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?

19 Responses to “Game Curriculum Questions”

  1. Atul Says:

    Regarding the issue of a canonical list of best games: though this isn’t platform-specific, you might want to take a look at the website for the Game On: The History, Culture, and Future of Video Games exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I visited it last weekend, and I thought the games they had on display nicely showcased the wide range of gameplay styles that have evolved since the beginning of videogame history through the use of “canonical” examples like Pong, Street Fighter II, and Noah’s aforementioned The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Simcity. There were also some interesting ones like Chillingham (an adventure game for the visually impaired) that I’d never seen or heard of before.

    You can see a list of games that were on display at this exhibit here.

    Another interesting thing about this exhibit, which relatess to the second question, was that many of the console systems didn’t actually have their original controllers connected to them; for instance, a Sega Saturn controller was connected to one of the console systems from the 1980’s. My guess is that this was done because they didn’t want kids to destroy the “real” controllers due to their potential status as antiques, and while this was certainly unfortunate, it didn’t seem all that bad in practice. So while it’s downright wrong to use a keyboard to emulate a Nintendo gamepad, it might not be nearly as bad to compromise by using an Xbox controller.

  2. nick Says:

    Noah, thanks for bringing up these great questions from Jim.

    First off, I should mention that it’s not impossible to have students play video games for a class, even if there are some logistical difficulties. At the MIT Media Lab I took a class from Bruce Blumberg and Aaron Bobick where we were all required to play Super Mario World. (This class also led to my watching The Best of Ernie and Bert on a giant back-projected screen in the middle of the lab as Nicholas Negroponte, in a rare in-person appearance, walked in with an entourage of executives from potential sponsor companies, but that’s another story.) While there are some challenges that aren’t present in assigning a book or screening a movie, it shouldn’t be too difficult to offer a class like this one.

    Let me take on the second question, “How do people go about providing access to these games in the classroom?”

    One possibility might be offering some sort of lab/recitation/section hours, set up and overseen by a TA, where students can come in and play games on one or two NES systems that you have purchased. If other people are already playing when students arrive, students could observe their play, which is also valuable. A multimedia classroom with one projector and one TV should allow a setup like this. You might require that each game you study be played by one student, or a group of students, who are responsible for leading the discussion about it. But everyone would not be required to play every game on the official NES iron.

    When I’ve had people look at games and interactive fiction for a class I’m guest lecturing in, I’ve simply toted systems to class and had them play a bit during class time, usually in groups, or else look at someone else who is playing. If I had more than one class session or were running the whole class myself, I would try to set up some temporary lab of the sort I describe above, even if it’s only available for a few hours a week. The overhead would be much less than dedicating a space, having staff administer the lab full-time, etc., while the setup would still be pretty helpful.

    Beyond this, I think it’s fine to also use emulators to study games – they just shouldn’t be students’ only form of experience with a system, especially when you’re trying to consider the material qualities of the platform you’re studying. If you can find legally available ROM images that are worth studying, or if you make your own ROM images from cartridges you own and check them out to students along with the cartridge they came from, I can’t see how there would be any issue with legality. Of course, I’m not a lawyer, but this would seem an appropriate way to go about teaching these games, ones that respects everyone’s rights. It’s important to discuss the differences between the emulator and play on the actual system, but it seems like using an emulator for some study of games would only make this discussion more interesting.

    Noah, you mention that a broader group of classics would be good. Far be it from me to argue against Infocom games! But I think there’s value to focusing on a specific platform. This wouldn’t prohibit you from studying other relevant games, but it would focus your studies on games that are relevant to that system. For instance, in my post about Atari VSC games, I suggested “reading” the Warren Robinett’s Atari Adventure against Crowther and Woods’s Adventure. I think a specifically NES-focused class could work well, but that other games should be drawn in as it is appropriate. When considering The Legend of Zelda, students might play pre-Zelda home computer RPGs, or investigate the idea that it was based on Ridley Scott’s movie Legend. If it’s possible, why not have students play and otherwise learn about arcade games that were ported to the NES? In some cases, looking at the games that followed (from Super Mario Bros. and Final Fantasy, in particular) might be worthwhile, too.

