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.



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 which requires purchasing: Portal (2007). Portal is available for Macs and PCs through Steam for $14.99, though if you already have access to Portal you of course do not need to purchase it.

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.


  • Participation in the day’s discussion is essential. 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 in-class writing assignments and quizzes, 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Seekers: Students 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.
  4. The fourth 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 posts will be evaluated according to the following 0-4 point scale:

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.
  • There will be two inquiry projects this semester. These are not full-blown essays so much as they are structured engagements with very particular problems. The first inquiry assignment involves an exploration of recent scholarship in video game studies. The second inquiry assignment asks you to videorecord, annotate, and analyze a small slice of gameplay.
  • Everyone in the class will contribute to an online exhibit that explores multiple facets of a single game: Portal. We will work together as a class to create the scaffolding of the exhibit, and then each student will create his or her own narrative walkthrough of the exhibit. In other words, each student will create an analytical tour of Portal.
  • The default final project for the class will be a 5-7 page analytical paper, which offers a critical analysis of a videogame or some phenomenon closely related to videogames. 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. The final project is due May 12.


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

  • Class Participation: 10%
  • Class Blogging: 20%
  • Inquiry Papers (15% each): 30%
  • Portal Exhibit:  20%
  • Final Project: 20%

I give every assignment a letter grade, except for the blog posts, which are graded according to the scale shown above. 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%

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.

Attendance is mandatory (excepting medical emergencies or observation of religious holidays). More than four absences will lower your class participation grade by at least one letter grade. More than six absences will result in a zero for your class participation grade.

Students are responsible for verifying their enrollment in this class. The last day to add this course is February 8, 2011. The last day to drop this course is February 25, 2011. 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.


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 for more information.

Academic Integrity

Mason is an Honor Code university; please see the University Catalog for a full description of the code and the honor committee process. 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. Text 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

George Mason issues emergency warnings affecting the university community through its Mason Alert system. If you have not already signed up to receive email, page, or text message alerts, please do so at

  • Alexander Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)
  • Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design (Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press, 2005)
  • Various e-reserves, handouts, and online material