Blog Post

Thoughts on Teaching Literature and Gaming

This summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach a course entitled Literature and Gaming for the English Department. Since I know many HASTACers are interested in issues of gaming and pedagogy, I thought I'd share some of my trials and triumphs with everybody. I'd very much like to get feedback and hear other strategies on gaming classes that you've taken or taught.

First, a brief overview of the structure of the course. It was designed as a gateway into digital game studies for undergraduate majors in literature. Combining the study of print-based texts and digital games, we interrogated five areas in which video games are commonly seen to diverge from literature: Play, Narrative, Space, Time, and Avatar. The literature, games, and theory chosen for the course helped students complicate their understanding of each of these topics as they relate to both gaming and literature, with the ultimate goal of troubling the distinction between these two fields.

I am aware that teaching games from a strictly literary perspective is tantamount to heresy in some circles, and that applying theory coming out of one medium to another has its own problems. I made a necessary compromise in order to be allowed to teach the class at all, and one of my goals was to make students aware of the ways in which this theoretical switching did and did not work. As an introductory class, I think this was able to lay the foundations without needing too much correction for more advanced study down the line.

I would like to thank my colleagues at the Humanities Gaming Institute for their support and assistance in developing this syllabus.

Trial #1: It's my first time.
This was my first solo class. I had never been solely responsible for the design of a syllabus or classroom instruction, so naturally I was overly optimistic about how much my students would a) read and b) talk. Shaming them into conversation with awkward silence only took me so far.

I have some ideas for changing up the syllabus (posted below) for next time. Some of the literature didn't mesh well with the theory, and overall the reading was heavy for the students.

Trial #2: The quarter system.
Six weeks, four days a week. A grueling schedule for students taking one class, let alone the three or four that some of them piled on. The time crunch also made it difficult to choose games to work on. With the reading load, it was unreasonable to expect students to finish more than one game over the term, but no one game was a good example for all the topics I wanted to cover. My compromise was to have them choose one game to play over the course of the term and keep a weekly play blog dealing with the theme of the week. There would be smaller examples throughout the quarter, but they would only be required to familiarize themselves on a basic level with gameplay.

This meant choosing a list of games that were short enough to complete in the given time but still good and rich in content, that were available on a variety of hardware, and (VERY importantly, as I discovered) games with which I was already familiar. So heres the list they got:

  • Bioshock
  • Cave Story
  • ICO
  • Metroid Prime
  • Psychonauts

Trial #3: Too much nuts and bolts, not enough culture
Given the way I focused the course on structures like narrative, time, and so on, I was quite dissatisfied with the amount of ideological critique I was able to get the students to do. Most of it was reserved for the Avatar section, and ended up in boring conversations about gender and hostile ones about race. This is something that must be fixed for next time.

Trial #4: Non-gamers
These guys were a challenge for a variety of reasons: access to hardware, skill level, and anxiety about the medium. Not surprisingly, I had several students drop after introductions were made, and the ones that stayed had a lot of initial anxiety about gaming. But it turns out that once we really got into the meat of the course, most of them took quite naturally to gaming.

Triumph #1: Non-gamers
I cant tell you how rewarding it was to see those same students who were doubtful at the beginning of the quarter really make the connections between literature and gaming. They learned new methodologies and discovered precisely what I was hoping: many of the interpretive skills are transferable in both directions.

Favorite moment of the summer: some male students were talking before class about a boss in Cave Story that was difficult to defeat. After a few minutes of their commiseration, one of my female (previously non-gamer) students turned around and very matter-of-factly told them the secret: You just have to shoot out its guns first, then you can kill it.

For. The. Win.

Now, if only I can streamline the syllabus so that there would be more willing readers....

Triumph #2: Gamers
There were only a handful of them, but despite my general fear that many gamers hate academics, the gamers in my class actually enjoyed the material quite a bit. Their perspectives really helped bring things into focus for the rest of the group, and I know one or two of them were exceptionally excited about discovering a new field. UCSB does not have as strong of an on-campus presence in humanities-based game studies (or a strong gaming culture in general), so it was quite rewarding to be an ambassador for these students.

Triumph #3: In-class play demos While most of my students couldn't play all of the games we were talking about in the class, they did get a lot out of collaborative analysis we did with video clips or live play demos. I showed them 5-10 minutes of a game, and we would abuse the classrooms large chalkboard to the fullest extent to document the observations that they had. Sometimes we would go for breadth and leave the observations shallow, and sometimes we would drill a single observation to its minute implications. The students really appreciated this practice, and it was great to see what they came up with.