  3. noah Says:

    Nick, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with focusing on a particular platform — but it’s not what I would choose for an introductory “course teaching the fundamentals of game design for non-programmers, pitched at a general undergraduate audience.” I think if we’re going to have Game Studies 101 (which is what this course sounds like to me) it should take, as primary examples, games of a variety of genres for a variety of platforms. It doesn’t have to be a comprehensive survey (and in fact attempting that would probably also be detrimental) but it shouldn’t be a special topics course either. There are fundamental computer game design approaches, which should be part of any introduction, that aren’t present on the NES.

  4. nick Says:

    It all depends on what the instructor and the students want to achieve, Noah, and you have more information than I do about that.

    I don’t think a 101 class that I designed in any field would be a survey class (comprehensive or otherwise), but would rather try to develop an understanding of the methodologies and approaches of the field. That can be done in a variety of ways, with broader or narrower sets of subject matter and different criteria for selecting it. While survey classes have their uses, they aren’t synonymous with introductory courses.

    For instance, I know of no successful intro to programming (Programming 101) class that goes through a dazzling array of programming languages in an attempt to show the whole range of what programming can be. Such survey courses in programming languages do exist, aren’t (I think) very useful, and are taught as upper-division courses. The intro class usually uses one language and tries to develop a thorough understanding of the principles of programming through it. An introduction to visual design is also based on the principles of visual design, not on coverage of many different visual media, detailed coverage of all specific design elements, such as type, etc., and certainly not on surveying visual works from all throughout history.

    There are practical and intellectual advantages to focusing on one platform. On a practical level, it’s easier to provide access to the one platform and to get everything working up to the standard that you’d like. You also break through the myth of thinking that all games for a certain platform are identical. Since students will gain an in-depth depth in understanding of how one platform works, they will be able to do individual papers comparing that platform to another classic or contemporary one they know. Also, your discussion is placed naturally in the appropriate context of the platform, which I think can be a big help.

    Of course, there are disadvantages. The NES is not the only platform for video games, nor are all approaches to video gaming represented on that platform. But plenty of intro courses focus on one system or one set of primary texts in order to convey the principles of the discipline; a Game Studies 101 could, too.

  5. Barry Says:


    Without being flippant, the assumption that games have moved on in leaps and bounds might be an odd one. Which, strangely enough, means that you might not have to reach too far into the past to teach the fundamentals. If we are really talking about the fundamentals of design then you can forget all the 3D super effects and multiple animations and shaders and lighting effects even of something as up to the minute as God of War — it looks awfully familiar when you break it down into gameplay actions and decisions, motivations and consequences. Very pretty, but not a million miles away from early platformers in many respects.

    As a practical suggestion, multiplayer party play of Wario Ware on the ‘Cube is a fantastic icebreaker for students and introduces them to some of the very basics of the fundamentals of design. ‘Cube plus a GameBoy player and you have immediate access to as much Nintendo emulation as you want. Wait for the Revolution and you have a (rumoured free) curriculum right there come the new year.

    I tend to use the ‘classics’ collections to play games like Asteroids on the PCs and Defender through a PS2. I have a stack of games both ancient (including boardgames and pen and paper RPGs) and modern to teach both fundamental gameplay characteristics and all the other game studies stuff, such as politics, ideology, narrative (ahem) and so on. Practically, I’d equip a course with all the major current consoles, take advantage of the classics ranges, and teach with the consoles on and playing all the time. And don’t neglect cardboard unless you are teaching a digital games history course. When I teach my Games Design course we have a 3 hour block once a week, the consoles or a PC plugged into a projector, and someone playing always as I talk or we discuss. Seemed to work.

