Blog Post

Building a Games Studies Syllabus 1

Betty Hayes and I just got green-lighted to teach RDG 440: Video Games, Learning and Literacy, for a second time this coming Spring. Not capable of leaving well enough alone, though, we’re starting on a complete overhaul of the course we rolled out last year. I’ll document some of the process here: it may be helpful for other folks working on course design for games studies.

Last year’s course (here’s the PDF syllabus) was built around a few elements:

  • The class online hub was a Ning site: Blackboard was strictly banned.
  • We all played a selected game each week, intended to present a theme in the week’s readings.
  • Students were required each week to blog about the readings for each session (we met TTh) beforehand, and on Sunday to blog about the week’s gameplay.
  • Class sessions were primarily open and vigorous discussion among the two instructors and about 22 students.
  • Students had to submit a project prospectus mid-semester (group and creative projects encouraged – we got a couple brilliant movies and some intriguing collaborations), and then present in class at the end of the semester.
  • We also had them read the novel For The Win on a vaguely ongoing basis.

Some things worked well, some better than we expected.

  • Every class we’ve taught has found the Ning site helpful, sticky, and conducive to collaboration and engagement.
  • We took over a local cafe for two class sessions and had them play Artemis, a starship bridge combat simulator. It was a brilliant exercise in transmedia research (watch the training vids and playthroughs, research your bridge station in advance) and team building. We’re going to repeat that, but at the beginning of the semester, rather than the middle, to get the bonding and collaboration going early.

Some things worked so-so:

  • The game-a-week gameplay broke down around midterms: it was too shallow an experience, and I think students came to feel that if they didn’t have a big chunk of playtime early in the week it was easy/better to just blow it off entirely. Though, the whining at making the guys play Sorority Life on Facebook was worth it :D
  • We were tremendously inter-disciplinary, seeing the class as sort of a salad buffet of games studies, in contrast to other classes’ disciplinary focus. I think it ended up being like my constitutional law class in law school: a sort of rote talk-show on the topic of the day. Which is not a problem of interdisciplinarity so much as of thematic unity: we didn’t really have any.
  • Students also complained that we didn’t push them hard enough, especially in their writing. They were so passionate, and worked so much harder than we expected, we kind of sat back in amazement more than upping the difficulty level.
  • I was a big advocate for the novel, but we never integrated it well into the reward system, so I suspect nobody read it after the first week or so.

In a preliminary chat about the course yesterday, we came up with a few premises:

  • Teach 3 or 4 games in depth, chosen to parallel themes in the readings and discussion
  • Focus on new media creation, especially writing, in depth and volume
  • Try some more gamelike structures, including dungeon-group-like teams of specialists
  • Along with the notion of specialists, create tracks: maybe criticism, STS/design analysis, social justice/critical studies, etc.
  • Assign a *lot* of blogs from a range of viewpoints
  • Possibly go for depth rather than breadth in the academic readings, and assign fewer, longer things

That’s what we’ve got so far. We’re meeting Wednesday with the class TA, RDG440 and Stealth Seminar veteran Andrew Stephens, to start digging into specifics: it’ll be great to develop the class along with an undergrad veteran of it.

Suggestions welcome, especially in games and readings selections!


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