Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What should you learn in Games 101?

I'm teaching an undergraduate "Games 101" class at Parsons this Fall semester, and putting together the syllabus has been... not easy.

It's supposed to introduce students to a body of game history / game theory, while also letting them dip their toes into non-digital and digital game design. This is like 4 different classes being merged into one, so it's going to be hard to cover all the bases while accommodating everyone's varying experience and fluency in game design.

Many of the students will already be familiar with video games and board games -- but just as many will be taking this class because their advisor said it was good for learning interaction design, or maybe they wanted what sounds like an easy elective -- or maybe they played Temple Run once (a month ago) and they haven't touched any video games since then, but they sure like playing beer pong and basketball and tag, and those are games, right? (In some respects, the "gamers" might have the most to learn.)

Some pillars of my approach to Games 101:
  • All games and game-like things are worth studying as game design. This includes playground games, crosswords, Facebook games, drinking games, gambling games, theater games, hypertexts, sports, etc. If anything, video games are the games that are the most disconnected / isolated from culture and history.
  • Critical theory is important for making games. You have to rationalize your design decisions somehow. Reading what Huizinga writes about player types, or what Aarseth says about hypertext, is a way to get everyone on the same page and give you words to use. We'll still be in very different head-spaces, but at least we'll be one inch closer together.
  • ... but theory is also political and has been used to gate-keep what "good" games are / what a "good game" should be / what games deserve success. We are now living in an era where video games about teenage grrrls in Oregon (or Korean space lesbian dramas) are commanding a lot of influence among critical circles and mass markets on Steam. This is great progress, but let's keep going.
  • We can think of both analog games and digital games as existing on a continuum of "mediated vs. less mediated." A game of Jenga relies entirely on the physical toy artifact that are Jenga blocks, but a game of Werewolf requires no materials other than players. There, we could say Jenga is heavily mediated. Similarly, video games are typically screen-based things running on expensive hardware, but we can also play screen-less games like JS Joust that use the room and players' bodies as the main interface. In competitive play, I imagine players can run countless simulations entirely in their minds, just like professional chess players, and at that point the actual game artifact or "thing" becomes redundant. In video games, this shift has been very recent.
  • Fundamentally, game development is simply the process of staring at your screen until your forehead bleeds.
Choosing games is also a bit challenging. It's unreasonable to ask poor students to buy lots of console games, and Parsons' game library is decent but somewhat limited. So, most of these selected games are free or with substantial demos, Windows / OSX / web compatible. I wanted a good mix of "canon" game developer-type touchstones, while also a strong survey of what's popular right now / but still representative of long-standing genre traditions. Also, none of these games should be very difficult to get into, for the average non-gamer person.

Tentative reading list:
So, what do you think, dear reader? What is important for young impressionable students to learn, read, or play in less than 15 weeks? (Keep in mind that, like, 80% of students will have little interest in becoming game developers; what's interesting and important for them to takeaway from games, and bring into their painting / drawing / sculpture / theater / literature / web design / furniture design / fashion studies?)