I used a similar exercise on the midterm, playing a 10-minute clip twice and asking them to find specific things and write a short close reading of one of their observations.

Triumph #4: Functional Papers
My own anxieties about the course led me to fear that their final papers were going to be absolutely unreadable. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my very first course on video game studies with students who were entirely unfamiliar with the field had just about the same types of strengths and weaknesses as the other regular English classes for which I've been a TA.

I'll paste relevant parts of the syllabus below if anyone is interested. Looking forward to comments if you have any.

ENGL 165LG: Literature and Gaming
M-R 12:30 1:35
Instructor: Amanda Phillips

He11o, and welcome to the Enrichment Center.

This course will serve as a gateway into digital game studies for undergraduate majors in literature. Combining the study of print-based texts and digital games, the six-week program will interrogate five areas in which video games are commonly seen to diverge from literature: Play, Narrative, Space, Time, and Avatar. The literature, games, and theory chosen for the course will help students complicate their understanding of each of these topics as they relate to both gaming and literature, with the ultimate goal of troubling the distinction between these two fields. At the end of the term, students will possess not only knowledge of the fundamentals of the study of digital games, but also the ability to identify the gamic aspects of print texts and the vocabulary with which to discuss them. 

...

A Note on Playing Games
Because our readings and discussions will refer to video games, it will be necessary to play games throughout the course in order to have a sense of the objects in question. However, because of the length of the term, the amount of time required to complete many games, access to hardware, and the availability and expense of software, some concessions will have to be made. I will make all games and necessary hardware to play them available in the Transcriptions Center (SH 2509). You can come during my office hours or make an appointment to be let into the studio to play. For each play assignment, you should complete enough of the game to get a good sense of the concepts we will discuss I will let you know at the end of every week what the minimum completion is for the games of the next week.

In order to ensure that you play at least one game all the way through, you will choose from a list of games that I will provide and keep a weekly (minimum) gameplay blog about your experiences. This game can also provide the basis for your final paper.

Grading
Attendance (10%): You have two free absences to use at your discretion. After that, you will see an impact on your grade. More than four absences may result in failure of the course. Attendance will be recorded on an attendance sheet that will be collected during the first few minutes of class. Be warned that my memory is terrible, so not documenting your presence on paper will result in loss of credit for that class.
Participation (20%): Students should come to class having read all material and prepared to make meaningful contributions to class discussion.
Gameplay Blog (20%): Choose one of the following games to play over the course of the term. Each week, you will write a blog entry of at least 500 words analyzing your week's play in terms of the theory that we have read for that week. Each blog entry is due on Sunday evening.

Game Choices:
2K, BioShock (360/PS3)
Double Fine Productions, Psychonauts (PS2/XB/PC)
Pixel, Cave Story (PC) [available for free]
Retro Studios, Metroid Prime (GC/Wii)

Team Ico, Ico (PS2)
Midterm (20%): In-class during Week 3.
Final Paper (30%): 7-8 pages. Topic to be distributed as assignment nears.

Schedule of Readings

Week 1: Play/Action/Interactivity
August 2 5
Monday: Introductions
Syllabus, questions, gaming

Tuesday: What is...?
To Read:
Defining Play, Defining Games, and Defining Digital Games in Salen and Zimmerman,
Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. [301-11], [71-83], [85-91] (2004)
To Play:
Something that you consider a game. Prepare to discuss.

Wednesday: Theories of Action
To Read:
Gamic Action, Four Moments, in Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture [1-38] (2006)
The Myth of Interactivity, in Manovich, The Language of New Media [55-61] (2002)
To Play:
One from each list of emblematic games for Galloway's four moments.

Thursday: Playful Print
To Read:
Selections from the Oulipo
Paulson, "The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality: a diagnostic test in two parts" (1974)
Selection from Barthelme, Snow White (1967)

Week 2: Narrative
Aug 9 12

Monday: What is Narrative?
To Read:
Abbott, Narrative and Life, Defining Narrative, and The Borders of Narrative, from The
Cambridge Introduction to Narrative [1-35] (2002)
To Play:
Bit Blot, Aquaria http://www.bit-blot.com/aquaria/ [Mac/PC, free 30-day trial] (2007)

