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title subtitle chapter URL author editor publisher type
Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities
Concepts, Models, and Experiments
Gaming
keywords/gaming.md
family given
Phillips
Amanda
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Davis
Rebecca Frost
Modern Language Association
book

Gaming

Amanda Phillips

Georgetown University


Publication Status:
  • unreviewed draft
  • draft version undergoing editorial review
  • draft version undergoing peer-to-peer review
  • draft version undergoing MLA copyediting
  • awaiting pre-print copy
  • published

Cross-Reference Keywords: access, design, gender, intersectionality, play, queer, race, social justice, storytelling


CURATORIAL STATEMENT

“Gaming” describes a practice of structured play that may be analog but has come to refer to the digital form of this activity. Games have been called the defining medium of the twenty-first century by a variety of industry and academic professionals (Hersemann; Schell; Spector; Zimmerman), owing to their widespread popularity and their emergence as a format that leverages the technological developments of the twentieth century in the name of art.

In defining our new “Ludic Century,” Eric Zimmerman argues that games capture the increasingly complex systematicity of our world, and that gaming is the new literacy to navigate the meanings produced by such systems. Successful gamers are able to decode the processes that govern their activities. Gaming is an act of reverse engineering, requiring the participant to intimately understand the systems of rules, representation, narrative, and technology in which they become embedded. Gamers continuously optimize their behaviors based on system feedback, and the neoliberal connotations of such a practice are an important part of understanding the role of gaming within society. We might think of gamification, the practice of leveraging these tendencies to encourage optimized behavior in non-gaming contexts; the diffuse disciplining of a population increasingly reliant on digital tools; or even the ways in which people bend rules to their advantage in everyday life. While such activities carry negative connotations, the root of this behavior is precisely the type of understanding that cultural studies instructors hope to instill in their students: competent deciphering and deconstruction of systems of power.

Mark Sample’s keyword on “Play” in this collection covers many of the advantages that gaming brings into the classroom. Engaging with gaming as a “medium,” however, requires a certain facility with software and hardware studies, analyzing rules of play, applying fan and audience reception studies, and more. All of these skills are within reach of any student with humanities training; the challenge is bringing them together coherently. Game studies is a true interdiscipline, with all of the accompanying contradictions and challenges. For this reason, I have curated this list to help instructors think about the complexities of games and how they fit into a humanities classroom.

Just as many instructors teach courses entirely dedicated to digital texts, games can easily fit into the context of any humanities course. Video games descended from multiple media lineages: analog strategy and board games like chess, roleplaying tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, electronic games like OXO, simulations of war or other activities, and a variety of narrative formats ranging from drama to the novel. True to these diverse origins, games remediate an impressive array of genres and representations of historical periods from medievalism to cyberpunk.

Curating games that are accessible for a wide range of students can be a challenge. Computers privilege vision, are expensive, frequently have limited physical interface options, and it is difficult to find media that has been appropriately captioned or otherwise made accessible for a wide range of people. Some games are specific to expensive technological platforms and frequently require a much greater time investment than reading a book. While we might think “most” students are playing games, many games demand proficiency in specific types of problem-solving, attention, and reflexes that make them difficult for some students to complete. Most perplexing of all for students and instructors alike is the possibility that the decision-making processes required by games might result in every member of the class having very different experiences with a given piece of software.

Collaborative play sessions and careful curation can get around many of these problems. There are many small, freely-available games that succinctly demonstrate a particular mechanic or representational feature. Sometimes it’s sufficient to assign a particular episode of a game, or to allow students to watch a playthrough on YouTube or Twitch, a gameplay streaming site. Allowing students to collaborate on gameplay can take the pressure off the individual to complete or fully understand the game. Instructors can also encourage students to take advantage of resources like computer or gaming labs, if available.

Game design activities can also help students grasp the mechanisms of complex systems. Like other digital humanities disciplines, theory and praxis go hand-in-hand in game studies, and many instructors prefer to integrate both modes into their classes. As with exercises in in the meter and rhyme of poetry, there is no need for students to produce great works of art, but rather to get a sense of what goes into the mechanics of games and gamemaking so that they can better understand the aesthetic output.

