How to Teach a Digital Game II

David Parry bio photo By David Parry


So this is the second post in my series on how to teach a digital game for your higher ed class (if you are just joining us you might want to tune into the first episode here.

The Prep Work

Let’s assume that you already have the game selected and placed on your syllabus. Teaching a digital game will require slightly different preparation, both for you and your class, than working with a novel or a film. Perhaps the first issue to address is what your requirements for the class are going to be. That is, with a novel or a film the frame is simple: read to the end, or view the whole film. But with a digital game the work is not so easily spelled out. You could require sutdents to get to a certain point in the game, this might work for certain more narrative games, or get to a certain level or point total, again this might work for something like Super Mario Brothers, or Pac-Man but . . .While how you will approach this issue should be dictated by the game, or what you are using it to acheive, let me narrate how I do things.

My basic methodology is to create a “time requirement” for the game. That is, what I do is ask the students to play for a certain amount of time. This way students get a “feel” for the game, and have a base of experiences from which to draw, even if in the end they have played to different parts of the game. I figure that students should spend at least two hours reading for each class, so I just transfer this to the digital game for the week. If the game is on the syllabus for two days I ask them to play it for four hours. I think just two hours is probably too few especially for those less familiar with playing, it might take them the first hour just to figure out how the game is played (learning to read it) and only the second hour playing. So I usually require that they have played for four hours for the first day, and than they might not have any homework for the second. But this insures that they have experince with the game. Of course as I mentioned you might want to tweak this depending on what you want students experince to be, say you want to focus on a particular level.

The other major concern is dealing with radical different “literacy levels”. In a class you are likely to have a group of students who are masters of this form of entertainment, who spend hours each day mastering the in an outs of the latest EA sports release. For some students playing the game is no big deal, for others it can be wholly threatening. So a few ideas:

  • Have students start early. They are bound to be a few that encounter technical difficulties, have the assignment of “played the game for 5 minutes” due at least a class before the first day you are planning on addressing the text extensively. This will help to avoid the “I couldn’t get the game installed problem”
  • Most games have “cheat guides” or walkthroughs available for free online. I give out the links to these, so that students don’t get stuck on certain parts and get frustrated. I don’t require that they use them. But simply knowing they are there eases a lot of tension. You can get ones for almost any game at
  • I allowed students to play together. Digital Games are group events, take advantage of this. There were two or three students that had not played anything save for solitaire on the computer. So, what I did is I had a few of the students who were “experts” adopt the students who wanted help, and they had a “group study” where they played the game. I made it clear that everyone in the group should have the experience of playing so they can see how the game operates, and be the one making the decsions. I didn’t want one person to play while others sat around and watched, this is really boring. Incidently my experience using this model was great. The students who would have really struggled were able to participate in class. (Last semester some of the most lively classes I had were about Deus Ex.)
  • Prepare “cheat sheets” for the whole class. Depending on the game this can take different forms. For example with Dues Ex what I did was provide a “narrative” outline that introduced the world, the major characters, and the main points in the plot, sort of a cliff notes about the game. When I handed this out I warned them that it contained “spoilers” so they should be careful about reading to far in the plot outline. For many of the popular games there is an extensive Wikipedia article, and just pointing students to that will work.

Okay that’s it for this installment. I will write more later on things to think about for conducting the seminar.