Tuesday: Narratology vs. Ludology
To Read:
Aarseth, "Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation," from First Person [45-55]
(2004)
Selections from Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray (1998)
Juul, "Games telling stories? A brief note on games and narratives," Game Studies 1:1 (2001)
http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/
"The Last Word on Ludology v. Narratology in Game Studies," Janet Murray (2005)
www.lcc.gatech.edu/~murray/digra05/lastword.pdf
To Play:
Tetris [various]
Faade http://www.interactivestory.net/ [Mac/PC, free] (2005)

Wednesday: Playing Narrative Games
To Read:
Juul, Rules and Fiction (excerpt), from Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and
Fictional Worlds. (2005)
To Play:
Quantic Dream, Heavy Rain [PS3] (2010)

Thursday: Reading Gamic Narratives
To Read:
Rulfo, Pedro Pramo [excerpts] (1955)
Queneau, Yours for the Telling (1973)

Week 3: Time
Aug 16 19

Monday: Time
To Read:
Richardson, Introduction: Narrative Temporality, from Narrative Dynamics [9-14] (2002)
Genette, Order, Duration, and Frequency, from Narrative Dynamics (25-34)
To Play:
Rohrer, Passage http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/passage/ [Mac/PC, free] (2007)

Tuesday: Space-Time
To Read:
Juul, "Introduction to Game Time," from First Person [131-42] (2004)
Bakhtin, Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical
Poetics, from Narrative Dynamics [15-24]
Coover, The Elevator (1969)
To Play:
Nintendo, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask [N64/GC/Wii] (2000)

Wednesday: Experiments in Time
To Read:
Richardson, Beyond Story and Discourse: Narrative Time in Postmodern and Nonmimetic
Fiction, from Narrative Dynamics. [47-63]
Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/375
Borges, "The Secret Miracle" (1944)
To Play:
Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time [GC/PS2/XB] (2003)

Thursday: Half Time
Midterm

Week 4: Space
Aug 23 26

Monday: Navigable Space
To Read:
Manovich, "Navigable Space," from The Language of New Media [244-285] (2002)
Miegakure: A puzzle-platforming game in four dimensions,
http://marctenbosch.com/miegakure/
To Play:
Shute, Small Worlds http://jayisgames.com/cgdc6/?gameID=9 [Web, free] (2009)

Tuesday: Narrative Space
To Read:
Jenkins, "Game Design as Narrative Architecture," from First Person [119-30] (2004)
Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)
http://courses.essex.ac.uk/lt/lt204/forking_paths.htm
To Play:
Valve, Portal [Mac/PC/360] (2007)

Wednesday: Literary Space
To Read:
Friedman, "Spatialization: A Strategy for Reading Narrative," in Narrative Dynamics (217-227)
Mitchell, "Spatial Form in Literature: Toward a General Theory," Critical Inquiry 6.3 (Spring
1980): 539-67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343108
Abbott, Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions [excerpt] (1884)

Thursday: Material Space
To Read:
Gennette, selections from Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1987/1997)
House of Leaves [excerpt] (2000)
VAS: An Opera in Flatland [excerpt] (2003)

Week 5: Avatar
Aug 30 Sep 2

Monday: First Person
To Read:
Brooks, Narrative Transaction and Transference, [excerpt] from Reading for the Plot: Design
and Intention in Narrative (1984)
Smith, Body Matters in Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games. Reconstruction
6.1 (Winter 2006). http://reconstruction.eserver.org/061/smith.shtml
Anthony, On the Uses of Torture (1981)
Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1952
To Play:
Linden Labs, Second Life http://www.secondlife.com [Mac/PC, free]

Tuesday: Second Person
To Read:
Burn and Schott, Heavy Hero or Digital Dummy? Multimodal Player-Avatar Relations in Final
Fantasy 7 (2004) http://vcj.sagepub.com/content/3/2/213.full.pdf+html
Hawthorne, The Haunted Mind (1835) http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/9209
Munro, Tell me Yes or No (1974)
To Play:
Square, Final Fantasy VII [PS2] (1997)
Sierra, Space Quest or King's Quest [PC] (1986, 1984)

Wednesday: Third Person
To Read:
Hayes, Gendered Identities at Play: Case Study of Two Women Playing Morrowind. Games
and Culture 2.1 (2007): 23- 48.
Doctorow, Anda's Game (2004)
http://dir.salon.com/tech/feature/2004/11/15/andas_game/print.html
To Play:
Tomb Raider

