How to Teach a Digital Game (Part One)

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

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I had some conversations recently with professors who thought they might be interested in teaching a digital game for class, but were concerned about overcoming the technical hurdles. So, I thought I would do a basic write-up, a sort of “Things to think about if you want to teach a digital game” post. Orginally I thought of this as one long post, but as I started to write it, it quickly got out of hand (i.e. more than one post should be), so I am going to divide this up and handle like the previous email guide.

Let’s assume your are teaching a class for which you are considering arange of texts, linguistic, visual etc. and want to teach a digital game. (Note the idea of teaching a whole class on digital games is something entirely different, but for a good sample syllabus see Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Game Studies Class.) I am going to start this at the most basic level, that is I assume very little familiarity with digital games, so these first steps might be a bit boring for those who have prior experience, but hang in there later posts will cover some of the in-class issues. (You might just want to skip to the suggestions at the end.)

Step One: Selecting a Game.

Perhaps a bit obvious, but the first step is to decide on a game, and this is perhaps the step that requires the most forethought. While the task of selecting novels for a class is difficult, which edition, making sure current editions are available, covering a diverse range etc. can be complicated, digital games can be much worse. Not to mention there is no “canon” on which to fall back, or not yet at least. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .

Know your platforms. It would be nice if the all the games could be played by all the systems, but as with software hardware is a significant conern to overcome. There are four principle platforms or “systems” on which a game can be played, and a game that is availalbe on one might not be on another.

    1. Personal Computer: For certain the most widely avialable gaming platform is the personal computer. But before you count on this there are several things to consider. Not all PCs are up to date and capable of running the types of games you might want. Most of the newer games require significant hardware, video cards etc. Students with older computers (2 years old or more) might not be able to play the game you select, or students with laptops might have trouble (laptops are not as good at games as other models). To make matters complictated there are those such as myself that do not have a PC, so you can’t count on availalblity. (Macs are notoriously limited in their gaming potential.) And libraries or public university computers might not be able to play the games, not to mention that most universities won’t let you put these on their system. If you select a game that is playable on the PC stick with one that doesn’t require the latest system, take a look at the system requirements and go with one that has less of a demand. (For example pick Grand Theft Auto 3 over Vice City or San Andreas.)
    1. Sony Playstation 2: This (until very recently) was the gold standard of video game machines. Most games were availalbe on this system, it was cheap, and popular. Recently this has changed as Microsoft has beat them to the punch launching a newer more powerful system before Sony could get their Playstation 3 to market. It is probably not a good idea to select a game that is only available on the Playstation, but it is also a good idea to select a game that is available on the playstation. The good news is this is relatively easy as many popular games are available on the PC and the Playstation.
    1. Xbox: There are two versions here Xbox360, and the Xbox. The Xbox is the older model while the 360 is the newer swankier one. The problem is some games can be played on the Xbox but not the 360, some on the 360 but not the original. So my advice: Don’t select a game that is only available on one of these, but like the Playstation if the game is playable on an Xbox you increase your chances of students having access.
    1. Webgames: This is the best bet. As these games only require that one have a web browser with the latest plugins (all of this is availalbe free) so it should be easy for students to play. The downside of these are that they are not as complex, and until very recently were often of a relatively simple make-up—move the mouse to hit the ball variety. But things have changed and there are some good options, check out below. I know I didn’t list the Nintendo, but my experience is this is the least represented in terms of what students have access to, my hope is that this will change with the Wii (newest Nintendo) but until that time stay away from Nintendo only games (which is actually too bad as there are a few games only available on the DS (handheld Nintendo) that I would like to teach).

In general the idea is to get a game that is available across the widest number of platforms, but at minimum you want it to be playable on a PC, as my experience is most students have access to one. (See the end of this post for some recommendations.)

Consider Critical Material: As the field of digital games studies is realtively young there has yet to develop a substantial body of work. There are not Norton Critical Editions of games. But it is my experience that having a critical text that has been written about the game greatly enhances the mindset that students will approach the game with. (See the end of this post for suggestions about places to look for critical material.)

Think About Skill Level: One of the concerns about teaching a digital game is vastly different literacies. That is you can count on your students being able to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; however being able to easily drive a car in San Andreas while shooting out the window, is a difficult prospect. And, I wouldn’t take it as necessarily a goal for the class to teach “how to play” but rather you want students to be able to play so that you can talk about the text as a cultural artifact. So thinking about gameplay complexity here is crucial. In a later post I will discuss one of the tactics I developed for handling this, but for now keep this issue in mind as you choose a game.

Availability: Again unlike a novel, it could be really hard to find a specific game, even if it was released within the last two years. Picking a poplular game will help, or picking a new game (but a new game that is cutting edge might not work on anything but the latest system), so doing research here might help. Try calling the local Gamestop or looking on Amazon to see if the game is easy to acquire. (For example: Beyond Good and Evil is an excellent game but hard to get.) Sometimes an older game is actually easier as it gets rereleased or made available for download over the web. Of course this is the easiest choice: pick a game that can be downloaded on-line to your home computer, or played online.

