Postmortem: Frames, Claims, and Videogames

Journey_in_class_play_session

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:

Continue reading

The Limits of Disempowerment

realistic_female_fps_anthropy_02

Ian here—

For years, I didn’t know what to do with Anna Anthropy’s Realistic Female First-Person Shooter (2012).

It is, shall we say, a “minor Anthropy.” It’s not one of the games that she includes on her itch.io storefront. If you want to play it, you have to head over here. (It is, unfortunately, Windows-only, although Mac users should feel free to look at this video of the game in action on YouTube).

But despite its somewhat tossed-off status, it is a game I was serious considering including in my article on fumblecore games. There was just one problem: it seemed completely incompatible with my argument. So I swept it under the rug, but kept it in my memory, blinking in the back of my brain, challenging me, keeping me honest.

I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to say about it now, and it’s mostly thanks to the students in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” class. I didn’t even teach Realistic Female First-Person Shooter in that class. Instead, my thoughts began crystalizing as students reacted of Alyson Macdonald’s Twine game Female Experience Simulator (2013), one of the most contentious games we played in the course.

Continue reading

A Practical Guide to Gone Home

Gone_Home_header_image_family_portrait.jpg

Ian here—

Two weeks ago, I taught Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) for my “Frames, Claims and Videogames” course. I hadn’t played the game in quite some time, so, in the run-up to the course, I re-played it, searching through the house exhaustively, reminding myself of where every last note and prop was, re-acquainting myself with the ins and outs of everyone’s story. Taking some notes, it occurred to me that it would be nice if there was a guide to it online. Not just a guide to picking up all of the items that give you achievements, or something like that—there are plenty of those online, already. Rather, a guide to the stories Gone Home tells, and where exactly you can find the environmental elements that move those stories forward, and flesh it out.

Well, I guess it falls to me to create what I’m looking for. Again.

My guide to Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic (2013) was just a walkthrough. This is a bit more, as I have specifically designed it to aid in things like class prep and analysis. It isn’t, by itself, analysis, but tends closer to that direction than the Problem Attic one does. (I’d place it roughly in the realm of my Virginia videos.) Enjoy!

Continue reading

Lesson Plans: The Definitions and Expectations We Have of Games

uncle_nintendo_screenshot.jpg

Ian here—

This post serves as a little mini-postmortem on two difficult class sessions in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” course. There are multiple overlapping reasons why these class sessions were difficult for me. One is that my lesson had to pivot strangely from seemingly-academic debates on the definition of games to a sudden dive into matters of harassment in game culture. Harassment itself is, needless to say, a difficult thing to discuss in class. It becomes exponentially more difficult when one is teaching  a class with a high percentage of international students, many of whom (thanks to the registration realities of late-scheduled courses) have no particular interest in games, and who simply cannot fathom the cultural forces that align to drive a certain subset of American men to use things like changing conceptions of videogames (videogames!) as an opportunity to harass women online. I mean, how do you explain this, really—to anyone at all, let alone someone completely on the outside of American “gamer” culture?

I won’t go so far as to claim that my approach to this material was entirely successful. (The class did not, for instance, become a platform for thoughtful discussion in the same way my unexpectedly post-Trump-election lesson on the politics of American comedy did.) It was, though, a learning experience for me, so it’s worth sharing some details.

Continue reading

Lesson Plan: Janet Murray, Damn Fine Futurist

murray_diptych

Ian here—

The first half of my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” course is devoted to five major debates that have hovered around games over the past couple of decades. Some of these are legal, some have occurred in the art world, some have occurred in the sphere of popular discourse, and others are academic. For the first academic debate, I pitted Janet Murray‘s ideas about the storytelling potentials of new media agains the hard-core ludologists.

When prepping for this lesson, I found re-reading the ludologists in 2017 to be an unpleasant experience. Looking back at the early-2000s era writing of folks like Espen Aarseth and Markku Eskelinen, it’s pretty clear that they were the academic precursors of the game police. And not the snarky, tongue-in-cheek Game Police parody twitter account that arose in 2013. I mean the angry young men, who would later become Gamergate, but who already, in 2012–2013, were barking back at “corrupt” journalists praising games they didn’t see as games: games that told stories, rather than let you shoot things. These young men took it upon themselves to politicize the term game, to define its boundaries and beef up its border security. A “videogame” became a medium you couldn’t freely pass into until you showed your papers, and proved that everything was in order. The most vigilant among these enforcement agents, the Joe Arpaios of gamer culture, enjoyed a wide jurisdiction and acted at their own discretion, with great impunity. (Is it really any wonder that this burgeoning culture of alt-right gamer trolls would evolve into one of Donald Trump’s key blocks of support?)

As I said, it is tough re-reading, let alone teaching, the ludologists in 2017. As a consolation, though, it is a delight teaching Janet Murray. Time has proved her to be an exceptionally good predictor of the future, meaning that reading her twenty-year old Hamlet on the Holodeck is a surprisingly exciting experience.

Continue reading

New Resource: Pedagogical Notes on Games

Sea_Will_Claim_Everything_Screenshot_01.jpg

Ian here—

I am very pleased to announce a new page I’ve added to the “Teaching” section of this site: Practical Pedagogical Notes on Games.”

Let’s assume, for a moment, that you are an educator. You’d like to introduce videogames into the class you’re teaching. Perhaps it’s a course on new media, or digital storytelling; perhaps you’d like to include a section on games in an Intro to Film course, or an Intro to Mass Communication course. Whatever the case, you find yourself faced with practical matters. What games should you assign, and how should you prepare students to play them as part of their coursework?

Perhaps the relevant scholarship on games you are familiar with all came out some time between 2004–2011. You’re not sure if the games discussed in those readings are still readily available, and if they’ll work on your students’ newly-purchased computers. Who has time to troubleshoot such things while lesson planning? Perhaps you’re looking for tips on games students can play for free, or games they can play without installing anything on their computers. Perhaps you’re looking for tips on how many games you can assign as a week’s worth of homework. Just how long do games take to play, anyway? Has anyone reliably timed such things? And what about content warnings? Everybody seems to want those, these days …

Well, fret no more! The “Practical Pedagogical Notes on Games” section of this site now provides my guide for answering such questions.

Continue reading

Lesson Plans: SEE YOU IN COURT (or, SCOTUS ponders whether the medium is the message)

see_you_in_court_image_diptych

Ian here—

In this post I’m going to be mashing together several lesson plans from two very different courses: my Intro to Mass Communication course at DePaul University, and the course “Frames, Claims, and Videogames,” which I’m currently teaching at the School of the Art Institute right now. Despite their different origins, these lessons speak to common themes, and in fact they could be productively combined in the future. At issue in all of them: the US Supreme Court’s shifting views on various media, their potential for socially valuable expression, and their first amendment protections (or lack thereof). We could call it a vernacular legal theory of medium specificity, moments in which those whose job it is to interpret the law dip their toes into defining the specific affordances and dangers of a given medium.

What is our country coming to when a so-called judge can define a medium’s potential as a mode of expression?  THE DEFINITIONS OF OUR MEDIA ARE AT STAKE.

Continue reading