Semester Overview of class_topics Category

Non-commercial art games and hobbyist remixes sometimes capture the collective interest of online gamers.

Since we have already covered this as part of a student presentation, I encourage you to participate in and further the discussion; I don't feel I need to assign additional readings.

I should point out that Adventure, 9:05, and all the IF games you sampled also count as indie games -- with the exception of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which was originally released as a commercial title.

One thing I will mention... Farmville.

What do you feel about games that integrate with social networks to this degree?

Time reserved for brainstorming and troubleshooting the creative term presentations. Post an update and let me know if I can offer you any technical help.

Here are the project suggestions that appeared in the instructions for section 6 of the presubmission report:

  • A video lecture in which you engage the class in a discussion about your chosen topic.
  • A narrrated playthrough of an important event in a game. Can you freeze-frame and zoom in on important details, and interview the participants about why the event was significant?
  • I used to joke that your presentation could include interpretive dance if you want. In Fall 2009, some students in my literature class did, in fact, dance several different potential interpretations of important scenes from the literary works.  Their presentation was fantastic, because they didn't simply summarize the plot, they carefully chose two or three different but valid ways to interpret each scene, and that made the class think about which interpretation they preferred, and why. (I wish I had a video of their work! Obviously, if you choose this option, you'll need to record it and share it, at least within the class.)
  • You could design your own game, and make a video with paper cutouts on Popsicle sticks, or LEGOS, or sock puppets. The game proposal should serve the academic point you want to make, rather than demonstrate your ability to follow industry trends, or your confidence that the world is full of fools and that one day you will crush them all.

Update, 19 Jan: I'd like to see enough material that would fill about a 10-15 minute in-class presentation. It should be related to the research you're doing for your term project; my hope is that working on this project will actually help you revise your paper. But please, do not just read from your paper into a camera or microphone.

In various e-mail exchanges with students, among the suggestions I have made or approved include:

  • A YouTube video (showing gameplay with your commentary; it doesn't need to be as fancy as the IF videos I made with Peter -- you could do it in the style of the Civlization III and TimezAttack videos, instead.)
  • A podcast (along the lines of the "What is Fun?" audio clip from earlier in the term).
  • An informative, richly-linked, blog entry (along the lines of Leslie Rodriquez's project on Lara Croft)
  • A simple Scratch game, or a series of games that illustrate various issues from the course (there's a passage in the Scratch tutorial where I make the ball say "You killed me!" when you lose a point, and then I change it to say "Let's try again!" Even while I was making the video, I was surprised at the effect of making my creation talk to me like that.)
  • A simple interactive fiction game that illustrates a point you want to make. (Those of you with the skills to do this, you already know who you are.)
  • I am open to suggestions. Be creative; demonstrate your ability to apply what you learned; support a specific, non-obvious argument, rather than just listing interesting things you've found about cool stuff.

Create a web page that links to all your resources, with a brief "how to" that mentions any special tools or techniques you used, or any particular difficulties you're proud of overcoming.

Areas of creative digital expression that relate directly to games.

Games have driven advances in technology that enable creative people to tell stories in ways that would previously have been impossibly expensive. Of course, the fact that the untrained masses can produce content with a few clicks does not guarantee that every creative effort is a masterpiece -- in fact most if it is forgettable. But the right tools do permit ordinary people -- even those who are not programmers -- to create extraordinary things.

Sims Stories

The creators of The Sims did not expect that users would take screenshots, post them to fan pages, and use them as the framework for storytelling. As the developers realized that fans were doing this on their own, they encouraged the practice within the game.

This past summer, Robin Burkinshaw "a student of games design in the UK" created two sims, took away their house, and told a story about what happened to them.  He posted the story in installments on a blog, "Alex and Kev."  If you want to create your own Alice & Kev fan fiction, you can even download the characters and tweak their environment, to try to achieve a different story.  


In its simplest form, modding is creating additional content for existing games. In the 90s, fans of DOOM could create and share their own levels. For much of the 90s, this kind of thing was in a legal gray zone, since copyright owners weren't always comfortable with the idea of other people messing with their files.

But modding also means changing ("modifying") the rules of the game.

Authors of early text-adventure games would encrypt their data files, in order to make it harder for casual gamers to cheat. The additional challenge of hacking the software to look for hidden "Easter eggs" was part of the fun of playing a game.  We see a echo of that historical experience in the concept of "cheat codes" -- built-in power-ups designed to give hard-core gamers additional reason to keep paying a game.

