From Solitaire to Skyrim, from flight simulators to Flappy Bird, videogames are one of the major modes of media consumption today. Games create common experiences among users that we can share and learn from, and they are touchstones in popular culture. As digital texts, videogames allow different kinds of expression and new rhetorics, and as cultural artifacts, videogames join a larger ecology of media which contain and construct cultural values like representation, diversity, social justice, identity, equality, freedom. As products of a culture with these and other values, videogames in turn, reflect those values and can become vehicles for motivating change. This class, “games and culture”, is an investigation of these cultures and conversations. The class also serves as an elective for the Communication and Digital Studies Major or the Minor in Digital Studies.


HCC 329

MWF, 3:00 – 3:50

Dr. Zach Whalen


This course was originally designed for an “ALPA” General Education Requirement. It no longer meets that requirement, but the “appreciative” goals of that Gen Ed category are still important for this class:

  • Explore and explain different, divergent, or contradictory perspectives and incorporate the results into one’s understanding of creative work.
  • Evaluate creative processes and products, using appropriate criteria.

Additionally, the perspectives and products we’ll examine are specific to videogame culture:

  • Explore the processes of cultural value within videogames — including issues of gender, race, sexuality, class, labor and neurodiversity — and the ways by which games contain, demonstrate or encourage action in relation to those concepts.
  • Understand a history of games as both products and producers of culture.


Two Books

The Cover of Understanding Video Games, featuring an abstract, circular, "powering on" image.
  • Bogost, Ian. How to Talk about Videogames. 1 edition, Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2015.
  • Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon, et al. Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. 3 edition, Routledge, 2015.

Two Games

We’ll play a lot of games this semester, and you’ll take an in-depth play-through of at at least two games, which you’ll probably need to purchase. You’ll choose one from each of the following lists, but you don’t need to rush out and get these yet. I recommend waiting until we’ve had time to talk about your assignment in class. I may add more games to these lists before the time comes to choose.

List 1

  • Portal (Windows/Mac, $9.99; Also available for PS3 and Xbox 360)
  • Thirty Flights of Loving (Windows/Mac, $4.99)
  • Undertale (Windows/Mac, $9.99; PS4, $14.99; Also available for PS Vita and Nintendo Switch)
  • The Stanley Parable (Windows/Mac $14.99)
  • BioShock (Windows, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One)

List 2

Assignments and Grading

There will be several assignments, the details of which can be found both on this website and in our Canvas page


Blog Articles (3)24%
Responses (3)24%
Game Criticism16%
Final Project
First Draft
Final Draft

Assignment Descriptions

These are the brief descriptions. Find more detailed descriptions of each on the assignments page.

Blog Articles (24%; due dates vary)

These are self-directed, unsupervised articles that you contribute to this website and publish for a general audience. Working in rotating groups, you’ll have three opportunities to blog, and each time, you should choose a different blog genre. 

Responses (24%; due dates vary)

For each of three content units, I’ll ask you to prepare a short, creative or interpretive response. Instructions and due dates will vary, but they’ll be posted in Canvas and here on the blog.

Game Criticism (16%; due 11/2)

After reading and learning about video game criticism, write an essay in this mode. Share it on the blog.

Participation (16%; due 10/12 and 12/7)

Be in class every day prepared to contribute to the discussion. Read or play the assigned homework to completion, and come to class with a question or two about what you experienced. Join discussions in our Discord server and comment on other students’ blog articles. At the middle and end of the semester, submit a participation report summarizing how well you’ve been meeting these expectations.

Final Project (20%; multiple due dates)

The culminating project for this class will be something you design as a way to explore games and culture in some way. This will involve a proposal, a draft, a final version, and a presentation where you share the results of your project with the class.

Grading Scale

For all projects in this class, I’ll be implementing a minimal grading scale with four possible values: 0, ✓-, ✓, and ✓+. Generally speaking, a 0 is for a missing assignment, a ✓- is for an assignment that is incomplete in some way, a ✓ is a completed assignment that met all of its goals, and a ✓+ exceeds expectations in a significant way. 

These values do not correspond to letter grades or percentages — they’re merely a way to mark your progress and verify that you’ve completed an assignment.

