This page contains assignment descriptions for the projects students will complete throughout the semester. Unless otherwise stated, the final project should be turned in via Canvas.
Project 1: Commercial
In the first few weeks of the semester, we’re learning about videogame history and formal approaches to thinking about games. To make a connection between that history and a cultural context, your first project is to create a 30-second commercial for an old (pre-1987) videogame as though it were being published today.
Commercials are a way to understand the cultural context for an artifact long after its faded into obsolescence. Watching a commercial for the Atari VCS helps us imagine what it must have been like to play (or, at least, to want to play) an Atari VCS in 1978, and analyzing the commercial rhetorically helps us understand the ideological claims Atari was making for how they saw videogames becoming part of middle-class domestic life.
Watching a later commercial for the Atari 5200 system, with it’s playful tone and suggestive imagery makes a different set of appeals.
The best way to understand these rhetorics is to work with them yourself, so design or create a commercial that makes a rhetorical claim on behalf of an older game of your choice.
To create your commercial, you can write a script, draw a storyboard, film and edit it — or ideally all three. Your commercial should focus on a game originally published before 1987, it should somehow demonstrate gameplay, and it should make a claim (implicitly or explicitly) about how that game fits into life today.
Remember, the premise of this commercial is that your game is being released now for the first time, so don’t frame your ad as a re-release or retro-game.
Whatever artifact(s) you create, I’ll consider your commercial successful if it is
- 30 seconds long
- focuses on a single game
- says something interesting about that game
- includes footage of gameplay
- demonstrates accurate historical knowledge about the game in question
A detailed script is acceptable in lieu of an actual video. A detailed storyboard is also acceptable.
When submitting your work, include a brief comment explaining your commercial and reflecting on your goals.
You may complete this project individually or in a group. Groups should notify me ahead of time that they intend to work together, and every group member should submit the project plus a reflection in Canvas. I will use the minimal grading scale to evaluate this work.
The project is due Friday, September 14.
Project 2: Close Playing
For this project, you’ll practice a kind of analysis borrowed from literary studies. Close reading is a method of selecting a small fragment of a work like a line or two of poetry and then reading that selection closely and deeply in order to extract meaning that informs the interpretation of the entire work.
In our case, clearly, we’re not simply reading these videogames; we are instead working with play and interaction as the process of meaning-making which operates most significantly for videogames. By focusing your attention on the microscopic details of a single moment, the macroscopic themes of total work may emerge more clearly.
Instead of selecting a small portion of a text, you’ll select a small portion of gameplay and analyze that closely. This process is described in several steps below.
Step 1: Select a Portion of Game Play
This is an important step because you’ll need to find some moment, event, action, or interaction in the game that you feel will let you explain the most important, relevant, or interesting aspects of the game’s meaning. The moment must be no more than one minute long, and it should be a moment when you’re actually in control, not a cut-scene or pre-recorded video within the game.
Step 2: Record Yourself Playing the Game
This step will require some technological strategizing (that is, finding the right combination of software) but it’s crucial that the gameplay you record is a moment of yourself playing. We’ll talk about and troubleshoot some different tools for this recording in class; it is also acceptable to simply point a camera at your screen and record that way.
This video must be at least 20 seconds long, but no longer than 60 seconds.
Step 3: Analyze the Footage
Using the video you’ve recorded as your text, learn everything you can about every image, sound, movement, and action. Start with an inventory and dig as deeply as you can into each element. You could track down the etymology of any words, trace the origin of any sounds, analyze the melody of any music, dig up the the graphics file objects of any images, reflect on any decisions you had to perform as you played.
Step 4: Explain your Findings
Once you’ve found everything that can be found out about your game clip, write a short essay (around 800 words) explaining what happens in the video clip and what you found out about it in your analysis. If you found a lot of things, focus your explanation on the most interesting elements and the links you can make between those elements and any broader themes from your game.
You should prepare your analysis as a document with your video embedded or linked to online somehow. You may also do this in a blog article posted on culture.gameology.org or your own domain.
Write all this into a coherent, academic essay illustrated with examples from your analysis. If you need to cite additional sources, please use MLA format.
Using the minimal grading scale, I’ll consider your close playing acceptable if it follows the steps outlined above. I’ll consider it excellent if the discoveries of your analysis are notably surprising, transformational, or sophisticated.
Project 3: Doing Game Criticism
During this part of the semester, we’re reading Ian Bogost’s How to Talk About Videogames and other examples of “game criticism.” The culmination of this two-week unit will be a short piece of game criticism.
Working with videogames and saying interesting things about them often requires translating a complex experience — multiple hours or days — into a more simple, digestible nugget of insight that can be delivered in a few hundred carefully-chosen words. Doing this well is hard.
In the group of essays collected in How to Talk About Videogames, Ian Bogost often finds broader references that help him move between the cultural macroworlds of capitalism, Dadaism, or casino gambling to the computerized microworlds Mario Kart 64, Flappy Bird or Farmville. At times grandiose, erudite, and ridiculous, this approach relies on Bogost’s sense of voice or ethos more than on the logos of traditional scholarship.
However you relate to Bogost and this style of writing generally, your goal in this assignment is to craft a work of videogame criticism that is similarly attuned to your specific point of view and voice as a writer.
After reading a number of examples of this kind of writing, your goal is to produce a short (~800 word) essay of videogame criticism. You should focus on at least one game, or you may choose a group of games or a series.
Project 4: Metagame
In their book Metagaming, Patrick Lemieux and Stephanie Boluk raise the provocative question, “what if videogames were not considered games in the first place, but equipment for making metagames?” For this assignment, design metagame about or with the game you’ve been playing for the past few weeks.
In order to think about videogames as “equipment for making metagames,” we’re essentially turning from Game Studies to Game Philosophy, so having a concrete project will help us ground some of these pretty abstract ideas. Additionally, relating your hypothetical game to metagaming that already exists helps put your thought process in context.
Programming a video game can be a tremendous amount of work, certainly more work than we have time for in the remaining weeks of this semester. As an alternative, a game design document is a reasonable substitution that, if done well, can accomplish the same intellectual outcomes that come with creating a game. Think of it as a detailed, well-organized description of a hypothetical game.
Your game design should be a document that includes several sections. Some required, others optional:
- Description. In a paragraph, describe your hypothetical game in as much detail as possible. I recommend structuring this as a narrative describing a theoretical player’s experience as they work through the game.
- Interface. Draw a picture of what your game looks like. If there are multiple screens or looks for your game, you create multiple sketches or focus on the sketch that best conveys your key idea.
- Exegesis. Explain how your hypothetical metagame relates to the game it comes from, including the appropriate relationship or how it comments on, criticizes, improves, expands, exploits, vindicates, [put your verb here] the game it’s based on.
- Context. Find another game or example of metagaming mentioned in the book that your hypothetical metagame is most similar to, and compare and contrast your game with this existing game or metagaming example.
- Character designs.
- Character backstory.
This is due November 28.