Game designers realized that the longer the hard-core gamers remained interested in a title, the more copies the game would sell.

Half-Life 2 comes with a free editing tool that lets users create their own maps.  Power users can edit the bitmap textures, either by crudely adding smiley faces or targets on their enemies, or adding the faces of people they know into the game world.

HL2 is a sci-fi combat game. The editing tool that comes with the game is so powerful that a group of fans completely rebuilt the game as a World War II simulator  -- replacing the futuristic weapons with historical pieces, the horror- and sci-fi props and settings with realistic historical ones.  The result grew so popular that it was released as a commercial title, Day of Defeat. 

(After I got stuck in HL2 in 2006, I stopped playing the game and dabbled with my own mod.  I reported on my progress over several weeks... see Week 1, Week 6,  and Week 10.)


A very popular do-it-yourself strategy for using a computer to tell a story is to build on the framework of a coputer game -- "machinima" (for "machine" + "animation"). 

The long-running "Red vs. Blue" series uses in-game footage from Halo to assemble a story. It started out as little more than a lark in 2003, but the series has continued for years and been released on DVDs.

Motion Capture

First drawing serious mainstream attention in the character Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies, motion capture technology involves an actor wearing a special suit, performing motions that a computer records. The angle of their limbs, the position of their body parts, and the speed and direction in which all the parts move can be mapped to a 3D computer-generated character, which can result in animated CG images that convince our brains that what we are watching is more than a cartoon. (But if you've seen any publicity material on Avatar, you already know all this.)

When motion capture works, the effects are breathtaking. Here we see a few stages in the creation of Gollum.

The above image is from a a good analysis of the weaknesses of a motion-capture system that's not employed very well.  The characters in The Polar Express seem stiff and waxy

The Uncanny Valley

When animation is too real for our brain to process it as a cartoon, but not real enough for us to accept it on a deep, instinctive level; something seems wrong.  We're trained to sense trouble when someone won't make eye contact with us, when their facial expression doesn't match their words, when they moving stiffly (perhaps because they've been injured by a hazard we haven't noticed yet). 

If part of you is just a little creeped out by clowns, or china dolls, or you're amused by zombies and other undead, it's because those human-like creations fall along a line. To some extent, the more human-like something is, the better we respond to it. But at some point, when something looks very much like a normal human, but does not act like a normal human, our comfort level drops.

The term was coined by a robot designer, but it applies just as well to digital creations. (See Uncanny Valley.)

File:Mori Uncanny Valley.svg

Once I have reviewed your submission, we will schedule a one-on-one conversation (by phone or video chat, if you like) to discuss your progress and trade ideas.

We've talked quite a bit about what kids can learn from playing games. And we've also touched on the "are games art" debate. While little kids still need to fingerpaint and roll clay snakes in order to explore the physical world, as they get older they will spend more and more time in a digital world.
Instead of worrying about whether kids can absorb by playing games created by adults, let's consider what can they can accomplish by creating their own media for their peers.. 
MIT's free tool Scratch is designed to get kids programming, so that they can create their own games and animations. (Watch a 5-minute intro to Scratch.)  

Kids can start out just watching cartoon characters move around, but with a little guidance, they can start adding more sophisticated controls and program complex interactions. 
  • Whether they plan to be programmers or not when they grow up, they will use computers all their lives.  Rather than let them think of what goes on inside that box as magic, or dismiss technology because "computers hate me"...
  • Scratch introduces kids to the idea that everything that happens inside a computer follows a rule, and that -- at least until the robot uprising -- those rules come from people.
Watch an Scratch Programming Session

In about 30 minutes, these videos walk you through the steps of how to build a simple Breakout game in Scratch.  In the last 2 videos, for another 15 or so minutes, I'm mostly tweaking a working demo.
How do these videos affect your thoughts on games and education, and on your own potential for creating interactive media?
I'm am not requiring you to use this tool for class, but if you like what you see....
  • I encourage you to consider using it to help present the creative part of your term project.
  • You can download it free at The web is full of sample projects and user-created tutorials; here are some Scratch tutorials recorded by kids.

David Ewalt offers a good introduction to "Serious Games"

Update: I just got an email from How-To E D U, promoting this list of 50 free online educational games. What do you think?

Let's revisit our understanding of key concepts, as we move into the final unit (which is designed to help you develop your term project).

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