    It is always important to me to have the games I am talking to and about up and running, but I retain some habits from my literature background — I never did read the books in front of the students, or even did more than tell them where to find books. Students should be expected to do some serious legwork for themselves, and to be able to access games outside of class. I’m not sure how education works in the States, but surely you can offload some of the practicalities onto the students, rather than providing everything for them? Sounds hardhearted, but how do you teach something like the RPG or IF or the point and click adventure genre without gesturing off to where students can pursue their own study? Classes just aren’t long enough…



  6. Atul Says:

    In regards to Nick’s last post:

    I took a “Principles of Programming Languages” class as an undergrad–it was basically a survey of all the major kinds of programming languages out there–and while it did require the solid knowledge of at least one programming language from an intro class, it still wasn’t really an “upper-level” course per se. I valued it a lot because, quite frankly, I don’t think I would’ve explored concurrent or logic programming languages on my own, and to this day the things I learned in that class have helped frame my understanding of computer science in general.

    Still, computer science is also different enough from game design that I’m not sure how useful analogies would be. On the other hand, the introductory film criticism class I took in college–which I believe was a prerequisite to any filmmaking classes–took a chronological approach. We’d start with photoplays and silent films, and end with contemporary ones. This seemed like a good approach to me because it gave us a historical perspective on the art form and also provided us with a very natural way of understanding filmmaking from the ground up, starting with very simple early films and ending with more complex contemporary ones.

    Introductory classes for various humanities disciplines, such as psychology and philosophy, have taken a similar approach. Even if they’re not chronological, they at least take a look a huge range of possibilities and perspectives, which, as Noah said, is something that becomes very limited when restricting oneself to a single platform.

    I’m not even sure how relevant the concept of the “platform” is to all of this, beyond the limitations that the interface and the hardware provide to the player. Isn’t restricting an introductory game design class to a single platform a little bit like restricting an introductory film class to black-and-white silent films?

  7. noah Says:

    I think choosing to focus an introductory class on the NES is similar to choosing to focus one on text-only mainframe computer games of the 1970s. Sure, there were a variety of them (chess programs, Zork, etc), and you’d learn a lot about that particular game platform, and the techniques you’d learn for thinking about those games would be helpful in thinking about other games — but it’d be a shame that everything in a 1980s video arcade would depend on fundamental approaches with which you had never grappled. In fact, you might not even recognize the contents of a 1980s arcade as being part of the same field. Better, I think, to have an introductory class that prepares people for a variety of more advanced classes that could choose to focus on certain platforms, genres, production models, etc.

  8. nick Says:

    Barry & Atul, thanks for the comments.

    Noah, I guess we just want to focus our classes in different ways. Hopefully I’ll prove the value of the approach that I suggest at some point by teaching a successful class along those lines. And hopefully Jim’s class, however he chooses to focus it, will get off the ground soon and will be a success.

  9. noah Says:

    Sorry to be so elliptical in previous comments (and this one). I’m trying to fit blogging in again, while also reconstructing my work environment after a hard drive failure and delayed repair. I think Atul, Barry, Nick, and I are all trying to think about how we’d want to start students out in a broad curriculum. Obviously, there’s no wrong answer. I’m just thinking about what I would want students taking their first (or only) game design course to have interacted with and thought about as they encounter future games and other authored systems. I think Atul’s suggestion of presenting some history of the field is a good one, and I certainly appreciate Barry commenting from the perspective of one who is already teaching courses of this sort regularly. Barry’s idea of people playing during class discussion is an intriguing one, but also (at first blush) worrisome to me. Wouldn’t it be just as distracting as someone reading aloud from the book then under discussion? Or is it used as a structuring device for the conversation, like a DVD’s director’s commentary (or an episode of MST3K)?

  10. Barry Says:

    “I certainly appreciate Barry commenting from the perspective of one who is already teaching courses of this sort regularly. Barry’s idea of people playing during class discussion is an intriguing one, but also (at first blush) worrisome to me”

    No, really, it works. It might work because I embed it in a particular way and my students know what is going on, but it works. It sort of goes against the grain of my training (only I have access to truth and knowledge – the traditional Humanities approach), but it does work if what you want to stress is games as performance and something only put in motion by a user. A game in play hammers home every point of commentary.

