Blog Post

How *NOT* to Teach Video Games

-- reblogged from

portrait of boy reacting to a video game by Phillip Toledano

This past weekend I facilitated a BootCamp session at THATCamp PNW. The goal of the session was to discuss some of the challenges we face trying to teach video games as objects of inquiry in humanities classrooms and to brainstorm about how to address them. We had a successful discussion and I know I came away from it with some ideas for structuring classes in the future. I thought this would be an apt continuation of the discussion Amanda Phillips started last week as well as an introduction to my angle on digital humanities. 

The session opened with reference to recent iteration of the games-as-art debate and an assessment of the opportunities for digital humanists in the popular discussion of video games as cultural artifacts. The conversation, as in Roger Ebert's reaction to Kellee Santiago's TEDTalk, are typically held between reviewers, engineers, and the game-playing public and so often lacks a satisfactory definition of "art" or even of "game," or a meta reflection on the purpose/desire to put games in the category of art in the first place. Moreover, as Ian Bogost has argued recently, the gaming Industry seems uninterested in the significance of gaming as a cultural artifact, except when such discussions prove valuable as a marketing strategy. At the same time, however, the gaming community's rally in support of video games as an art form suggests that people want to have serious conversations about gaming. Its just when those conversations present themselves that the the obstacles make themselves known

We then looked at two online discussions about the critical treatment of gaming that each demonstrates a challenge to the kinds of interventions digital humanists would want to make. The first is the backlash against Abbie Heppe's review of Metroid: Other M, which chastised the game for its depiction of Samus as emotionally weak and submissive to male characters. The second was more local, a response from some of our students who found our first Keywords for Video Game Studies roundtable to inaccessible to non-academics. Taken together, these conversations issue a double-sided challenge. On the one hand, as Michael Abbott notes, the response to Heppe's critique demonstrates that "the greatest resistance to thinking critically about games comes not from academics, luddites, or old-school critics like Roger Ebert. The most vocal resistance comes from gamers." At the same time, our own Keywords session demonstrates even those excited about joining a critical conversation often feel alienated by the way they are figured. In short, gaming "natives" often reject and feel rejected by critical gaming projects.

This realization represents a serious obstacle for bringing video games into the humanities classroom, for it challenges some base assumptions about teaching popular media. The suggestion that "digital natives" might have aptitudes for new media that can be leveraged toward pedagogical goals is a promising one; however it also assumes that the natives are willing to apply those aptitudes to academic inquiry and that we, as scholars and educators, are willing to make space in academic inquiry for their aptitudes.

In both instances, both in the gamer's rejection of critique and critiques rejection of gamer knowledge, the central issue is one of closed access. The gamer feels ownership of the gaming medium and, having been continually assailed by the media and other "authority figures" with claims that "gaming is bad for you" with little to no foundation in the actual games, they are justifiably dismissive of outsiders making assertions, especially critical ones, about their area of expertise. On the other hand, the academia also expects discussions to take certain forms, often dealing in abstraction and trading in reference to obscure theories and theorists, that marginalize the kind of experiential knowledge players have about the games. Our goal as digital humanists who want to bring gaming into the critical conversation, then, is to open these two relatively closed spheres. We must find ways to show the critiques emerging from gameplay itself, rather than imposed from the outside, and to value player's knowledge so it can be an entry point into academic inquiry.

Here are some of the strategies we came up with:

  • Start with user experience: As academics we often start with theory and work back to examples because that is our style of learning. For most of our students, however, they need/want the details first before they build up the abstractions. So, if we can start by playing the game and talking about their experience of play, we can validate their experience as an way point the theory.
  • Use solid scaffolding methods, even for digital native: Though its tempting to think that gamers will be onboard with critical discussions about gaming or that their experiences gaming prepare them for serious conversation, they still need practice playing games awake and thinking about games seriously. Model for your students want you want them to get from the games and were to look for it before jumping into analysis.
  • Make the obstacles themselves the content: As in above, even though they will often vehemently support the idea that games are art, they will still need to be convinced that they aren't all "just games." Making an examination of that claim, that games are just games, the course conceit can help undermine that fall-back position as well as offer more productive ways to discuss gaming. Ed Chang and I attempted this approach in our class "Why So Serious? Video Games as Persuasion, Politics, and Propaganda" and it was pretty successful.