These resources are intended for instructors who are looking to supplement their classes with gaming, and should be helpful both to game studies newcomers and experienced educators in the field. They are divided into three categories that are useful at different stages of building a syllabus: Games Pedagogy, Game Objects, and Game Design. In order to work against the tendency of both academia and gaming culture to gloss over the specific concerns of marginalized groups, this list also takes an intentional orientation toward social justice critique in its choice of objects.

CURATED ARTIFACTS

Game Studies Pedagogy

Game Play Logs ("Plogs")

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Edmond Chang’s plog assignment asks students to perform critical analysis of games in the manner of a close reading. Chang explains that close playing is a cyborg analytical practice that holds multiple threads and viewing angles in tension. In Chang’s words, close playing lays at “the intersection of form, function, meaning, and action,” – an important formulation to keep in mind when students are frequently tempted to linger on representation while academics might emphasize form ("Close Playing"). His reflection, and this assignment is a reminder that the best game studies work can deftly shift between different registers of analysis to provide a comprehensive understanding of these complicated multimedia texts. Such exercises in the classroom can bridge the gap between traditional literary studies and the study of video games, promoting the attention to detail that is the hallmark of close reading and the breadth of analysis that is required to understand complex systems.

Talkthroughs: Bioshock’s Fort Frolic

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  • Artifact Type: Assignment
  • Source URL: https://youtu.be/3h7iHD-lI0g
  • Artifact Permissions: Public video, Standard YouTube License
  • Copy of the Artifact:
  • Creator and Affiliation: Lily Zhu (University of Texas at Austin) and Casey Sloan (University of Texas at Austin)

While close playing assignments often take the form of blogs or papers, Zhu and Sloan’s Talkthrough model takes the popular form of the “Let’s Play,” in which gamers record gameplay footage and live commentary for an audience, and gives it an academic spin. While Let’s Play videos emphasize the virtuosity and entertaining commentary of the recorded player, a Talkthrough is a critical approach to recorded game footage, providing historical background, useful vocabulary, and in-depth analysis of particular scenes.

With the rising popularity of gameplay streaming and YouTube channels and decreased technological barrier to production, a talkthrough is a useful assignment for allowing students to showcase their analytical skills and gain literacy in a popular contemporary mode of communication.

Two Lesson Plans for Games as Feminist Pedagogy

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In this article, Samantha Allen details two specific lesson plans using video games to teach feminist concepts and makes an argument that using video games in the classroom can disrupt hierarchical power structures and promote community in ways that align with feminist pedagogical practices. Her exploration of feminist pedagogy, in particular, is useful for instructors to think about how to construct a classroom with digital texts that offer many promising structural possibilities while simultaneously seeming to foreclose feminist politics due to their content.

GameCamp! Procedural Thinking Workshop

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  • Artifact Type: Workshop (Slides, Descriptions, and Printouts)
  • Source URL: https://ucdavisgamecamp.wordpress.com/archive/workshop-2015/
  • Artifact Permissions: CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Copy of the Artifact:
  • Creator and Affiliation: Josef Nguyen (University of Texas at Dallas) and Amanda Phillips (Georgetown University)

GameCamp! is a series of seminars introducing students of all levels to the principles of game design, including paper prototyping, creativity exercises, technical tutorials for platforms such as Unity, etc. The Creative Commons-licensed materials and activities can be adapted for a variety of classroom purposes, such as teaching English majors how to make arguments about Shakespeare plays.

This featured workshop introduces non-programmers to the concept of procedural thinking through an analog version of the swap-three game Candy Crush. Students play the game by reading flowcharts that guide them through a computer’s step-by-step processes to execute the game. Frustration with this laborious activity can help students think about some of the unique features of digital media. How does procedurality affect the way a user encounters the text? What strategies might a designer or programmer use to translate analog processes into digital form? What are the implications of step-by-step execution for the ideology of a particular game or artifact?

