A New Course: ENGL 251AA: Games and Culture

08 Nov in gamecult, games and culture, spring 2013, teaching

Since I seem to have re-awoken my blog, I thought I’d take some time to use it to publicize my Spring 2013 courses. One is brand new and the other is (like most course, truthfully) in a continual state of reinvention, so it might be interesting to look at what my plans are for now. I’m teaching two courses, with two sections of each, and this blog entry is about the new one: ENGL 251AA: Games and Culture.

In our department, 251 is a “special topics” designation, so we add suffixes for each new topic being taught. It’s a “general elective”, meeting an “Arts, Literature and Performance: Appreciation” (ALPA) credit, but offering no specific benefit for an English Major. My experience with 251s has been that the enrollment demographic typically includes a pretty good balance among majors and classes represented, though perhaps with some skew toward English and Computer Science students, owing to my tendency to the specific of my topics.

Games and Culture” is a broad title, but I hope it can be a course that eventually becomes parallel to our Intro to Film Studies class. In other words, I’m going in to Games and Culture with the idea that — along with exploring how culture is both represented in and also representative of its cultural context — it will also introduce the field of Game Studies.

The course will include some literature, some games, and some secondary readings in Game Studies and game history. The following list of core (required) texts is technically unofficial since I haven’t yet sent in the bookstore requisition, but I’m pretty confident about it at this point — at least the books:

  • Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things With Videogames. U of Minnesota Press, 2011.
  • Bissell, Tom. Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Random House, Inc., 2010.
  • Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Random House Digital, Inc., 2011.
  • Joyce, Michael. Disappearance. Steerage Press, 2012.
  • Sudnow, David. Pilgrim in the Microworld. Warner Books, 1984. Web. 17 Jan. 2007.
  • Yang, Gene Luen. Level Up. First Second, 2011.

Pilgrim in the Microworld is an odd one, and it’s long out of print,, but I’m optimistic I can find some other way to view it. Bogost’s How to do things is refreshingly accessible for students, I’ve found, while still getting us into the bigger questions of game studies. Bissell’s Extra Lives has some problems, but it and Ready Player One are both problematic in ways that I look forward to discussing, while both also remain relatively enjoyable reads (in my opinion).

Michael Joyce’s Disappearance is a risk. I’ve just finished it, and I’m honestly not sure what to make of it. Since it just came out, I haven’t found anyone else to compare my reading to. I suspect it may present a hard time for my students, but I really wanted to include some more literary fiction. We’ll see how it goes. Similarly, I was interested in some graphic fiction, so Level Up could be interesting. It also segues from the creative nonfiction of Extra Lives in ways that could be productive pedagogically.

For other readings, I’m building a bibliography of essays and shorter articles that address issues of race, class, gender, labor and power as they relate to games. Suggestions for any of these are very welcome.

Besides these books, we’ll do three or four film screenings, which may include some of my perennial favorites: eXistenZ, Run, Lola, Run, The Matrix, and Avalon. Maybe some others.

Game-wise, I do want my students playing a few things, so I’m planning to require some easily accessible (and cheap) games with something interesting to say: LIMBO, Portal, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP and maybe Bioshock. Needless to say, I also have an army of freely accessible art games ready to deploy for more specific applications to the cultural domains under consideration.

Also, interestingly enough, the lab I’ll be teaching this in has been licensed through Valve’s Teach with Portals initiative, so we’ll have Portal 2 on hand, along with the puzzle designer tool. I’m trying to think of some interesting ways to use that.

So that’s “Games and Culture” in a nutshell. It’s all tentative right now, of course, so suggestions, questions, comments are all welcome.

And potential students: As of right now (Nov 8), I’ve got 9 seats left at 12:30 TR (Section 1). The 2:00 TR section is currently full. If you can’t get in, keep an eye on it during the drop/add period. (Unfortunately, it’s impossible to overload this class because of the lab configuration, so while you’re welcome to ask about force-adds, it’s simply not possible to do that here.)

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