport, where culture pundits discuss stories told through the medium of XBOX, and where games coding is as large and respected a profession as mechanical engineering, it is - sadly - a much greater leap to a world where anyone can get a job just by doing what they enjoy.