Preview: Frames, Claims, and Videogames

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Ian here—

So I got an email last Saturday from the Liberal Arts Department at the School of the Art Institute, saying they’re short one First-Year Seminar I instructor, and asking me if I could sub in. I agreed.

I’ve already taught First-Year Seminar I at SAIC three times, and have three separate courses ready to go for it. So, of course I did what any sane person would do.

I designed an entirely new course, basically from scratch, in five days.

And it was such a pleasure! Up until now, I’ve never taught any course entirely on videogames. I’ve taught courses that were about half-and-half cinema and videogames, and I’ve thrown short modules on games into just about every course I’ve ever taught, from U Chicago’s Media Aesthetics to DePaul’s Intro to Mass Communication. I had somehow gone my entire teaching career without devoting an entire class to games, though. It seemed high time to rectify that.

You’ll notice from the schedule below that the reading for this course is rather light. Rather than starting students off with rousing debates between Hobbes, Kant, and Bergson, as I did in my comedy course, I’m exposing them to a wide variety of non-academic discourses: designer’s artist statements, legal cases, popular criticism. Certain weeks of the syllabus consist almost entirely of online think pieces.

Partly, I suppose, one could chalk this up to the limits of my ambition. Yes, I did take the course as an opportunity to turn to recent academic monographs I hadn’t picked up yet, including John Sharp’s Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art (2015) and Katherine Ibister’s How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design (2016). But when I’m asked to whip up a class as a last-minute substitute, I think I can be forgiven a little bit for filling out some weeks with the contents of my browser’s bookmarks.

To offer a more robust defense of my choices, though, I do want to point out that SAIC’s First-Year Seminar sequence is a suite of classes designed to teach students how to write arguments. And non-academic discourse—by makers, by critics, by SCOTUS judges—has been a major site of fierce and feisty debate over the past five years or so. It’s not always well-sourced, it’s not always 100% versed in history, and sometimes alt-right trolls show up in the middle of it, but it sure as heck is more lively than “ludology meets narratology” (although that’s on here, too). Sometimes, the best way to teach students how to argue well is first to marinate them in the ferocity of popular-sphere disagreements, and then groom them in the finer points of rhetoric, style, and proper sourcing.

Anyway, here it is: the end product of designing my first pure-games course at whirlwind speed.

Topic Description:

Following the general mission of First Year Seminar, this course teaches English writing, close reading, and composition, with an eye towards the unique needs of writing about interactive digital experiences. The medium of videogames has been home to heated and didactic debates over the past twenty years, erupting in academic criticism, popular discourse, the art world, and the U.S. legal system. Are videogames art? Do they tell stories? Do they deserve First Amendment protections under the U.S. Constitution? And are they ever going to “grow up”? This course examines these debates, the games that inspired them, and the games that came out of them, as a way of investigating how common rhetorical strategies have helped shaped the reception of a young medium across various diverse audiences. Upon examining a wide range of arguments about videogames, students will be expected to make their own arguments about videogames, marshaling the task of description in service of putting forward supportable, contestable, and non-obvious claims—the more didactic, the better!

Course Schedule:

Week 1, 2017-01-31
What is an argument? (No, really)

Read for today:
No readings. We’ll review the syllabus, and look over some in-class handouts.

Play in-class, 2017-01-31:
Proteus (Ed Key and David Kanaga, 2013)

Part One of the Course: Five Major Debates

Week 2, 2017-02-07
Are videogames art?

Read for today:
Roger Ebert, “Video Games Can Never Be Art” (2010)
George Fifield, “Act/React,” from Act/React: Interactive Installation Art (2008)
Ian Bogost, “Art,” from How to Do Things with Videogames (2012)
Chris Melissinos, “Preface: The Resonance of Games as Art,” in The Art of Videogames (2012)

Play for today:
Art Game (Pippin Barr, 2013)
Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds (Andi McClure and Michael Brough, 2013)
The Artist Is Present (Pippin Bar, 2011)
Waiting for Godot (Zoë Quinn, 2014)

Week 3, 2017-02-14
NO CLASS DUE TO A SCHEDULING CONFLICT
(Make-up class to be scheduled.)

Week 4, 2017-02-21
Should games be considered protected expression under the US First Amendment?

Read for today:
Oral Arguments for Brown, Governor of California, et al. v. Entertainment Merchants Association et al. No. 08-1448. November 2, 2010.
SCOTUS Opinion: Brown, Governor of California, et al. v. Entertainment Merchants Association et al. No. 08-1448. (2011).

Play in-class, 2017-02-21:
Mortal Kombat (Midway Games, 1992)
Hurt Me Plenty (Robert Yang, 2014)
Cobra Club (Robert Yang, 2015)
Rinse & Repeat (Robert Yang, 2015)

Week 5, 2017-02-28
Should games be considered a form of storytelling?

Read for today:
Janet H. Murray, “Harbingers of the Holodeck” (selections), from Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997)
Gonzalo Frasca, “Ludology Meets Narratology” (1999)
Espen Aarseth, “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation” (2004)

Play for today:
HER STORY (Sam Barlow, 2015)

Play in-class, 2017-02-28:
Façade (Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, 2005)
selections from Oxenfree (Night School Studios, 2016)

Week 6, 2017-03-07
What is, and what isn’t, a game?