I'm interested to know how other folks would respond to the challenges we presented on Saturday as well as if they see similiar obstacles to teaching other digital technologies. How can we both open the academy to the kinds of experiential knowledge our students have with new media while at the same time generating the kinds of serious cultural critiques they deserve and require? Though we had a great discussion of those topics this weekend, these issues are far from settled and will continue to be a focus of my pedagogy well into the future.



I forgot at add a link to the Slides I showed at the presentation. Hope its helpful!


Thanks for the great recap of your session! Sounds like you guys are having lots of productive conversations. Hopefully we will have a similar discussion at THATCamp SoCal in January. I'll be sure to mention this post.

I do agree that there is a certain amount of resistance to critique that gamers have, but it seems to me that the Heppe controversy is also specifically a reaction against feminist sentiment, which is a larger issue in culture. Just looking at the first page of comments on Santiago's video, for example, her critics all respond in some way to her ability as a speaker, not to her speech or ideas. I'll take the risk of making a generalization in this informal venue, but this is not uncommon for any woman writing or speaking about games.

Similar things happen for non-whites writing about racial issues: check out reader comments to articles in The Escapist's recent Industry of Inclusion issue for Chuck Wendig vs. Saladin Ahmed.

Anyway, I would really like it if this were simply a closed-access issue, but I think it is more complex for some of the most important critiques that need to be made about games. As a friend recently posted on her facebook status, "Before you can convince your students that there are problematic gender representations in digital media, you have to convince them that there are problematic representations in the media in general, but before you can do that, you have to demonstrate that gender is a social construction." This description of the classroom experience, I think, points to the difficulty of discussion that deals specifically with issues of hegemony.

As for your specific tactics, I particularly like the obstacle-as-object approach. After going on about gender and race in gaming, I wonder if it would be possible to work backwards in this way - to start with games that are empowering and use them to critique those that are not.


Hey, Amanda,

Thanks for the great comment. The Heppe example is so dense because you have a female reviewer, in a venue, G4, known for sexist treatment of their female employees (see anything about Olivia Munn), in a field dominated by males, reviewing a game containing one of the only non-sexualized female protagonists, made by a company that basically invented jiggle physics.

In our discussion we basically set this issue aside, saying, look we know its more complex than this, but let's try to bracket the gender politics going on in the example for the current discussion. Even so, at some level, the reaction to Heppe and Santiago is still about who has the right or authority to talk about gaming. What you are quite rightly emphasizing is that this is also a gendered division and I completely agree.

Your friend's facebook comment actually fits in well with the strategies we were discussing; we just didn't get as far back as social construction. In our Why So Serious class we took basically the same track -- people can used games to make statements, some of them are problematic, even games that aren't explicitly political have politics. A game that was useful for us was ID the Creep, which seems ostensibly helpful but makes problematic assumptions about young women on the internet.

The point we were driving at was that you have to get them on board with the idea that these aren't "just games," that they can be objects of critique (that being different than objects of formal analysis, because they seem to accept a neutral classification of parts) before any real work can be done. I would like it as well if we could get over the access issue we discussed on Saturday and it would be clear sailing through the race/class/gender discussions; but unfortunately, it seems like we need them on board just to even *get* to those discussion. When it seems like these critiques are coming from the "outside" (and I realized these spacial metaphors are not the best) then I think it gets read as "this thing you love makes you sexist/classist/racist" and that puts them on defense.

So, I completely agree that its more complicated than *just* the opposition of spheres, but I think its one way to think about how to negotiate the resistance to critique. It doesn't solve the wider cultural resistance to ideological critique or identity politics, but its may be a way to bring us to the door.