Teaching Games as Text: Introduction (Part I)

Feb 12, 14 Teaching Games as Text: Introduction (Part I)

This will be the first in a four-part series that reflects on a Composition II course taught in Spring 2013 called 20th Century PC Games. The course’s primary goal is to teach students academic writing conventions (as a continuation of Composition I), but it is also designed to do so by teaching students to analyze and write papers about video games and game criticism, under the assumption that video games are historical, cultural texts.

Games are texts. Games are history. Games are historically situated texts. These are the assumptions that I have been operating under in my teaching. In this series I will examine the applications and implications of these assumptions in my college English composition classes.

Recently on this blog, Jeff Mummart discussed using games as text in K12 education. In his analysis, he noted that treating games as text in the classroom appears to offer all the advantages of using traditional texts, with some added challenges and bonuses that stem from the nature of video games as a medium. I would like to add my voice to his here, in the hopes that we might move toward a utopian vision in which games are treated with the same regard and classroom practices that we currently afford to traditional literature such as drama, poetry, and novels. Such a shift requires not only reconsidering video games as texts, but also reconsidering what literature and text means—and that makes using such an approach seem ideal when the goal is to get students to think critically about the ideologies and rhetorical situations that they encounter daily.

The poster used to recruit students for the course. The relevant text reads:
THIS IS YOUR HOMEWORK*
*as well as writing four papers, reading academic writing about video games, and writing exercises.

At the moment, I am teaching a special topics section of Composition II called “Ways to Talk About Video Games,” which is a significant revision of a special topics section (also Composition II) I taught a year ago called “20th Century PC Games.” The majority of changes between the two sections reflect a recent shift in the standard Composition II curriculum in my department, but others, of course, stem from the lessons learned from teaching “20th Century PC Games,” which I would like to explore in this series.

The fundamental assumption of that course was that games are culturally, historically situated texts that should be approached in the same ways we might encourage students to approach any historical media object, with a combination of close reading and contextualization. In order to achieve this goal, the course was organized similarly to the literature survey courses that many institutions require of English majors, which divide texts first by time period and then by geographical location: 19th century British literature, for instance, or 20th century American literature. Thus, the title “20th Century PC Games”: the course patterns itself in many ways after these survey courses, but instead of dividing by geography it divides by platform. If the full vision played out in the title of the course were realized, we would have a selection of courses (with more or less standardized texts) that would include “20th century home console games,” arcade games,” “19th century board and parlor games,” and so forth from which students might choose to complete an interactive media requirement (or whatever administrations decided to call it).

Although dividing texts into periods is inherently arbitrary to some degree, I contend that there is a natural division between 20th century video games and 21st century video games, as the turn of the century marked some significant shifts in video game abilities, consumption, and social practices. It marks a shift into our current three-console dominant discourse around mainstream AAA titles, as well as a shift into our web-based distribution models for PC games and our current mobile gaming market. This makes the 20th century sufficiently distant to require contextualization for students who have lived mostly in the 21st century (most of my students at the time were born about the same time that Myst and Doom were released, for instance). All these considerations made the historical survey structure particularly expedient for a course design.

Yet the most experimental part of the course was not encouraging students to use popular media in a freshman composition course, but the arrangement of the surveyed media. Ten games were selected as representative of different movements, genres, or periods within the survey period, but they were arranged in reverse chronological order. Thus, the first game that students played was in fact the latest game (Planescape: Torment), while the last game they played was the earliest (Zork).

Traditional chronological order allows students to construct a narrative, to relive history through texts in the order they influence each other and make sense of time as a flow from past to present. Reversing that order should do something very different but equally valuable: allow students to move from the most familiar objects to the least familiar objects gradually, by stripping away the more recent conventions toward the root genres, which can often seem alien. A contemporary video game player who is familiar with narrative games such as Skyrim will have an easier time understanding Planescape: Torment—which is very similar indeed in a lot of ways—than Zork or early Ultima titles, even though these are still intrinsically related. By moving backwards, students are allowed to become used to increasingly strange gameplay conventions and technological limitations, with the goal that the increased critical thinking skills that the course should foster will support the leaps backwards into increasingly unfamiliar conventions and technological limitations. Traditional chronological order asks students to build knowledge into the present, while this reversed structure instead asks them to unravel knowledge into the past. In practice, this approach came with mixed results, which I will address in the second and third posts in this series.

