Videogames in Critical Contexts HNRS 353-002 (Spring 2012)

Guidelines

HNRS 353 fulfills George Mason’s general education synthesis course requirement. Broadly speaking, synthesis courses are meant to expand your ability to master new material, think critically, and develop life-long learning skills. Synthesis courses also emphasize effective oral and written communication, and incorporate perspectives from multiple disciplines.

More concretely, in this section of HNRS 353 we will study the cultural impact of videogames from a number of critical perspectives. As products of a complicated network of social, economic, and technological forces, videogames are dense objects, deeply layered with multiple meanings and hidden histories. Whether we consider early arcade games like Pac-Man or the latest “Game of the Year” blockbusters for home consoles, we find that videogames reveal much about our cultural values, hopes and anxieties, and assumptions about the world. We will examine a range of genres (interaction fiction, first person shooters, simulations, role playing games, and so on) as we strive to understand both the narrative and formal aspects of videogames. At the same time, we will map connections between videogames and their broader social contexts—how games are designed and manufactured, who plays them and where, and in what ways videogames can be more than entertainment.

Reading

Playing

In order to critically study videogames it is necessary of course to play them. We will experiment with games in class, and you will also be responsible for playing many games on your own outside of class. The specific titles I ask you to play may change, depending upon the direction of our class discussion.

Most of the required games for the class are either playable online or downloadable and playable on personal computers, often through emulators. For example, Stella is an emulator for Macs and PCs which plays Atari 2600 games, while Nestopia plays Nintendo games.

We will play one game this semester that requires purchasing. The title has yet to be determined but it will be available for Macs and PCs through Steam for around ten dollars.

Be forewarned that several games on the syllabus contain content that may offend some sensibilities, including graphic violence, explicit language, and sexual references. If you anticipate that such material may prevent you from completing the required work, I recommend that you reconsider your enrollment in this section of HNRS 353.

Working

The work you agree to by enrolling in this section of HNRS 353 has six components: (1) in-class participation; (2) virtual participation; (3) blogging; (4) a platform studies inquiry; (5) writing a book chapter; and (6) designing your own meta-game.

Here are more details about these six activities:

(1) Participation in the day’s discussion is essential. To get the most out of class, you must have read and played the day’s assigned work, thoroughly and critically. There will be occasional in-class writing assignments and quizzes, and these will count toward your in-class participation grade. Attendance is mandatory (excepting medical emergencies or observation of religious holidays). More than four absences will lower your in-class participation grade by at least one letter grade. More than six absences will result in a zero for your in-class participation grade.

(2) A portion of your participation will take place virtually. Over the course of the semester everyone in the class will be playing Echo Bazaar, an atmospheric in-browser role-playing game. We will occasionally discuss Echo Bazaar in class or have short writing assignments about it. The other component of your virtual participation will play out on Twitter. We’ll begin by using Twitter passively, simply following notable figures in the field of videogame studies. Later we will use Twitter more actively, as what is called a “backchannel,” streaming real-time comments about the course both in and outside of the classroom. Occasionally you will have very explicit tasks to do on Twitter; I will explain those when the time comes. Falling behind in virtual participation will of course lower your virtual participation grade.

(3) Students will contribute weekly to the class blog. Early in the semester we will divide the class into five teams, each with a different role that rotates week-to-week:

  • First Readers: These students are responsible for posting initial questions and insights about the assigned reading or gaming to the class blog by Monday morning (at 8am). These initial posts should be about 250 words and strive to be thoughtful, avoiding description and summary. The best posts will connect the day’s material to theoretical ideas we’ve encountered in the semester, as well as provide the starting point for the week’s discussion.
  • In-Class Hosts: These students will kick off the class discussion every Tuesday by acting as in-class hosts to the blog. The students on this team will coordinate beforehand to highlight key developments from the most recent blog posts and Twitter updates, focusing on provocative ideas, disagreements, or whatever else strikes the team as especially noteworthy about our class’s online conversations. The team will have no more than 10 minutes at the start of Tuesday’s class to share their synthesis of what they see happening on the blog. They should not merely review the blog posts, but actually take a more evaluative stance.
  • Respondents: Students in this group will build upon, disagree with, or clarify the first readers’ posts by Wednesday night. The respondents can also incorporate elements of Tuesday’s class discussion into their posts. These posts should be about 250 words.
  • Seekers: Each student in this group will find and share at least one relevant online resource with the class in time for Thursday’s session. These resources might include news stories, journal articles, podcasts, online games, and so on. In addition to linking to the resource, the seekers must provide a short (no more than a paragraph) evaluation of the resource, highlighting what makes it worthwhile, unusual, or, if appropriate, problematic.
  • The fifth group will have the week off in terms of blogging.