Thursday: Third Person (cont)
To Read:
Leonard, Young, Black (& Brown) and Don't Give a Fuck: Virtual Gangstas in the Era of State
Violence (excerpts) Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies 9.2 (Apr 2009): 248-72.
http://csc.sagepub.com/content/9/2/248.short
To Play:
Rockstar, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas [PS2/XB/360/PC/PSP] (2004)

Week 6: Other Considerations
Sep 6 9
Monday: NO CLASS

Tuesday: The Medium is the Message
To Read:
Bogost and Montfort, Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers
http://www.bogost.com/downloads/bogost_montfort_dac_2009.pdf
Hayles, "Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis." Poetics
Today 25:1 (Spring 2004), pg 1-9

Wednesday: Synthesis

Thursday: NO CLASS (Instructor Conference)

 

 

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10 comments

Amanda,

I just wanted to drop a note to say hello and to say that it sounds like you had an interesting, challenging, and mix of a class.  I, too, have taught video games in an English/literature department.  My course was for an Introduction to Cultural Studies and "virtual worlds" and "video games" were the occasion for thinking about the key terms and concerns from various cultural studies perspectives.  I think I echo your realizations about needing to adequately frame the class, to preface about goals and expectations, to take into account things like familiarity with/skill with/acceptance of gaming, and how to bridge different media and theoretical perspectives.

The first year I taught the class (I cannot imagine doing it in only 6 weeks), the biggest challenge was getting students to be open to and willing to look at video games as serious objects of study.  It's what I call "killing their childhood" syndrome.  I've also taught classes on fantasy literature and Harry Potter and popular culture.  And I often mean resistance to things they want to protect as "entertainment" or "fun."  The second year I taught the class I framed things a bit clearer and it was smoother, easier. 

The other issue was access to games.  I had a class of 40 and did not feel like I could make them all buy a bunch of games.  So, I picked mainly free, web-based, and free-for-trial games.  It worked pretty well. 

If you'd like to see what I did, here's the website: http://staff.washington.edu/changed/207/

Thanks for sharing!  And I look forward to talking more about video game studies and pedagogy.

Cheers,
ED
http://staff.washington.edu/changed/
http://depts.washington.edu/critgame/wordpress/

 

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One option for distributing games is to choose older games which are available on an online download service, such as Steam or Good Old Games. Students can purchase those games relatively inexpensively, and they can also run easily on an inexpensive laptop. For instance, were I teaching this course I'd strongly consider including Deus Ex, which can be purchased for 10$ off Steam, or the absolutely marvelous Arcanum, which can be had for 6$ off of GOG. Given what students pay for course textbooks, asking them to plunk down 20-40$ for a few games is probably not unreasonable. Of course, this only works for computer games, but still...

 

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Tim Welsh (commenting below) and I have been experimenting with Steam this quarter, teaching Civilization III, Psychonauts, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.  We've also thought about having demo days for console games, etc.  Cost is an important factor (I just don't think we're at the point yet where a student can explain to a parent, let's say, that they need to shell out hundreds of dollars for video games for a class like they would for their calculus textbook).  Minimum tech requirements are also a factor.  But even if these things aren't a problem, I also want to demonstrate to students (particularly those who are overly invested in big titles, big graphics, brand and franchise loyalties) that the intellectual, ideological, and political study of video games can be applied to even the simplest games, ones they would throw away without a thought.  I also think teaching games that have been emblematic in video game scholarship alongside games that are just plain off the radar, on the fringe, or ignored is doubly useful. 

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Ed, thanks for sharing your syllabus and comments on using off-radar games in your class. I completely agree, and I admit that my weakness in this regard is being overly invested in big titles. :) Part of this comes from an interest in popular culture, but I would love to be able to work in more indie/web titles in the future. If you have some sort of list of essential indie games to play, I would love to expand my repertoire.

I don't think cost was an issue for most of them, since I only required the purchase of a single game and I made their readings available online. Nevertheless, thanks for sharing GOG, Richard. This will be invaluable in the future both for research and teaching!

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Just to clarify, I meant $20-40 total. Also, one thing you can do is have a few common class steam accounts, on which you load all the games. With Steam you can login and download the games anywhere, but only one person can be online on the account at any given time. However there's also an offline mode, too, that you can play games in without logging in. Anyway, share the logins with students and set up a google calendar app so that they can reserve the accounts for specific blocks of time. Or just have students download the games and play in offline mode. This should be legit under educational fair use, though obviously, they would have to delete the games off their computer once they're done with them for class purposes.