Read for today:
Jesper Juul, “Video Games and the Classic Game Model,” from Half-Real (2005)
Anna Anthropy, “What Is It Good For?,” from Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (2012)
Raph Koster, “A Letter to Leigh” (2013)
Mattie Brice, “Triptychs” (2013)
Robert Yang, “A Letter to a Letter” (2013)

Play for today:
Ultra Business Tycoon III (Porpentine, 2013)
Is This a Game? (The Game Police, 2013)
On Formalism (Darius Kazemi, 2013)
Cibele (Nina Freeman, 2015)

Week 7, 2017-03-14
In the end, are games actually worthy of serious critical examination?

Read for today:
Mattie Brice, “Would You Kindly” (2013)
Chris Hecker, “Fair Use” (2013)
Ian Bogost, “Introduction: Nobody Asked for a Toaster Critic,” from How to Talk About Videogames (2015)
Alyssa Rosenberg, “Gamergate Reopens the Debate Over Video Games as Art” (2014)
Brie Code, “Video Games Are Boring” (2016)
Robert Yang, “For Better or Worse” (2016)

Play for today:
The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo (Michael Lutz, 2014)

Play in-class, 2017-03-14:
scenes from BioShock (Irrational Games, 2007)
scenes from Spec Ops: The Line (Yager, 2012)

Part Two of the Course: Specialized Topics

Week 8, 2017-03-21
Can you make and argument with a game?

Read for today:
Sherry Turkle, “Seeing Through Computers Education in a Culture of Simulation” (1997)
Ian Bogost, “Procedural Rhetoric” (selections), from Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (2011)
John Sharp, “Artgames,” from Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art (2015)

Play for today:
McDonalds Videogame (Molleindustria, 2006)
Nova Alea (Molleindustria, 2016)

Play in-class, 2017-03-21:
The Marriage (Rod Humble, 2007)
Passage (Jason Rohrer, 2007)
Gravitation (Jason Rohrer, 2008)

Week 9, 2017-03-28
Space, exploration, and storytelling

Read for today:
Randal Walser, “Spacemarkers and the Art of the Cyberspace Playhouse” (1990)
Alva Noë, “Experience and Experiment in Art” (2000)
Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” (2004)

Play for today:
The Static Speaks My Name (Jesse Barksdale, 2015)

Play in-class, 2017-04-04:
Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013)

Week 10, 2017-04-04
Emotion

Read for today:
Grant Tavinor, “Emotion in Videogaming,” from The Art of Videogames (2009)
Katherine Isbister, “A Series of Interesting Choices: The Building Blocks of Emotional Design,” from How Games Move Us (2016)

Play for today:
Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013)

Play in-class, 2017-04-04:
Journey (thatgamecompany, 2012)

Week 11, 2017-04-11
Empathy

Read for today:
Ian Bogost, “Empathy,” from How to Do Things with Videogames (2012)
Colin Campbell, “Gaming’s New Frontier: Cancer, Depression, Suicide” (2013)
Aaron Souppouris, “Virtual Reality Made Me Believe I Was Someone Else” (2014)
Emily Short, “Anhedonia by Maddox Pratt, Played by Emily Short,” from Videogames for Humans (2015)

Play for today:
Darfur Is Dying (Susana Ruiz, et al., 2006)
Hush (Jamie Antonisse and Devon Johnson, 2008)
Dys4ia (Anna Anthropy, 2012)
Anhedonia (Maddox Pratt, 2013)
Depression Quest (Zoë Quinn, 2013)
Female Experience Simulator (Alyson MacDonald, 2013)
Walking Home (spinach, 2013)

Week 12, 2017-04-18
Difficulty and failure

Read for today:
Jennifer Doyle, “Introducing Difficulty,” from Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (2013)
Jesper Juul, “The Paradox of Failure and the Paradox of Tragedy,” from The Art of Failure (2013)

Play for today:
Dwarf Fortress (Tarn and Zach Adams, in constant development since 2006)
Fignermukcre (Trollcore Enterprises, 2014)
Problem Attic (Liz Ryerson, 2013)

Week 13, 2017-04-25
Agency and restrictions

Read for today:
Henry Jenkins, “‘Complete Freedom of Movement’: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces” (1998)
Sarah Ahmed, “The Orient and Other Others” (selections), from Queer Phenomenology (2006)
Samantha Allen, “TransMovement: Freedom and Constraint in Queer and Open World Games” (2013)
Micha Cárdenas, “A Game Level Where You Can’t Pass” (2013)

Play for today:
Freedom Bridge (Jordan Magnuson, 2010)
Lim (merritt kopas, 2012)
Mainichi (Mattie Brice, 2012)
Simmons (Ashton Raze, 2012)

Play in-class, 2017-04-25:
scenes from The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013)

Week 14, 2017-05-02
Changing players’ understanding of the world: Optimistic and skeptical views

Read for today:
Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer, “Journalism at Play,” from Newsgames (2010)
Sophie Houlden, “Some Words on Some Problematic Stuff” (2014)
Anna Anthropy, “Empathy Game” (2015)
Mattie Brice, “Empathy Machine” (2016)

Play for today:
Kabul Kaboom (Gonzalo Frasca, 2001)
September 12: A Toy World (Gonzalo Frasca, 2003)
Points of Entry (Persuasive Games, 2008)
The Refugee Challenge: Can You Break into Fortress Europe? (John Domokos and Harriet Grant, 2014)
Eat (Mattie Brice, 2013)
EMPATHY MACHINE (merritt kopas, 2016)

Week 15, 2017-05-09
Conclusion

In-class presentations on final papers, wrap-up, student requested topics, makeup/overflow

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