Regardless of your role, late posts cannot be made up; if you miss your group role’s deadline, then you receive no credit for that week’s blog. All blog activity will be evaluated according to the following 0-4 point scale:

RATING CHARACTERISTICS
4 Exceptional. The blog entry is focused and coherently integrates examples with explanations or analysis. The entry demonstrates awareness of its own limitations or implications, and it considers multiple perspectives when appropriate. The entry reflects in-depth engagement with the topic.
3 Satisfactory. The blog entry is reasonably focused, and explanations or analysis are mostly based on examples or other evidence. Fewer connections are made between ideas, and though new insights are offered, they are not fully developed. The entry reflects moderate engagement with the topic.
2 Underdeveloped. The blog entry is mostly description or summary, without consideration of alternative perspectives, and few connections are made between ideas. The entry reflects passing engagement with the topic.
1 Limited. The blog entry is unfocused, or simply rehashes previous comments, and displays no evidence of student engagement with the topic.
0 No Credit. The blog entry is missing or consists of one or two disconnected sentences.

(4) Every student will conduct a platform studies inquiry, which is an in-depth consideration of the social history and technological relations of both an individual game and the specific hardware you use to play that game. This platform might be a PC, a console, a portable gaming system, a phone, or even a boardgame.

(5) One of the books we’re reading this semester is Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames, in which each chapter briefly explains one action or sentiment that videogames can foster. Bogost comes up with twenty “things” videogames can do, but surely there are more. For this project you will write a missing chapter of approximately 2,000 words from Bogost’s book, following the form and style of the original, but venturing a single new “thing” to do with videogames.

(6) The final project for the class will be a game that you design yourself. The point of the game is very specific, for it should be a meta-game, that is, a game that itself comments upon other games. The exact content and design of such a game is up to the individual student, though it should be a self-aware game that incorporates, reflects upon, and even challenges the principles we’ve discussed throughout the semester. The final project is due Saturday, May 5, though “beta” versions of the games will be presented in the last week of class.

Grading

The final grade will be weighted and calculated in the following manner:

  • In-Class Participation: 15%
  • Virtual Participation: 15%
  • Class Blogging: 15%
  • Platform Studies Inquiry: 15%
  • HTDTWV Missing Chapter: 20%
  • Game Design Project: 20%
I give every assignment a letter grade, except for the blog posts, which are graded according to the scale shown above. I use the following standard grading scale:
A+ = 100%
A = 95%
A- = 90%
B+ = 88%
B = 85%
B- = 80%
C+ = 78%
C = 75%
C- = 70%
D = 65%
F = below 60

Late assignments will be lowered one letter grade for every 24 hours they are overdue, unless prior arrangements are made. Even if you are not in class the day an assignment is due, it is still due for you that day. Assignments more than a week late for any reason will simply not be accepted. Therefore, failure to hand in every assignment on time will make it extremely difficult to pass the course.

Students are responsible for verifying their enrollment in this class. The last day to add this course is Tuesday, January 31. The last day to drop this course is February 24, 2012. After the last day to drop a class, withdrawal from HNRS 353 requires the approval of the dean and is only allowed for nonacademic reasons.

Communication

Students must use their MasonLIVE email account to receive important University information, including messages related to this class. Failure to check your MasonLIVE email every day may result in missed messages, which you are responsible for. See http://masonlive.gmu.edu for more information.

Academic Integrity

Mason is an Honor Code university. The principle of academic integrity is taken very seriously and violations are treated gravely. What does academic integrity mean in this course? Essentially this: when you are responsible for a task, you will perform that task. When you rely on someone else’s work in an aspect of the performance of that task, you will give full credit in the proper, accepted form. Another aspect of academic integrity is the free play of ideas. Vigorous discussion and debate are encouraged in this course, with the firm expectation that all aspects of the class will be conducted with civility and respect for differing ideas, perspectives, and traditions. When in doubt (of any kind) please ask for guidance and clarification.

Classroom Courtesy

Laptops and smart phones may be used in class but only for classroom activities such as note-taking. Messaging unrelated to class is not acceptable. The use of MP3 players and portable game systems during class is also unacceptable.

Late arrivals or early departures from class are disruptive and should be avoided.

Special Circumstances

If you are a student with a disability and you need academic accommodations, please see me and contact the Office of Disability Services (ODS) at 993-2474. All academic accommodations must be arranged through the DRC.

Emergency Information

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