Ordering the Game: Because students are going to need different copies depending on their particular gaming machine (PC, Playstation etc.) you can’t really pre-order from the bookstore. Instead you need to be clear about this early in the semester and provide places to buy them online or locally. Luckily this is pretty easy. If you don’t have a local gamestore (most towns don’t) Amazon or Gamestop works.

List of Suggestions

This list is in no particular order, and please if you have other suggestions add them in the comments. (Note: I avoided on-line games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, this is a whole separate beast.)

  1. The Sims: PC, Mac, Playstation, Xbox: Personally I am not a fan of this game, but there is loads to talk about, probably one of the most critically written about games, and it is easy to learn to play. This game is available on just about any platform and should be easy to find in just about any store.
  2. Civilization: PC, Mac: This is also a widely available game and comes in several versions, the older ones would be cheaper and run on older machines. This is one of those historical conquer the world simulations. There is also substantial critical material written on this text, specifcially useful for a global studies or postcolonial class, as the whole game revolves around the notion of imperalist expansion.
  3. Beyond Good and Evil:PC, Xbox, Playstation, Gamecube: This is really one of my favorite games to discuss with people. It’s primary drawback is lack of availability. You play a female reporter in a sci-fi world working to expose government corruption. (Politically relevant.)
  4. Grand Theft Auto: PC, Playstation, Xbox: Widely available, critically written on, controversial. You can teach one of the older versions rather than San Andreas (although the most interesting critical work, especially about race is in regards to San Andreas). This is also a great text to teach in regards to censorship and the whole CAMERA, government legislation.
  5. American McGee’s Alice: PC: This is a reinvisioning of Alice in Wonderland. I haven’t played it so not much to say, except I know several people who have taught it with success. Artistically interesting.
  6. Dues Ex: PC, Xbox, Playstation, Mac: This is one of the ones I have taught. A great choice for so many reasons. There is substantial criticall work if you dig a little. The game itself is about technology and humanity. The principle drawback is gameplay is a bit difficult.
  7. Water Cooler Games: Web Based: I am going to group these toghether here although there are several options. But Water Cooler produces politically motivated games, think of it as political cartoon meets digital game. Lots of advantages here. Easy to play, no platform issues, they have been critically written about. Simple to incorporate into class. If you are looking for one that is easy entry barrier these are good choices.
  8. Dinner Dash: PC, Mac: If you are looking for something more in the casual game category check out Playfirst. Dinner Dash is my favorite, addictive, simple, students could easily download and play (the trial version is even free). Again low entry barrier.
  9. Sports Games: PC, Mac, Playstation, Xbox: So many choices here on different versions, different sports. The Madden franchise drives the video game market in some respects so these would be widely availalbe. You could also choose a version from a previous year (they put out new ones each year for each sport MLB2004, MLB2005, NCAA2004, NCAA2005 etc…). I am not sure what you would do critically with these games other than discusss them as cultural phenomnen, and or issues of racial representations.
  10. Indigo Prophecy: PC, Xbox, Playstation: Availability might be the problem with this game. Complex storyline, narratively driven, with gameplay that is substantially different than other games, yet easy for the first time player. Lot closer to a choose your own adventure than some games.
  11. Prince of Persia: PC, Xbox, Playstation: This would also be a good choice for a narrative game, as the story is intricate and told in the past tense (your character can actually reverse time). Also critically written about and available, the primary disadvantage here being that gameplay can get a little on the hard side.
  12. FacadePC, Mac: Billed as an interactive drama Facade is perhaps one of the most critically reviewed games. A completely different type of game. You play a character who mediates dialogue between two other characters. Think of it more as digital game theater.
  13. Loads of Flash Games: Check out this site for a list of games all playable over the web.

List of Critical Works

Here is a brief list of places to look for critical works on digital games.

  1. First Person: For me the hallmark standard. As a collection it has a wide range of approaches, and a wide number of games covered. Start here.
  2. Digital Gameplay: Also covers a wide range of games and approaches. I think the works in this book are more accesabile than First Person, and more interdisciplinary.
  3. Unit Operations: Bogost’s book isn’t so much about any particular game, as it is about how digital games are representative of a new ontology.
  4. GAM3r 7H30RY In my mind the most theoretical of the works out there on digital games. It is available online (just click the link). Not only a book about games it is also a book about extending the meaning of “the book.” Wark is a media studies scholar who can cover Deleuze, Bergson, Derrida, Nietzsche and Innis as well as he covers Grand Theft Auto
  5. The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto: The only book I know that focuses on one game. As with Digital Gameplay this book has a wide range of disciplinary approaches. (And no I am not recommending it just cause my piece is in there. I am not even certain that you would want to use mine, and I don’t get royalties.)
  6. Game Studies: An online journal of Games Studies, wide range of articles.
  7. Games and CultureA publication (print) from Sage which like Game Studies covers a range of games, with a bend towards cultural studies.