Selecting the games that students would be required to play for the course was the most daunting part of planning the course. There is no Norton Anthology of 20th Century PC Games, nor a Riverside Sierra, although it would be pretty useful to have some kind of classroom-ready, edited anthology of playable games (in full or demo forms) for teaching such courses. The presence of anthologies cannot be discounted in establishing the legitimacy of a field of study; it also makes designing and proposing courses on the materials anthologized easier, because anthologies provide support material, simple and consistent assignment structure, and other advantages. At the moment, there isn’t even a clear canon, although there are some clear candidates in game history for the emerging canon.

Since part of the goal in teaching such a course is establishing a canon for future coursework and research, it became necessary to determine a heuristic for inclusion in the course. This process brings me to question much of the existing literary canon, as a careful examination of the courses usually taught in literature survey courses seems arbitrarily chosen at best. Ultimately, games in the course were selected based on several criteria, although each individual game did not need to meet all or even most of the possible criteria. The most important criteria was that all games had to be easily and legally accessible to students. This is one of the reasons that I selected 20th century PC games for the subject, because services such as Steam and GOG have made a large number of these titles readily accessible to 21st century players with very little trouble. I selected GOG because its historically oriented (or possibly nostalgia-oriented) presentation of the games is more in keeping with the philosophy of the course, and so with the exception of Commander Keen, all the games assigned were available in GOG’s catalog at the time the course was taught. But, more importantly, each game also had to meet one of three criteria:

1)      It is an excellent representative of an important genre or form

2)      It is historically significant in some way (such as being the first or most influential game to do something important, or as having caused a major controversy)

3)      It already features prominently in existing academic work about videogames

The most obvious game to assign, then, was Myst, which arguably meets all three criteria and is readily available from a range of services. The final list was, in the order assigned: Planescape: Torment, Pharaoh, Fallout, Descent, Myst, Commander Keen, Ultima IV, King’s Quest I-III, Space Quest I, and Zork I: The Underground Empire. I freely admit that this list tends to reflect my research interests, but such instructor privilege is present in most survey course structures. The relative success of each game with the students is a topic for later discussion, but I maintain that the criteria for inclusion remain reasonable and useful for future attempts to construct a canon for the teaching of games as text.

In addition to being required to play each of these titles for about three hours, students were required to read a diverse selection of academic articles on video games (provided either by weblinks or PDFs on the course’s private website). They were required to write four papers of increasing complexity and a brief blog post every week reflecting on their gameplay experiences; it was, after all, a writing course, but these exercises also were intended to foster critical thought about the games.

Overall, I want to label the course a success, but only because the problems that I encountered (which I will discuss in detail in the third installment) were exactly the same problems that I have encountered using a more traditional literature-based curriculum. This means that the course succeeded in getting students to see games as texts on the same level that they see more traditional literary texts; whether or not we actually want students to see games through that same lens, given student animosity and apathy toward canonical literature, is another matter entirely. In my next three posts, I will assess the course and its value as a model for future courses and approaches to games as text in detail. My next post look at the course’s successes and the advantages of treating games as historical texts.

4 Comments

  1. Not Fenimore /

    Oooh, sounds cool! The idea of a Norton Anthology of PC games is kind of neat, hadn’t thought of that before, but it’s a good idea. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    (Although the “play each game for three hours” – while understandable, given course loads – probably underserves a lot of these games pretty badly. As does excerpting written fiction too, I guess.)

  2. Mike Sell /

    Excellent post, particularly your description of key decisions and practical problem-solving. Here at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, we’re about to implement a sub-curriculum in our English BA program that will include video game studies and link with Communications Media, Art, and Theatre. I’d love to explore your syllabus, lesson plans, and learning activities. And I’d be keen to hear about the kinds of institutional negotiations you’ve had to pull off to make your course happen.

    • Angela R Cox /

      Mike, I’m now very interested in how the University of Pennsylvania is implementing this program!

      I’m pleased to say that the English department at the University of Arkansas is very supportive of graduate students who want to develop curriculum. My course was approved through a “special topics” program that has been in place for a while and is designed to facilitate this kind of experimentation. It’s really a win-win situation for everyone. We need a lot of Composition II sections every spring because we have a large body of undergraduates and it’s a required course for nearly everyone; graduate students need experience developing curricula in preparation for the job market and beyond; and undergrads get a chance to explore a possibly unexpected topic more deeply while fulfilling their core requirements.

      • Mike Sell /

        Hi, Angela,

        Saw your Twitter post. Yes, yes, yes–very interested in teaching materials and, further on, discussion of curricular vision.

        My e-mail: msell@iup.edu

        Mike

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