In HNRS 353-002 we will study the cultural significance 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 blockbusters like Skyrim, we find that videogames reveal much about our cultural values, hopes and anxieties, and assumptions about the world. We will examine a range of games this semester as we strive to understand both their narrative and formal aspects. 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.

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.

Course Structure

This class is not a history of videogames. Such classes exist and they usually begin by looking at the first videogames from the 1960s and early 70s and then tracing the development of videogames through the Atari and Nintendo years of the late 70s and 80s, and into graphic-intensive, visually-realistic games on modern consoles like the PlayStation and Xbox.

HNRS 353-002 takes a different approach. We might call it an “archaeological” approach, for we will begin with recent games and “dig” our way deeper through different layers of time and technology. We will excavate each layer by focusing on a single game or a pair of games as case studies. We will conclude the semester by coming full circle, studying contemporary indie games and the social and economic context of the indie game movement.

The four archaeological layers (and case studies) are as follows:

  • Millennial Games: Portal (2007)
  • Recent Past: Quake (1996) and Civilization II (1996)
  • Distant Past: Super Mario Bros. (1985) and Tetris (1984)
  • Ancient Past: Pac-Man (1980) and Zork (1980)

There are several caveats about these case studies. First, the measure of time as “recent,” “distant,” and “ancient” is purely subjective and not meant to suggest any kind of commonly accepted delineation between videogame eras. Second, these games are not necessarily the most representative or canonical games of their respective time periods; rather, they are influential (and technologically accessible) games that allow us to ask interesting questions about videogames and culture.

Portal requires a purchase (it is currently $9.99 on Steam, though it is often on sale for less). The other games can be played in a browser or through free downloads (we will experience Civ II through an open source version called FreeCiv). All of the games work on both Macs and PCs.


There are three required books for HNRS 353-002, available at the university bookstore or through online booksellers like Amazon:

In addition, there will be online material to read throughout the semester. I strongly urge you either to print out the material or to use a PDF application to take notes on the digital version of the material. You are required to bring the day’s reading to class with you.


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 discussions. In addition to Portal, you may end up purchasing another inexpensive game at the end of the semester for your final project.

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.


The required work for HNRS will take several forms, detailed below: (1) a game journal; (2) a missing chapter; (3) a case study dossier; and (4) a final project consisting of either a research-based analytical paper or a videogame of your own design.

Here are more details about these four activities:

  1. The game journal is a weekly log in which 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. Your journal will be shared with me via Microsoft Live Skydrive (otherwise, it will be private). Occasionally I will ask you to respond to specific questions in your journal. Your entries should be dated and make clear what game or text you’re writing about (I will provide a template for the journal). You should aim for roughly 750 words per week in your journal, either as one entry or spread across several entries during the week. You will keep this journal for twelve weeks of the semester, and I will drop your two lowest journal grades.The game journal is worth 25% of your final grade.
  1. 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, following the form and style of Bogost’s book, but venturing a single new “thing” to do with videogames. You can work individually on the book chapter or in pairs. The chapter is due on Thursday, March 7.The book chapter is worth 25% of your final grade.
  1. The case study dossier is a portfolio of historical and critical material related to one of the case study games. The dossiers will include an annotated bibliography, key readings, discussion topics, and your own critical take on the game. You will work in groups to assemble the dossiers, and you will share the dossier at the outset of our discussion of that game. My expectation is that you and your group become the classroom experts on the case study game (which is not the same as experts of the game).The case study dossier is worth 25% of your final grade.
  1. The final project is your choice of a 7-8 page research-based analytical paper or a modest game that you design yourself, using tools we encounter in class. The exact content and design of such a game is up to you, 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 Thursday, May 9.The final project is worth 25% of your final grade.

In addition to these activities, it goes without saying that 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. Attendance is mandatory (excepting medical emergencies, religious holidays, or official university conflicts). More than four absences will lower your final grade by at least one step. More than six absences will lower your final grade by an entire grade.


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

Game Journal: 25%
Missing Chapter: 25%
Case Study Dossier: 25%
Final Project: 25%

I will grade the game journal entries on a scale of 0-3, ranging from no credit (0), to partial credit (1), to fully satisfactory (2), to extraordinary (3). I will drop your two lowest journal entry grades. Every other assignment will be given a letter grade that has a percentage equivalent:

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 29. The last day to drop this course with no tuition penalty is also Tuesday, January 29. 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.

In addition, I encourage you to sign up to receive SMS messages from me, using a service called remind101. I will only send you a text message if class is cancelled or delayed (due to inclement weather, for example). You can register by texting the keyword @hnrs to 424-888-7974. I do not gain access to your phone number through this service (nor you to mine). Your regular text messaging charges will apply.

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. Messaging unrelated to class is not acceptable. The use of music players and portable game systems during class is also unacceptable. I may occasionally ask you to turn off all electronics.

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

What May Change

Note that this syllabus is subject to change, depending on the direction and need of the class. None of the major assignments or readings will change, but I do reserve the right to alter deadlines and to add or subtract material from the syllabus if it makes pedagogical sense to do so.

Header Credits

Hook, William. DualShock 3 (2). 2008. 14 Jan. 2013. <>.