Game Objects

Introducing Game Studies with Small Worlds

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David Shute’s Small Worlds is an exploration game in which a figure navigates a series of moody, pixelated worlds, shrouded in darkness. Each scene begins zoomed closely on the avatar, and exploration reveals more of the background while the camera gradually zooms out. Uncovering these small worlds reveals a minimalist environmental narrative – an elegant example of narrative architecture with dystopic science fiction undertones.

This lesson plan offers suggestions for leading a class discussion about games using Small Worlds as an example. In a humanities classroom, it facilitates conversations about the fundamental properties of games, including the centrality of space and movement to narrative in games and how simple mechanics (such as the widening field of view) can encourage the gamer to perform specific tasks without explicit instructions. Understanding the unique aesthetic and rhetorical properties of games can lead to discussions about how other media use different representational and persuasive strategies.

Mainichi

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Mattie Brice’s Mainichi is a short, simple roleplaying game that catalogues the microaggressions and outright hostility faced by Black transwomen on a day-to-day basis. It provides an introduction to the RPG genre without the considerable time investment typically required. The question of user agency and cause and effect may be explored with multiple playthroughs, as different decisions in getting dressed result in different interactions with people on the street.

As an example of Black trans art, Mainichi has an important place in a digital qpoc canon. The game’s emphasis on repetition, everyday temporality, and microaggressions also surfaces constructions of queer time and failure that are omnipresent in gaming. Mainichi, therefore, demonstrates some of the ways that games can enact theoretical concepts. Instructors can use it as an object to illuminate theoretical readings about queer time and transgender studies or pair it with game studies texts about the unique properties of time in video games.

HUGPUNX

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Merritt Kopas’s HUGPUNX is a browser-based, free-to-play game whose bouncy soundtrack and neon colors work together to create a queer fantasyland of informed consent. Flowers slowly grow in the background as people (and cats!) walk down the street and signal their willingness to hug by changing color and making flirtatious eyes. Each accepted invitation produces an explosion of cheerful graffiti and a flower sprouting in the background. There is no pressure to perform here – the game proceeds at its own pace, culminating in a shower of sparks from the street lamps overhead. The game can open up conversations about communication (in games and in real life), consent, and queer modes of play that offer affirming alternatives to the grim narratives so often reserved for transgender lives. Any course interested in feminist and queer relationality, transgender politics, cultures of (and alternatives to) violence, or affect would find this a useful and easy conversation starter in the classroom.

Game Making

Understanding Intersectionality Through Critical Game Design

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  • Artifact Type: Workshop (description and slides)
  • Source URL: N/A
  • Artifact Permissions: CC-BY-NC
  • Copy of the Artifact: Teaching Intersectionality through Critical Game Design
  • Creator and Affiliation: Bonnie Ruberg (University of California at Irvine) and Vicki Callahan (University of Southern California)

Game design encourages people to think in terms of systems. This workshop, presented at the 2016 HASTAC Conference, takes advantage of the way games easily represent systems to help students (and their instructors!) work through intertwined oppressions. Theories of intersectionality attempt to describe how phenomena like racism and sexism, for example, mutually reinforce and alter each other. However, this can be difficult to capture in words. Instead, this workshop tasks participants with creating a set of rules that simulate how different oppressions interact with one another.

This activity is useful for talking about the theoretical concept of intersectionality, and its emphasis on designing games will require students to think about power and identity in systematic terms rather than representational ones.

Power to the People: Anti-Oppressive Game Design

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  • Artifact Type: Design Framework
  • Source URL: https://www.metrac.org/resources/power-to-the-people-anti-oppression-game-design-essay/
  • Artifact Permissions: Free download from METRAC, "METRAC holds the copyright to the information on this website. METRAC authorizes the responsible, non-commercial use of this material to promote the safety of women and children. If you wish to use this material, in any way or format, for this purpose, METRAC requires that you explicitly acknowledge the source of the material and provide METRAC with notice of such use."
  • Copy of the Artifact:
  • Creator and Affiliation: Andrea Gunraj (METRAC), Susana Ruiz (University of California, Santa Cruz; Take Action Games), Ashley York (University of Southern California; Take Action Games)

This chapter is a primer for how to apply anti-oppressive principles to game design. It is useful for designers at many levels, including the beginners that are likely to inhabit a humanities class. The authors combine instruction, case studies, and best practices to offer a comprehensive guide for students looking to improve their design practice. While there are many resources available for introducing game design into the classroom, this particular article offers a solid foundation to avoid many of the missteps that mainstream game designers make.

