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:
- Cave Story
- Metroid Prime
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.
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.
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
Syllabus, questions, gaming
Tuesday: What is...?
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)
Something that you consider a game. Prepare to discuss.
Wednesday: Theories of Action
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)
One from each list of emblematic games for Galloway's four moments.
Thursday: Playful Print
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?
Abbott, Narrative and Life, Defining Narrative, and The Borders of Narrative, from The
Cambridge Introduction to Narrative [1-35] (2002)
Bit Blot, Aquaria http://www.bit-blot.com/aquaria/ [Mac/PC, free 30-day trial] (2007)
Tuesday: Narratology vs. Ludology
Aarseth, "Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation," from First Person [45-55]
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)
"The Last Word on Ludology v. Narratology in Game Studies," Janet Murray (2005)
Faade http://www.interactivestory.net/ [Mac/PC, free] (2005)
Wednesday: Playing Narrative Games
Juul, Rules and Fiction (excerpt), from Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and
Fictional Worlds. (2005)
Quantic Dream, Heavy Rain [PS3] (2010)
Thursday: Reading Gamic Narratives
Rulfo, Pedro Pramo [excerpts] (1955)
Queneau, Yours for the Telling (1973)
Week 3: Time
Aug 16 19
Richardson, Introduction: Narrative Temporality, from Narrative Dynamics [9-14] (2002)
Genette, Order, Duration, and Frequency, from Narrative Dynamics (25-34)
Rohrer, Passage http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/passage/ [Mac/PC, free] (2007)
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)
Nintendo, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask [N64/GC/Wii] (2000)
Wednesday: Experiments in Time
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)
Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time [GC/PS2/XB] (2003)
Thursday: Half Time
Week 4: Space
Aug 23 26
Monday: Navigable Space
Manovich, "Navigable Space," from The Language of New Media [244-285] (2002)
Miegakure: A puzzle-platforming game in four dimensions,
Shute, Small Worlds http://jayisgames.com/cgdc6/?gameID=9 [Web, free] (2009)
Tuesday: Narrative Space
Jenkins, "Game Design as Narrative Architecture," from First Person [119-30] (2004)
Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)
Valve, Portal [Mac/PC/360] (2007)
Wednesday: Literary Space
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
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
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
Linden Labs, Second Life http://www.secondlife.com [Mac/PC, free]
Tuesday: Second Person
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)
Square, Final Fantasy VII [PS2] (1997)
Sierra, Space Quest or King's Quest [PC] (1986, 1984)
Wednesday: Third Person
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)
Thursday: Third Person (cont)
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.
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
Bogost and Montfort, Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers
Hayles, "Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis." Poetics
Today 25:1 (Spring 2004), pg 1-9
Thursday: NO CLASS (Instructor Conference)