• Syllabus

    Videogames as Art / Culture / Media – FMMC 0282

    Spring 2014, Professor Jason Mittell

    M 1:30 – 4:15, Axinn 001


    208 Axinn Center (802) 443-3435 jmittell@middlebury.edu

    Office Hours: Wed 9:00 – 10:30, Thurs 11:00 – 12:00 or by appointment


    Videogames have become one of the world’s most important entertainment forms, exerting broad influence economically, aesthetically, culturally, and socially. This course explores the medium of the videogame in its multiple facets and offers an introduction to the academic subfield of game studies. We will read about game history, design, and cultural criticism, as well as play an array of games to gain a better understanding of how this medium matters. Prior background in gaming is not required.


    This course contains a good deal of reading, providing in-depth analysis and critical approaches to videogames. We will watch a number of games each week as homework, as well as bringing games into class to analyze and discuss. Students will each be responsible for serving as discussion leader for one week’s topic, and maintain ongoing blogs engaging with readings and gameplay. Assignments will test your comprehension of the course materials and concepts, and allow you to put your game analysis and creative skills into practice. The course will culminate with a game design project where you’ll apply your understanding of videogames by creating one.


    Learning Goals:

    • Develop the vocabulary and skills to analyze the industrial, formal and technological facets of videogames

    • Gain an understanding of how videogames both shape and are shaped by culture and society

    • Expand your horizons to better understand and appreciate a wide range of games from a variety of historical contexts

    • Think across disciplines and methodologies to understand videogames as a multifaceted phenomenon

    • Develop some basic game design skills in light of a critical understanding of gaming

    Required Texts & Readings:

    Ian Bogost, How to Do Things with Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

    Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Jonas Heide Smith & Susana Pajares Tosca, Understanding Video Games second edition (New York: Routledge, 2013)

    D. B. Weiss, Lucky Wander Boy (New York: Plume, 2003).
    NOTE: This novel is out-of-print. The bookstore will have used copies, and you can still purchase it for Kindle or used through Amazon.

    If the bookstore runs out of these titles, it is your responsibility to get access to copies for assigned readings. They are on reserve at the library and easily available at online bookstores. All other required readings are accessible through the course website.


    Course Requirements:

    All of the following requirements must be completed in order to pass this course – if you do not complete the book report, group wiki, and game design project, you will automatically fail the course:

    20% Online Discussions / Blogs

    20% Critical Book Report

    25% Group Wiki Assignment

    25% Game Design Project

    10% Class Participation


    Online Discussion:
    Each week, a pair of students will be responsible for serving as discussion leaders. Those students will post a series of questions about the upcoming class assignments (readings, screenings, playings) on Moodle by Thursday at 5pm. Students are expected to respond to these questions and enter the online conversation by 9am on Monday. Every student is expected to contribute at least 400 words each week, including both their initial post and responses to others – productive ongoing dialogue and conversation is encouraged. You may add to the conversation through the week, but to get a full grade, you must contribute something significant before Monday at 9. Each week’s contributions will be graded on a 4.0 scale via Moodle, and the 9 best weeks will be added to comprise this portion of your grade.

    Students will each also create a blog to serve as a “Crtitical Play Journal.” The blog is a site where you write informally yet critically about the games you’re playing, and make connections between the games, the readings, and our class discussions. Avoid rants, rambling, and purely subjective responses. Occasionally I will ask you to respond to specific questions in your blog, but you should be free to write about whatever moves you about the games you are playing. You should aim for at least 500 words per week in your blog, either as one entry or spread across several entries during the week.

    Critical Book Report
    Each student will choose one game studies book to read and analyze in a 1,600-1,900 word essay. More information, including a list of potential books, will be posted to the course website.

    Group Wiki Project
    All students will contribute to a shared wiki designed to analyze a number of videogame genres. More information will be forthcoming.

    Game Design Project
    The final project will be creating a playable prototype of a game, which will be displayed in an interactive Game Fair. Students may work in pairs or on their own, using any platform they feel comfortable with―we will explore Stencyl and Twine in class. Students must also write an individual essay analyzing their own game in light of concepts explored throughout the semester. More details will be forthcoming.

    Class Participation & Attendance:
    You are expected to attend all class meetings on time, having done the assigned work, thought about the material, and prepared the necessary assignments. The students responsible for posting discussion questions for a given week are also expected to serve as discussion leaders during that class meeting. Attendance will be taken regularly―students are expected to be active, engaged, and present in-class to count as “attending.” Students who miss a class should find out what they missed from their classmates and make-up the necessary material. Your class participation grade will be lowered one full mark (e.g. A– becomes B–) for each unexcused absence in excess of one. If you know that you will be absent from class, please contact Professor Mittell as soon as possible to make necessary arrangements and avoid penalties. The class participation component of your grade will reward students who actively participate in class or otherwise demonstrate their engagement with the material. Likewise, this grade will be used to downgrade students who are clearly disengaged with the class or fail to uphold their end of the course policies.


