July 12, 2005

Game Curriculum Questions

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 5:43 pm

I recently had an interesting email from Jim Whitehead, a CS faculty member at UC Santa Cruz (who did a great job chairing the 2004 ACM Hypertext conference).

I’ve developed an undergraduate course teaching the fundamentals of game design for non-programmers, pitched at a general undergraduate audience. It’ll be offered next Winter for the first time…

I’m thinking that in this course it makes sense to have students experience and perform critical analysis on some classic video games, to really take apart what makes them fun, see how they create dramatic tension, and determine how the rule system contributes to the game play. I think it would be best to have students study older games, since they’re generally simpler, and don’t take quite as much game play to experience a larger part of the game. Since the graphics are simpler as well, the games have to focus on game play fundamentals to create a fun experience.

So, here are the questions for you, and for Grand Text Auto (assuming this blog has a “Ask GTA” feature, akin to “Ask Slashdot”).

* Is there any consensus on the canon of best games for, say, the Nintendo Entertainment System (or any other older platform for that matter)? Mario Bros. and Zelda seem like shoo-ins, but are there others? Castlevania? Ys?

* How do people go about providing access to these games in the classroom? An “easy” approach is to run these games under emulation on PCs, but this has the drawback of not using the original controllers and being a violation of copyright. It has also been difficult to find a working Mario Bros. ROM image online. It is conceivable to purchase a bunch of old NES consoles and cartridges, but maintaining a lab of these raises maintenance and scale issues.

To kick things off, here are some of my thoughts in response to Jim’s message.

First, though I know he didn’t pose this choice as a question, I’d like to say that I think starting with classic games makes sense. However, I’d like to see a broader group of classics. How about one of Infocom’s big hits (e.g., Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Deadline)? How about an early simulation game like SimCity?

Second, I haven’t done any canon-defining work for computer games, but GTxA hosted a lively thread of conversation around Nick’s proposed Atari VCS curriculum.

Third, the question of access is a tricky one. I know Michael’s Experimental Game Lab has running versions of old consoles — he might be able to share how they’ve experienced the maintenance and scale issues. Another option might be some of the recent retro console releases — but, as we’ve discussed earlier, reviews of these have been mixed.

What do others think?