Video Game Culture and Theory (January, 2008)

Students are starting to ask questions about the online course I’m planning to teach in January.
I was very happy with the way the course went the last time I taught it, in 2006. I’m sure I will tweak the course here and there, but here are the course objectives and some other details about the course that are likely to remain essentially the same.
Video Game Culture and Theory: Course Objectives (2006)

Your objectives for this course are to

  • explore definitions of important concepts such as game and fun
  • learn about the origins and historical development of video games,
  • expose yourself to a broad range of games,
  • gain experience recognizing and interpreting basic game elements (goal, risk, fiction, emotional engagement, rules, outcome, values, consequences, close playing, etc.),
  • develop an awareness of the complex cultural context within which games exist (children’s culture, geek culture, women’s issues, political issues, economic issues, aesthetic issues, etc.),
  • and ultimately, to discern the core cultural values represented in a particular game.

To that end, you will:

  • play several games on the syllabus, read three books and additional shorter articles as assigned,
  • complete quizzes and exercises to ensure that you are keeping up with the readings and to evaluate your progress,
  • participate regularly in classroom and web-based discussions, and
  • write a formal research paper (minimum 10 pages).

Neither ability to “win” a game nor programming/design talents are germane to the subject of this course.
At the end of this course, you should be able to

  1. Demonstrate competence in the critical reading of complex cultural texts (including games, cultural responses to games, and the academic study of games)
  2. Engage intellectually and respectfully with your peers (in person and online)
  3. Write a college-level paper that appropriately uses primary and secondary sources to defend a non-obvious claim (without minimizing or neglecting opposing or alternative views)

Course Requirements

Online classes are not for everyone. This class will
require self-motivation and a willingness to contribute meaningfully to
an online environment. I will have some online Q & A banks that
will disappear if you do not complete them by a certain time. Don’t
obsess over those activities — they are really only designed to prime
the pump, so to speak, and let you test your mastery of the subject in
private, which should prepare you for a good online, public discussion.
Your job is not to bookmark everything I post to my weblog and spit
back the “right” answers during the quiz. Instead, you will be asked to
develop the capacity to present and defend your own original thoughts about the assigned readings.

Each day at 4pm I will post discussion questions on the course
weblog. You should have already completed all of that day’s readings
and J-Web assignments, so that you can contribute fully to the online

Keep up with the readings, reflect on them before the 4pm
course blog update, and help sustain an active, positive learning

I will often send out bulk e-mails to the
address on file for you in the J-Web system. If you check a different
address more regularly, please use SHU’s e-mail forwarding service so that you don’t miss important updates.

is an English class, so there will be plenty of writing — mostly
informal reaction statements and short exercises (open-book,
open-notes), but also about 15 pages of formal academic prose. 

don’t have to be a hard-core gamer to benefit from the course, but just as a zoologist doesn’t always get to work with the fuzzy and cute animals, when you are investigating games from an academic perspective, you will be asked to work with a broad range of games
that might not be what you would choose to play
on your own. 

The course asks students to look
seriously at the legitimate concerns raised by those who object to
violent or sexual content in games, while at the same time considering
the free speech rights that defend authors and artists who choose to
examine controversial subjects.

If you’re curious about my own
tastes in games…

  • I like strategy and resource-management games like
    Civilization and Black & White; RPG’s like Neverwinter Nights and
    Morrowind (I’ll probably buy Oblivion soon, though I don’t see myself
    having the time to justify paying for a subscription to a multiplayer
    RPG); and adventure games that emphasize story (such as The Longest
    Journey and Syberia). 
  • I’m not really a fan of combat games, but the
    plot of Deux Ex 2 motivated me to endure the battle sequences, and the
    setting of Half-Life 2 keeps me coming back to it (though I’ve been
    stuck in a damn canal since June of 2006). 
  • I play Lego Star
    Wars with my kids (ages 5 and 9) and for a few weeks I played Grand
    Theft Auto III: Vice City, mostly for research purposes. 
  • I
    actively keep up with and participate in a community of players,
    critics, designers, and authors of interactive fiction — text-based
    games.  “Zork” is the most famous example, and’s “Thy Dungeonman” is a hilarious spoof of the form.
  • I also enjoy creating Half-Life 2 mods (that is, my own maps that use the Half Life 2 engine).
  • In
    the late 90s, I played Baldur’s Gate II, Myst and several of its
    sequels (how many are they up to now?), various Star Wars space combat
    simulators. Before that, I played Space Quest and King’s Quest. After years with a computer that used a CGI monitor, I upgraded to VGA and was stunned to see King’s Quest V (1990) in 256 glorious blocky colors.
  • Because I play on my computer, not a console, I’ve never really played
    platform jumpers or side-scrollers, and I haven’t really enjoyed a
    racing game since Atari’s Pole Position in about 1984. 
  • I had a friend who actually bought the famously awful E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial game in 1983 (and I knew it sucked).  I remember
    being awed by Star Raiders in 1979.