Course Description

In this Honors Seminar we will study the history and 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 cultural texts, deeply layered with multiple meanings. Whether we consider early arcade games like Pac-Man or the latest blockbusters for next-gen 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, who plays them and where, and in what ways videogames can be more than entertainment.


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.


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 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.

In the interest of accessibility, 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 old Atari 2600 games, while Nestopia plays Nintendo games. I urge you to install these emulators on your own computer. Students are also encouraged to play and study other videogames they have access to, such as games for the Xbox or Playstation consoles.


  • Participation in the day’s discussion is essential. And of course, to get the most out of the discussion, you must have read and played the day’s assigned work, thoroughly and critically. There will be occasional quizzes over the reading, and these will count toward your class participation.
  • Students will contribute weekly to the class blog. Early in the semester we will divide the class into four groups, 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 night. 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.

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.

An additional fourth group will have the week off in terms of blogging.

Regardless of your group, late posts cannot be made up; if you miss your group’s deadline, then you receive no credit for that week’s blog.

  • There will be three inquiry projects this semester. These are not full-blown essays so much as they are structured engagements with very particular problems. For example, one inquiry assignment involves an exploration of recent scholarship in video game studies. Another inquiry assignment asks you to construct an abstract model of a videogame. The final assignment focuses on the viability of “counter-games”—games that really aren’t games at all.
  • Every student will deliver one class presentation that offers an analysis of a single game. You’ll want to consider some compelling aspects of the game’s form, core mechanics, procedural rhetoric, or narrative content. You must craft an analysis that goes well beyond “this is interesting.” The presentations will strictly follow a Pecha Kucha format, a style first used for the exhibition of architecture designs. Pecha Kucha requires a presenter to narrate a slideshow of 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, adding up to a total time of 6 minutes and 40 seconds. The formal constraints of this rigid format call for discipline, focus, practice, and paradoxically, creativity.
  • The default final project for the class will be a 5-7 page analytical paper, which offers a critical interpretation of the same videogame you presented upon for your Pecha Kucha. The paper should build upon your presentation and extend it. You’ll need to do some outside research, using sources from established scholarly journals or books. As an alternative final project, I invite students to design their own (small) game, using some of the game development tools freely available online (MIT’s Scratch is perhaps the easiest to use, requiring no formal programming experience). 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. If you choose to design a game, your Pecha Kucha presentation should be about your own game, a kind of overview of your intentions and design principles. The final project is due May 11.


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

Class Participation: 10%
Class Blogging: 15%
Inquiry Papers (15% each): 45%
Pecha Kucha Presentation: 15%
Final Project: 15%

I give every assignment a letter grade, except for individual blog posts, which are graded on a scale ranging from 0 to 4. In order to calculate your final grade, I convert the letter grades into a percentage. I weight the grades according to the chart above, and then convert the average back into a letter grade. 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%

Attendance is mandatory (excepting medical emergencies or observation of religious holidays), and missing more than four classes will automatically reduce your class participation grade, effectively lowering your final grade by one step. From the 2008-2009 University Catalog:

Because class participation may be a factor in grading, instructors may use absence, tardiness, or early departure as de facto evidence of nonparticipation.

Students are responsible for verifying their enrollment in this class. The last day to add this course is February 2, 2010. The last day to drop this course is February 19, 2010. 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.

Late assignments will be lowered one letter grade for every weekday 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.


All written assignments must follow standard research guidelines. Never take credit for someone else’s ideas or words and always document your sources. George Mason University has an Honor Code, which requires all members of this community to maintain the highest standards of academic honesty and integrity. Cheating, plagiarism, lying, and stealing are all prohibited. All violations of the Honor Code will be reported to the Honor Committee. See for more detailed information.

You are free to use whatever citation method you are most comfortable with (MLA, APA, Chicago), but you must use one. If you do not own a style guide, I recommend getting one. I also encourage you to use Zotero, a freely available reference manager for Windows and Mac, which runs as a Firefox extension. See for more information.


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