To determine your actual final grade — because I do need to enter something in Banner — I’ll ask you to submit a self-evaluation reflecting on your work and proposing a final grade. 

Policies and Expectations

Technology in the Classroom

You are welcome to use computers during class, including tablets, smartphones, whatever — so long as what you’re doing isn’t distracting to someone else. I simply ask you to be responsible. Proper uses may include taking notes, reviewing the reading material, looking up something related, working on a project for class, or participating in a constructive backchannel conversation such as Slack or Twitter. Improper uses may include watching movies, and working on homework assignments for other classes. If what you’re doing is a distraction to me or others, I may ask you to stop.


Students are expected to treat the instructor and fellow students with the appropriate degree of respect, both in class and in online discussions. Communication, either in person or through electronic media, that is deemed abusive, threatening, or harassing in nature will not be tolerated.

Furthermore, videogames sometimes can attract some particularly toxic behavior, especially online. We’ll talk about how to avoid this as a class, but because parts of this class will exist on the open web, it’s possible that we will encounter other audiences that will not approach their communication with the same care that I know you will. I will do my best to intervene when I see that happening, and you should feel free to be proactive if you see abusive communication happening before I have a chance to step in. 

Likewise, I expect all of you to work hard at creating an inclusive and equitable community within our class, both online and in person. This means avoiding toxic behaviors and microagressions like gatekeeping, “sealioning“, and condescending assumptions about ease and difficulty.


Through the course of this semester, we may look at a wide array of content including games, literature, film, comics, television, memes, and any manner of things that people post on the Internet. It is possible that some of this material may be disturbing, offensive, or upsetting, possibly including subject matter or themes related to race, sexuality or violence. For certain conversations to take place, it is sometimes important that we grapple with these things, and I will always treat all such material with appropriate maturity and as much clarity as possible. I expect you to do the same. However, if you find for some reason that discussing a particular text is too upsetting or traumatic, it is reasonable to excuse yourself from that discussion.

Status of Student Work

Much of the work you’ll be creating for my class will be posted online and, therefore, shared with a public audience. Some of the work may also be shared with others in the class via a closed system like Slack or Discord. Wherever possible, we will discuss and think carefully about the divide between public and private sharing and when to post what, where. All grades and feedback will be in Canvas or some other private medium, only accessible by you and me.

Academic Dishonesty

The UMW Honor System is in effect for our course. I may authorize specific assignments as collaborative work, but all other work must be your own, as per Article 1, Sections 1 and 2 of the University of Mary Washington Student Honor Code. Academic dishonesty typically boils down to taking credit for someone else’s work. Whether you’ve done so accidentally or maliciously, it’s still an honor violation. Some examples include:

  • Including a quote in a blog post without identifying the source of that quote
  • Using an image in a blog post without permission from its copyright holder
  • Asking another student to “edit” your paper for you
  • Creating a blog entry or essay that is mostly quotes, even properly attributed quotes

Disability Resources

The Office of Disability Resources has been designated by the University as the primary office to guide, counsel, and assist students with disabilities. If you have a disability that you think will make some part of this class difficult, please get in touch with ODR to help coordinate your accommodations. Please make an appointment with me, and bring your accommodation letter with you to the appointment. I will hold any information you share with me in the strictest confidence unless you give me permission to do otherwise.

The Office of Disability Resources has a website, or their phone number is 540-654-1266.

Title IX

University of Mary Washington faculty are committed to supporting students and upholding the University’s Policy on Sexual and Gender Based Harassment and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence. Under Title IX and this Policy, discrimination based upon sex or gender is prohibited. If you experience an incident of sex or gender-based discrimination, we encourage you to report it. While you may talk to me, understand that as a “Responsible Employee” of the University, I MUST report to UMW’s Title IX Coordinator what you share. If you wish to speak to someone confidentially, please contact the below confidential resources. They can connect you with support services and help you explore your options. You may also seek assistance from UMW’s Title IX Coordinator. Please visit to view UMW’s Policy on Sexual and Gender Based Harassment and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence and to find further information on support and resources.