Internet | Sports

February 12, 2009

StarCraft College

Berkeley's Alan Feng uses the popular game to reframe life as a race for resources.

David Downs

It's 7 p.m. on a Thursday in the first week of the winter semester here at UC Berkeley—prime-time drinking hours on any red-blooded American campus—yet room C230 in the Haas School of Business is packed to the doorjambs.

Fanboys peak in through the window at black furrows of rapt Asian heads. They fill every seat in the room and spill into the aisles. The class is such an event that the marketer of Brawndo energy drink hands out tall-cans. A producer and a cameraman from leading games blog focus on the podium and record every second of the lecture from undergraduate Alan Feng.

Berkeley Starcraft

Graphic by David Goldenberg.

Feng looks more like a high-school sophomore than a college one, even dressed in a long-sleeved, button-down shirt, and necktie. Though he may look callow, Feng's got it figured out. He has flipped his gaming 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 a major.

Far away from Wall Street meltdowns and Pakistani proliferation, Feng and friends will spend the next 14 weeks toying with total, racial annihilation in the form of the massively popular game StarCraft. Released in 1998, StarCraft is a tense, ADD-style race against time. Players get a God-like perspective over different maps of sci-fi terrain. Their goal: Pick a race and obliterate their opponent with massive firepower. To do so, their forces must mine minerals and gas, fabricate buildings and then pump out tons of vicious units. Glittering, explosive 100-tank battles will strain their attention and mousing skills as the game pumps techno breaks. Wins fuel euphoria. Losses feel as crushing and disorienting as, well, life.

And that's Feng's angle. Life is a resource battle. The amassing and deployment of those resources 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," Feng says. "If 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, then you're going to have no clue how to run a business."

In a way, Feng is the prime example of applicability. He's turned toxic, wasted weeks of gaming into the filthy lucre of popularity, academic achievement, maybe even a career. Before he became a real-time strategy game professor, though, Feng was one of those game junkies who re-mapped 12 years of piano lessons onto a keyboard, and one day hoped to become a pro player. He says he played so much that he lost the ability to read literature: "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 discovered Cal's Democratic Education program or "DECal," which allows Berkeley undergrads to teach their own classes. Somehow, he managed to convince a business professor that StarCraft holds vital life lessons.

An excerpt from Feng's first class, courtesy of

Feng expected perhaps 30 multiplayer fiends to show the first day, but quadruple have arrived; even a few girls. His Facebook page for the DECal course went viral when it got picked up by a few gaming blogs. Soon, social-news aggregator had news of StarCraft 101 on its millions-served main page.

Feng's inbox went nova. Now, he's dissuading crashers of the two-unit course. "This is not easy. It's not for the weak-hearted, so consider that when you are taking this class. Also consider you might fail," he says. "We'll be dealing with concepts in derivatives, calculus, analytic geometry, and differential equations."

Like it or not, Feng's part of the future. MIT, Carnegie Mellon, USC, Georgia Tech, and UCI all have game-theory classes and majors. Slowly, America is becoming more like South Korea, the capital of the StarCraft universe, where more than four million of its nine million copies have been sold. There, this doom simulator is a generational touchstone on par with Lil Wayne or Harry Potter. Professional gamers train 10 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.

Yes, for now 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. Economic annihilation still looms. The clock still ticks. We check our cellphones and get going. Time is wasting.

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Article by David Downs

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