Inquiry #2: Play Aloud

Super Mario Bros 3The Inquiry #2 “Play Aloud” will be an entirely new experience for most students. To summarize the assignment: you will spend about 10 minutes playing an unfamiliar NES game; while playing, you will “think aloud” every thought that goes through your head concerning the game, its design, and your playing of it; and you will film this 10 minute sequence, using any kind of videocamera, smartphone, flipcam, webcam, etc.; and finally, you will watch this 10 minute clip, and annotate it, highlighting significant moments of confusion, negotiation, or understanding, as well as formal elements of the game that are revealed upon close inspection.

The project is a rather open-ended investigation. While you will generate a written analysis, there is no concrete end-product I envision; rather this project is about process and discovery. That said, I do want you to proceed deliberately, guided by the concepts we have encountered in our discussions and readings. Inquiry #2 is due Thursday, March 3.

1. Select a game. There are three routes to finding and playing a game for this assignment. The first, more robust method is to download the NES emulator Nestopia. There are Mac and PC versions available. After you have installed Nestopia, you can find many classic Nintendo ROMs at the Old Computer Room. The advantage to this method is that Nestopia allows you to save your games and capture screenshots, which could be useful for this assignment. The second method is to play online at Virtual NES. This site has hundreds of NES games that you can play in your browser via Java. Finally, if you have access to a Nintendo Wii, you can use the Wii Virtual Console to download classic NES games. If you don’t know which game to choose, sample some of the games reviewed in one blogger’s list of The 100 Best NES Games Ever. Try to select a “rich” game for this inquiry, by which I mean a game that is more textured or complex than Space Invaders or Frogger.

2. Play the game. Play the game thoroughly and thoughtfully. And while you play the game, videorecord yourself doing so. You can use a tripod or simply have someone else operate the camera. I recommend an over-the-shoulder perspective, in which the camera is aimed at the screen over your shoulder, so that the camera approximates your own point of view. You’ll want to be sure that the camera has an unobstructed view of the screen. Also ensure that the camera is picking up sound clearly—both the sound of the game and the sound of your own voice as you talk. And finally, as you play the game, play it aloud. That is, verbalize every thought that crosses your mind as you move through the game, trying to solve puzzles, overcome obstacles, and reach your goal. This kind of constant articulation will take a few minutes to get the hang of, and you’ll feel self-conscious at first. Nonetheless, keep talking about your playing and what you notice about the game as you play. I encourage you to play longer than 10 minutes, but you only need to record 10 minutes of yourself playing aloud.

3. Upload the video to YouTube. Various videorecording devices have different means of uploading videos to YouTube, but in general, YouTube makes it quite easy to upload videos to the service. See YouTube’s help page on uploading videos if you have any trouble. Keep in mind that YouTube limits the length of videos to 15 minutes.

4. Watch the video. Upon your first viewing simply jot down your impressions. Note which specific moments are interesting to you or catch your eye. These could be moments about the game, or about your commentary about the game. Use the video’s time code to keep track of these points.

5. Watch the video again. This time try to describe what makes those moments you noticed interesting. These might be moments in which some element of the game’s formal design becomes evident, or they might be moments in which you as a player make a connection or encounter difficulty or confusion. What were your playing strategies? What techniques did you use to negotiate the game? Also begin paying attention to the peripheral actions of the game. Keep in mind Galloway’s theory of four gamic actions. It’s easy to focus on the diegetic operator acts (what the player does in-game), but don’t overlook the other three realms of gamic action. Also consider the game’s representation of space and time. How is space structured in the game? How is time conveyed in the game? What different actions are available to the player as gameplay unfolds?

6. Create a timeline. Map significant moments of gameplay onto a timeline of your 10 minute session. (Timeline File for Excel)

7. Annotate a still image. Using a screen capture tool, take a “snapshot” of one significant moment from your playing session.

8. Write a reflection. Now begin to assemble a 3-4 page reflection upon the playing aloud exercise, in particular focusing on the intersection of the game’s formal elements and your playing of the game. What does your timeline reveal about the game that a casual playing of the game would not? How do your findings align with Galloway’s theories about the four moments of gamic action? What does your annotated still image tell you that you did not notice when you played the game?