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.
This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.
The games that I have dealt with so far in this series—Shenmue, Papers, Please, and Cart Life—all enforce some sort of time pressure on their players. They don’t operate in any sort of 1:1 “real time” (their workdays last in the range of 5–45 minutes), but they do have their own internal ticking clocks, enforcing a certain pace. Cart Life‘s accelerated workday doesn’t even go so far as to pause while players are navigating its menu screens.
Skulljhabit (Porpentine, 2014) breaks this trend. It was made in the interactive fiction platform Twine, so player activity consists of clicking on hyperlinks, sans any ticking clock. It is bound, in this way, to the constraints of its platform. But what Porpentine achieves within those constraints is nevertheless quite remarkable, pointing toward the outer limits of how we can think about labor in videogames.
Consider this another addendum, this time to my previous post on teaching the concept of procedural representation. These are two more of my favorite case studies to use for that topic—ones that, however, fall outside the designation of “games about squares.” As with the games outlined in my previous post, I teach these via small group work, assigning students to first play these games, and then present to their classmates on them. For these presentations, I direct students to not simply say “this game is about xtopic,” but instead say things like “when you do y in this game, z happens.” My aim is to get them to specifically lay out how rules shape player behavior, and provide consequences for that behavior, and how this combination of rules/behavior/consequence can make claims about the how the world works.
The first time I taught a unit on the concept of procedural representation, it was in my course “The Moving and Interactive Image” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The theme I wanted to explore that week was the limits of thinking about games as moving images, at all. Are there some games that get such a large percentage of their meaning from rules and interactions that it is not even productive to think about them as images at all anymore? To this end, I assigned students the chapter “Art” from Ian Bogost‘s book How to Do Things with Videogames, where he lays out the idea of what he calls the “proceduralist style” in art games. Bogost characterizes this style of games in the following way:
In these games, expression arises primarily from the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects. These games lay bare the form, allowing meaning to emanate from a model.[i]
I also set up a unit on proceduralist games in my Intro to Mass Communication course at DePaul University, which I taught three times, in the Fall 2015, Winter 2016, and Spring 2016 quarters. As I repeatedly taught this unit, I segued away from using Bogost’s “Art” chapter from How to Do Things with Videogames. (I found that the chapter’s engagement with the tired “are videogames art?” debate was too much of a lure, pulling student attention away from the core issues I wanted to address.) Instead, I subbed in “Procedural Rhetoric,” the first chapter of Persuasive Games, with very heavy excisions. (It really is a shame that, at 64 pages, that chapter is so unreasonably gargantuan. It definitely makes for some headaches when deciding on reading assignments.) And, over time, I gravitated toward some specific games to play in-class: a group of games I affectionately refer to as “games about squares.”