It's 7 p.m. on a Thursday in the first week of the winter semester — prime-time drinking hours on any red-blooded American campus — yet room C230 is packed to the doorjambs. Fanboys peak in through the window at black furrows of rapt and primarily Asian-American heads. They fill every seat in the room and spill into the aisles. They are all here for total annihilation.
Total annihilation is what it feels like to play a good, real-time strategy video game. You feel like you're going to die, and that the forces of doom are building and each second ticks off another missed opportunity. Total annihilation has crashed-landed us all here in UC Berkeley's first-ever class on the real-time strategy video game StarCraft, held tonight in the Haas School of Business.
The class is such an event that the marketer of Brawndo energy drink is handing out tall cans. A producer and a cameraman from leading games blog Gamespot.com focus on the podium and record every second of the lecture from sophomore undergraduate Alan Feng.
Even dressed in a long-sleeved, button-down shirt and necktie, Feng looks more like a high school sophomore than a college one. But he is craftier than most seniors. While many play beer pong, haze pledges, and ignore the dire economic news, Feng has transformed his StarCraft addiction into one of the hottest classes on campus. Today, he's got more shine than resident campus icon Michael Pollan. He's doing Internet-famous teaching while his peers ponder what major to take.
Far, far away from Wall Street meltdowns and Pakistani proliferation, Feng and friends will spend the next fourteen weeks toying with total racial annihilation. The best-selling game StarCraft, released in 1998, is a tense, ADD race against time. Players get a God-like perspective over different maps of sci-fi terrain. Your goal: pick a race and obliterate your opponent with massive firepower. To do so, your forces must mine minerals and gas, fabricate buildings, and then pump out vicious fighting machines. Glittering, explosive hundred-tank battles will strain your attention and mousing skills. Wins fuel euphoria. Losses feel as crushing and disorienting as well — life.
And that's Feng's angle. Life is a resource battle. How you deploy them separates the winners from the losers. He could hang out with Dick Cheney.
"We're going to be going over concepts that we talk about in StarCraft terms with StarCraft architecture, but it will definitely be applicable to life," he says. "If you run a business and you don't know what your cash flow is, you don't what your production facilities are, you don't know what your throughput is, you're going to have no clue how to run your business."
In a way, Feng is the prime example of his own lessons. He has turned wasted weeks of gaming into the grand prize of popularity, academic achievement, maybe even a career. Feng is one of those game junkies who channeled twelve years of piano lessons onto a keyboard, and one day hoped to be a pro player. He played so many video games that he lost the ability to read books. "During the time I played seriously, my eyes got so used to tracking moving objects scrolling across the screen, I couldn't read books, because I couldn't stare at stationary objects."
Feng was never good enough to make the pros, but he and his bros discovered Cal's Democratic Education program or "DECal." There, undergrads can teach a class, and he convinced a business professor that StarCraft held vital life lessons.
The sophomore expected perhaps thirty multiplayer fiends to show the first day, but quadruple that number arrived — even a few girls. His Facebook page for the course went viral when it got picked up by a few gaming blogs. Soon, social news aggregator Digg.com had news of StarCraft 101 on its millions-served main page.
Feng's e-mail inbox went nova. Now, he's dissuading crashers of the two-unit course.
"This is not easy," he tells the class. "It's not for the weak-hearted, so consider that when you are taking this class. Also consider you might fail. We'll be dealing with concepts in derivatives, calculus, analytic geometry, and differential equations."
Like it or not, the future belongs to the world's Fengs. MIT, Carnegie Mellon, USC, Georgia Tech, and UCI all have game theory classes and majors. America is becoming more like South Korea, the capitol of the StarCraft universe, where more than four million of its nine million copies sold. This doom simulator is a generational touchstone on par with Lil Wayne or Harry Potter. Professional gamers train ten hours a day, make six-figures, enjoy groupies, and appear on dedicated gaming television channels. More than 120,000 StarCraft fans attended a 2005 man-on-man battle — the biggest competitive gaming audience in human history.
Feng has a mere hobby club on academic steroids, but it goes right up until the end of its 9 p.m. time slot, and ends with a bizarre, wild round of applause.
Streams of nerds pour into the night — chatty and buzzed on Brawndo. It's dark and late, and we are back in the world of oil shocks and toxic assets. Certain economic annihilation still looms. The clock still ticks. We check cell phones and get going. Time is wasting.
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