    You will be graded based on the following scale, using a 4.0 scale on all assignments:

    • A (4.0) indicates truly excelling on assignments, demonstrating mastery of the material and significantly surpassing the expectations of the assignment.
    • B (3.0) indicates above-average work, clearly achieving the course goals and completing all assignments in a strong fashion.
    • C (2.0) indicates satisfactorily meeting the course requirements in an adequate fashion.
    • D (1.0) indicates not achieving course goals and not adequately meeting expectations.
    • F (0.0) indicates dramatically failing to meet course goals and course expectations.

    Submitting Work:
    Late assignments are highly discouraged, as they throw off schedules for both student and professor. If you must complete any assignment later than the deadline, please contact the professor in advance as soon as the situation becomes apparent. If an assignment is not turned in on time without advance approval from Professor Mittell or a Dean’s excuse, it will be penalized by one mark (e.g. an A- becomes a B+) for each day of lateness. All papers should be submitted via Moodle as a .docx or .rtf file format document.

    Cutting You Some Slack:
    College is one of the few situations in life where the expectations are clearly laid out and the consequences for meeting or missing those expectations is transparent. The grading system and workload has been designed to be as fair and straightforward as possible, allowing students to choose how to prioritize the class versus other obligations or interests. However, there may be times that things become challenging and you want to ask for some leniency. One time per semester, students may request to be cut some slack, resulting in a more flexible attitude toward grading or other policies. Simply type on an assignment, or send an email describing the request, with the phrase “please cut me some slack” – Professor Mittell will adjust his expectations accordingly. Slack cannot be requested after an assignment’s due date has passed or a grade has been given, nor will it apply toward honor code violations.

    Academic Dishonesty:
    All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work beyond the confines of a particular assignment, in keeping with the Middlebury College Honor Code. All papers and exams must include the statement of the Honor Code along with the student’s name (as a digital signature) in order to be graded. There is a no-tolerance policy for academic misconduct in this course! The minimum penalty for academic misconduct will be a failing grade (F) for the course – further academic and disciplinary penalties may be assessed. The definitions of plagiarism and cheating used in this course are consistent with the material in the College Handbook, Chapter V.

    Course Policies:
    Any student with a disability or who otherwise needs accommodation or assistance should make arrangements with Professor Mittell as soon as possible. If you know that you will have conflicts due to athletics or other college activities, you must notify Professor Mittell in advance and arrange to make up missed work – athletic absences are not excused and it is the student’s responsibility to make all arrangements.

    Email is Professor Mittell’s preferred mode of communication (besides face-to-face conversation!), generally checking regularly during the work week – if you email him asking for a response and do not receive one within one working day (M-F), assume that your email may not have been received. Office voicemails will typically be answered less promptly. Please do not call Professor Mittell at home.

    Printing & Computer Use Policy:
    Writing assignments for this course are submitted via the course website, with no printing required. Many readings are online – students are welcome to print or not print at their choosing, with the understanding that students should take notes on electronic readings either via digital annotation or separate notebook or word processing file. You should bring assigned readings to class each day, either via paper or on a laptop screen. Feel free to use laptops throughout all class meetings except during group screenings, where the light from the screen can disrupt the viewing experience. If you are on your laptop, you are expected to engage with course materials, not free-range surfing the web, checking email, Facebook, etc. Students who do not demonstrate engaged presence in class, whether via digital distractions or otherwise, will be penalized in the course participation grade, or even asked to leave class in extreme instances.

    Daily Schedule

    All assignments & activities are due by Monday’s class meeting on the week they are listed.

    Note that this syllabus is an evolving document - be sure to check back regularly to see the updated readings/screenings/playings required.


    February 10: A Course About Videogames? Really?!?

    IN-CLASS: Create blogs, tour game lab, plan for the semester, choose common game


    February 17: Introducing Game Studies

    READ: Roger Caillois, “The Definition of Play / The Classification of Games”
    Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen et. al.,
    Understanding Videogames (UVG): Intro, Ch. 1 & 3

    WATCH: eXistenZ (Cronenberg, 1999) – on Netflix or on-reserve in library

    PLAY: Play each of these for long enough to get a sense of how they work as a game:
    SolForge, Candy Crush Saga, The Room (regular or pocket version), The Simpsons: Tapped Out.

    DO: At least two blog posts: first, introduce yourself via a “gaming bio.” Then respond to some of these games in light of our introductory readings.