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Ed, I'd also like to give you due credit for the weekly play blog idea. :) I did do some homework while creating the syllabus!

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This is a really impressive class. I can't imagine setting this up as for the *first* class I taught on my own. As a scholar who also likes to think print literature and gaming together, I am really happy to see courses like this happening. Thank you for posting the syllabus and writing about your experience. 

I think you hit on something really crucial. From what I understand, it sounds like students were on board with everything except for when you got into critique, right? From my experience teaching games, game players will go with you on the academic study of game until you suggest they might have questionable politics. Then, they are out and hard. Ed (above) and I had that experience trying to teach Bioshock. One suggestion that the camera mechanic was dehumanizing and that it related to the politics of the algorithms driving the game and that was it. 

I can somewhat understand their reaction. Setting aside the complications of teaching identity politics, gamers are used to being told that gaming is bad for them and so it makes sense they throw back when they catch a whiff of criticism. 

Your suggested response, though, I think is probably the right one; if you want to go cultural criticism you have to do it earlier and not let it all be about avatars. One of the approaches Ed and I took was to make the resistance to cultural criticism the central tenet of the course so that we could from the beginning get them accustomed to seeing games as culturally significant objects. (more about that course here: https://depts.washington.edu/critgame/wordpress/courses/why-so-serious-videogames-as-persuasion-politics-and-propaganda/You would think gamers of all people would be all in on that, but they aren't and if we as teachers of digital media want to teach with games its something we have to figure out how to respond to. 

In any case, congratulations on what looks like a fabulous class. I'd love to know about any other gaming classes you have in the works. 

-t

 


 

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Thanks for your kind words about the syllabus... it was difficult to put together, particularly with so few connections at my home institution to get ideas from. I am starting to build contacts through HASTAC, HGI, and a bit out into the UC, but as we all know this is a slow process! Would be interested in game-related events being held on your campus.

Addmitedly, some of the problems I had with critique were entirely my own. The readings I chose were not the most effective, even for topics that I'm so passionate about. The Hayes was a bit dry and clinical (which I wanted in order to add some "hard evidence" to the discussion), and Leonard's tone did not resonate very well with most of the students, even though I chose it precisely for that reason.

I think you're right about sounding like the games-are-bad crew, but I like the Leonard piece precisely because he takes game studies academics to task for defending games against detractors specifically by downplaying problematic politics; at the very least, they like to stay publicly within the VG violence isn't harmful arena without attention to the racial implications of depicting certain types of violence committed by and against certain types of people. This is a larger problem, I think, within a field that seems to be having a hard time getting away from producing even more taxonomies and schematics (which is hegemonic, patriarchal activity to begin with) and into more cultural studies. The violence is beside the point - as we've seen in the past month, vastly more people are actually harmed by the racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes that many games promote than the odd shooter who may or may not have been taught violence in gaming.

On an unrelated note, I finally did get students to be appropriately horrified by finding a bunch of psych studies linking media representations of people of color to real-world prejudice and vice versa. I'm not sure how I feel about using social science to validate humanistic study, but they were not just taking it for granted that racist stereotypes in media can be harmful. It was very quick and dirty research, but these are the titles I came up with if you find them useful:

  • Mastro and Robinson, "Cops and Crooks: Images of minorities on primetime television"
  • Esqueda, "European American Students' Perception of Crimes Committed by Five Racial Groups"
  • Power, Murphy, and Coover, "Priming Prejudice: How Stereotypes and Counter-Stereotypes Influence Attribution of Responsibility and Credibility among Ingroups and Outgroups"
  • Graves, "Television and Prejudice Reduction: When Does Television as a Vicarious Experience Make a Difference?"
  • Ford, "Effects of Stereotypical Television Portrayals of African-Americans on Person Perception"
  • Cicchirillo, "The effects of priming racial stereotypes through violent video games"
  • Goff, Eberhart, Williams, and Jackson, "Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization, and Contemporary Consequences"
  • Correll, Park, Judd, and Wittenbrink, "The Police Officer's Dilemma: Using Ethinicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals"
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This just came through on @GamePolitics Twitter feed....

"Columnist Weary of How Arabs and Muslims are Portrayed in Western Games" http://gamepolitics.com/2010/10/21/columnist-weary-how-arabs-and-muslims-are-portrayed-western-games

 

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What a wonderful syllabus.   I hope others will post their syllabi too.  And on our new website, we will have a whole section where people can easily share course ideas and materials.   Thanks, Amanda!

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