Postmortem: Frames, Claims, and Videogames


Ian here—

Well, it’s that time of the semester. Grades for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Spring 2017 semester were due Sunday, so it seems that it’s time to offer up a postmortem.

Last time around, I opted to do a postmortem on “Comedy and the Moving Image,” as I felt that it was my most successful course of the Fall 2016 semester. This time, I’m choosing to go with “Frames, Claims, and Videogames.” It must be said that this was not my most successful course of the Spring 2017 semester. That honor would go to “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art“—a fact that is of little surprise, given that it’s now the third time I have taught that class. “Frames, Claims, and Videogames,” by contrast, was a learning experience. It was the first time I’ve helmed a course solely focused on games, without any dependence on a cinema studies context, and it wasn’t taught under ideal circumstances. (As I have mentioned before, it was a late addition to the course roster, which meant that my students didn’t have a very good heads-up about what the course’s material would actually be before they set foot in the classroom.) One could say that it was a trial-by-fire situation, of sorts.

And, in this sense, it was quite effective. To start things off, here are four different lessons I learned over the course of the class:


Lesson #1: Clearly-articulated debates are great for students

I did something that I haven’t done before when designing the syllabus for this class. Since First-Year Seminar courses are writing seminars first and foremost, I decided to ease students into the task of persuasively arguing contestable claims by front-loading the early weeks with major debates within the subject area being taught. I pulled debates from academia (ludology meets narratology), from the US legal system (Brown v. EMA), and from the worlds of popular criticism and art curation (Roger Ebert vs. the various museums that eventually accepted games as art).

Beginning the course in this way made things easier for both me, and my students. Students were able to hone their reading and writing skills while digesting clearly-articulated arguments across a clearly-delineated difference of opinion. And lesson planning was made easier by the fact that I could always fall back on in-class debates as a way of having students engage with each other and master this material.

I was hoping that this strong foundation would help buttress the second, more exploratory phase of the course, in which students were reading more specialized analyses of things like the emotional impact of games, or the possibilities of environmental storytelling. This didn’t really work out, though. The latter portion of the course felt noticeably more rudderless than the first, with students seemingly losing the sense of responsibility they had earlier in the class toward dedicating themselves to a given viewpoint.

If I were to approach this material as a beginning-level course again, I would put more effort into keeping this “debate” framing going. To take one specific example, I think separating out theories of empathy in gaming and critiques of the “empathy” framing into two separate weeks was a mistake. Presenting both views at once would have helped students better grasp the ways in which they are distinct, sharpening their overall understanding of the topics at hand.


Lesson #2: Gamergate isn’t really an appropriate topic for an introductory games course

Often, one feels a need to teach socially conscious classes, and to cover politically disheartening social developments around a given medium. This impulse is understandable, but, in my specific case, I don’t think it led anywhere particularly productive.

If I was teaching an introductory class on online cultures and social media, I would absolutely include a week on Gamergate. Coming off of this class, though, I have decided that it is simply not appropriate material for students’ first class on games, especially if they have no background in US gaming culture.

I was hoping to teach Gamergate as an epoch-defining moment, when a considerable amount of the excitement about games as a nascent art form was cruelly tempered by the reactionary tendencies of its fan base. I thought it would flow elegantly from prior lessons on games as art, games and the First Amendment, and the definition of games. I was wrong: it was a tough lesson, tougher than I was prepared to handle. In hindsight, I would advise against attempting to teach it in such an introductory-level course on games. It should be treated as a more advanced topic, I think.


Lesson #3: Homework that consists of games is still homework, and you can’t count on students doing it

I have worked games into almost every class that I have taught previously, but, until now, I had always used them as objects to show and discuss in-class, rather than assignments that students had to take on as homework. On rare occasions, I would make students play games on their own—I did this with The Path and Thirty Flights of Loving—but, for the most part, I tended to include games only as in-class demonstrations and forms of small group work.

This course, though, was entirely about games, so I found it necessary to break this trend. In doing so, I learned an important lesson: homework is homework, even if it consists of playing a videogame. There will be a reliable chunk of students who won’t do it, and will look at you with blank stares when you ask questions about this.

I suppose I was naïve in thinking that even if students didn’t do the course readings, they would at least play the games. I will not be naïve in this way in the future. I’m not sure how to solve this problem—tiny pop quizzes on game elements, perhaps, to keep students on their toes?—but I do at least now recognize that it exists.


Lesson #4: The degree to which games work as an in-class activity varies wildly

Journey (thatgamecompany 2012) works well enough, because its aesthetic sensibilities render it easily-appreciable as a movie for those who aren’t in control. The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013) can create some great back-and-forth. Rinse & Repeat (Robert Yang, 2015) was just as embarrassing as I wanted it to be. These all serve their function nicely as large class-wide group activities.

On the other hand, I used Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) as an in-class example—mainly because I didn’t want to have to make my students put down $20 for it—and learned a harsh lesson. When given over to the whims of varying students’ reading speeds and degrees of patience, it becomes a choppy, unpredictable experience. Students who play at a slower speed to better marinate themselves in environmental detail will be punished by backseat-player heckling. Speedrunners will neglect important details that the class could have otherwise analyzed. It’s just not a game that lends itself to public, democratic play.

One of the reason I didn’t post all that many lesson plans for this class is that I kept encountering moments like the Gone Home day: moments where I had learned that something didn’t quite work, while not quite constructing a workable alternative. Given a few more passes, I think I’ll have a lot more to say about how to productively examine certain games in class. Right now, though, I’m still learning and re-tooling.

Course materials

As this class was going on, I experimented some with how, exactly, I wanted to use this blog to report back on it. I continued posting lesson plans, but I also used some different tactics to catalogue various resources.

Here are lesson plans and other very standard pedagogical materials from the class:

Meanwhile, here are some blog posts of other types I authored that are closely related to material covered during the course. Although they aren’t direct reports back on class content, they speak to my thinking around assigned games and readings, and occasionally take into account things that came up during class discussions:

And, finally, this semester I also experimented with creating various walkthroughs and quick teaching guides for games my students looked at. This resulted in the following resources being added to the site:


Here’s to a productive summer!

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