Game Design Documents On Racial Formation and Migration

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This assignment encourages students to explore questions of race and migration by creating a game design document. Design documents are speculative in nature, allowing students to "give careful thought to mechanics, aesthetic, rhetoric, and the game's relationship" to questions of power in society (Agloro) rather than exhaustive efforts on polishing a complete product. Producing a design document requires no technological expertise, which makes it a great fit for a humanities classroom context. As with the other activities listed in this section, encouraging students to think in terms of game design will help them to articulate the systematicity of racial formation and migration. In order to do so, they must examine relevant causes and effects and put them into relation with one another.

RELATED MATERIALS

AbleGamers Foundation. Includification. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec 2016.

Molleindustria. “A Computerless Videogame Modding Workshop.” La Molleindustria, 9 Aug 2012. Web. 8 Dec 2016.

Phillips, Amanda. ENGL 165GS: Gaming the System. Wordpress, n.d. Web. 8 Dec 2016.

Let’s Play Social Justice. Tumblr, n.d. Web. 8 Dec 2016.

Welsh, Tim. “How NOT To Teach Video Games.” N.p., 26 Oct 2010. Web. 8 Dec 2016.

WORKS CITED

Agloro, Alexandrina. "Creating Game Design Documents about Racial Formation and Migration." Worcester Polytechnic Institute, n.d. Classroom handout.

Allen, Samantha. "Video Games as Feminist Pedagogy." Loading..., vol. 8, no. 13, 2014.

Brice, Mattie. Mainichi. n.p., 2012. Digital game.

Chang, Edmond. "Close Playing, a Meditation on Teaching (with) Video Games." ED(MOND)CHANG(ED)AGOGY, 11 November 2010.

--. "Game Play Logs, Or, 'Plogs.'" ED(MOND)CHANG(ED)AGOGY, Autumn 2017. Classroom handout.

Gunraj, Andrea, Susana Ruiz, and Ashley York. "Power to the People: Anti-Oppressive Game Design." Designing Games for Ethics: Models, Techniques and Frameworks, edited by Karen Schrier and David Gibson, Information Science Reference, 2011, 253-74.

Hersemann, Ross. “Video Games: The Artistic Medium of the 21st Century.” Ohio Game Developer Expo, 7 November 2015, Center of Science and Industry, Columbus, Ohio. Talk.

Kopas, Merrit. HUGPUNX. n.p.: 2013. Online game.

Nguyen, Josef and Amanda Phillips. "GameCamp! Procedural Thinking." n.p., 2015. Workshop slides and handouts.

Phillips, Amanda. "Introducing Game Studies with Small Worlds." n.p., n.d. Lesson plan.

Ruberg, Bonnie and Vicki Callahan. "Understanding Intersectionality Through Critical Game Design." HASTAC, 13 May 2016, Tempe, Arizona. Workshop.

Schell, Jesse. “Will Video Games Be The Defining Medium of the 21st Century?” Online video clip. Big Think. The Big Think, Inc., n.d. Web. 26 August 2016.

Shute, David. Small Worlds. Jay is Games: 2006. Online game.

Spector, Warren. “Video Games: Becoming the Medium of the 21st Century.” Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 13 May 2014, Lisbon, Portugal. Lecture.

Zhu, Lily and Casey Sloan. "Talkthroughs: Bioshock's Fort Frolic." YouTube, 30 April 2015.

Zimmerman, Eric. “Manifesto for a Ludic Century” in Waltz and Deterding, eds. The Gameful World: Approaches, Issues, Applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT P. 19–22.

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