    February 24: Sound & Music
    Leaders: Stella & Joseph

    READ: Egenfeldt-Nielsen, UVG: Ch. 5 (emphasize p. 145-150)
    Neil Lerner, “Origins of Musical Style in Video Games”
    Kiri Miller, “Schizophonic Performance: Guitar Hero, Rock Band, & Virtual Virtuosity”

    PLAY: Start Portal and League of Legends; experiment with Rez, Children of Eden, and Rock Band/Guitar Hero (any version)

    DO: Blog about various games you play, and any games where you think sound & music are particularly interesting


    ATTEND: Neil Lerner’s lecture, “Mario’s Dynamic Leaps: Musical Innovations and Backwards Glances in Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros.,” Feb. 24, 4:30 pm in Axinn 229


    March 3: Visual Aesthetics
    Leaders: Thomas & Paul

    READ: Review Egenfeldt-Nielsen, UVG: Ch. 5
    Mark J.P. Wolf, “Abstraction in the Videogame”
    Andrew Hutchison, "Making the Water Move: Techno-Historic Limits in the Game Aesthetics of Myst and Doom"

    PLAY: Keep working through Portal; experiment with FEZ, Myst

    WATCH: Joystick Warriors

    DO: Blog about your continued gameplay, including starting to talk about your choice of semester-long game; respond to Joystick Warriors


    March 10: Game Narratives
    Leaders: Austin & Katie

    READ: Egenfeldt-Nielsen, UVG: Ch. 7
    Jesper Juul, "Games Telling Stories?"
    Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture
    Jesper Juul, “Fiction”

    PLAY: Finish Portal

    DO: Submit at least three Game Design ideas


    March 17: Game Industry & History
    Leaders: Miriam & James

    READ: Egenfeldt-Nielsen, UVG: Ch. 2 & 4
    Anna Anthropy, excerpts from Rise of the Videogame Zinesters

    WATCH: Indie Game: The Movie (on Netflix or in the library)

    PLAY: Explore the Console Living Room & play some old games; start Papers, Please

    DO: Submit Critical Book Report by class meeting via Moodle




    March 31: “Serious Games” and What Can Games Do?
    Leaders: Ryan & Jenna

    READ: Egenfeldt-Nielsen, UVG: Ch. 8
    Ian Bogost, How to Do Things With Videogames (full book)

    PLAY: Finish Papers, Please

    April 7: Game Design & Case Study of Interactive Fiction
    Leaders: Arturo & Joel

    READ: Costikyan, "I Have No Words"
    Nick Monfort, “
    Riddle Machines"
    Scott McCloud, "The Vocabulary of Comics"
    Rob Parker, “The Art of
    Papers, Please
    Anna Anthropy, “How to Make Games With Twine” (see also Porpentine's list of Twine resources)

    Interactive Fiction:The Warbler's Nest,
    Twine: Conversations with my Mother, Anhedonia, CRY$TAL WARRIOR KE$HA, as well as other recommendations from Anthropy guide

    WATCH:  Get Lamp (optional)

    DO: In-class workshop on Stencyl and Twine
    Draft of Wiki due by class on April 7


    April 14: Game Platforms & Interfaces
    Leaders: Dylan & Hunter

    READ: Ian Bogost & Nick Monfort, “New Media as Material Constraint”
    Steven Jones and George Thiruvathukal, Codename Revolution excerpts

    PLAY: explore some Wii games and examples of mobile/tablet games that use motion & touchscreen in interesting ways


    April 21: Representation & Identity in Gaming
    Leaders: Maggie & Graham

    READ: Egenfeldt-Nielsen, UVG: Ch. 6
    David Leonard, "Not a Hater, Just Keeping It Real"
    Adrienne Shaw, "Do You Identify as a Gamer?"

    Jennifer deWinter & Carly Kocurek, “Rescuing Anita"

    WATCH: Tropes vs. Women, "Damsels in Distress" parts 1, 2 & 3 (found on Feminist Frequency)



    April 28: Game Players
    Leaders: Ruben & Nick

    READ: Egenfeldt-Nielsen, UVG: Ch. 9

    Bart Stewart, “Personality and Play Styles"

    T.L. Taylor, "Playing for Keeps"

    Mia Consalvo, "Cheating"

    Matt Bai, “Master of his Virtual Domain"

    WATCH: King of Kong

    DO:  Bring drafts of game design projects to class to demo & discuss


    May 5: Games Across Media Forms
    Leaders: Sinead

    READ: D.B. Weiss, Lucky Wander Boy – full novel

    WATCH: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

    Drew Morton, "From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim"

    DO:  Bring drafts of game design projects to class to demo & discuss


    May 12: Game Fair!

    2-4 pm in Crossroads Café - invite your friends!