    I know that blogs provide a useful function, and GTxA is wonderful, but are there enough of us interested in curriculum developemt to form a SIG at the the DiGRA site? We could then archive things so there was a common ground for these kinds of discussions. And when I get back to the office I will offer my own Games Design curriculum examples, not as a canon, but as a real example of how I squared some circles. What is clear to me is that lots of different people are trying different things. Let’s share?


  11. nick Says:

    People do screen films and clips from films during classes, so there’s a precedent for playing games during class. (I say this as someone who recruited people to play Combat and Bad Machine on giant screens behind me during my conference presentations, and as someone who has shown games and had people play games during class…) It’s better than no exposure to the game, if you can’t provide for people to study games independently or go to a lab. If you’re focusing on the way interaction works at particular moments, and can have people play through those moments in class, it could be sensible to do, just as it can be sensible to look at a website in class together and critique it.

    But hopefully this won’t be the only way for a class of students to study games, since it would mean that people tend to would only consider frame-by-frame (or turn-by-turn) issues.

  12. Barry Says:

    “But hopefully this won’t be the only way for a class of students to study games, since it would mean that people tend to would only consider frame-by-frame (or turn-by-turn) issues.”

    But the point is that they play — live and together and talk about the decisions they make — not like watching clips.


  13. Jim Whitehead Says:

    First, thank you for all the insightful feedback. It has given me a lot to consider.

    I like the idea of having a weekly lab section where various game consoles and games are available for use. Ideally I’d like the game playing to be a social experience. It seems to me the ideal space would be a room with multiple projection screens, and one or two couches in front of each screen. People could drift from game to game to check things out, and then sit down at one that looked interesting. I’m not sure if UCSC has anything even close to this kind of space; our colleges have interesting “fireplace” rooms that have the right kind of informality.

    I think perhaps my focus on the NES was interpreted a tad too strong. I agree with Noah that a wide range of game exposure is a good thing, assuming the games are particularly good (or terribly bad) examples of different genres or design issues. It also seems right to me to introduce non-computer games. As a big fan of interactive fiction, I have no problem assigning Zork or Adventure.

    One issue I have to contend with is scale. We’re hoping for a large enrollment in this class (~100 students), and so any platform I decide to support needs to have enough units to support many students. Storing all of the equipment after the end of the class is also an issue. For this reason, I’ll probably limit the number of platforms for which I have original hardware. Of course, any platforms I don’t have hardware for I could supply emulators.

    Another issue I struggle with is how much game knowledge I should assume the students already have. From what I understand, gaming is an integral part of the mainstream teen experience these days, and hence students in the class may have hundreds or even thousands of hours of game experience. The chronological approach to overviewing games has the benefit of starting before most of the students were born, and hence limits the possibility that students are bored. Do film studies classes just not worry about whether students have already seen the films shown in class? Or it just not a problem?

    I would certainly be interested in joining a SIG on Game curriculum issues.

  14. Atul Says:

    In the film classes I took, it seemed like there was a balance between obscure films that students probably hadn’t seen, and popular films. However, by the time we saw popular films that I had seen before, I was focusing on completely different things than when I had originally seen the movie for pleasure; mise en scene, editing, and so forth. In fact, a lot of times I got more out of seeing a film I’d watched previously, because I didn’t have to pay close attention to the plot and could instead focus more on what I needed to analyze.

    So it’s possible that a student who is an expert at Halo might actually be able to spend more time focusing on the design issues that went into the game than the newbie who is spending much of their time getting used to the controls. Aside from that, the newcomer and the expert will both have entirely different perspectives on the game, which can be very useful for class discussions.

  15. nick Says:

    Jim, thanks for joining us!


    But the point is that they play — live and together and talk about the decisions they make — not like watching clips.

    My point is that if they only play games during class, it is like watching clips in terms of the time they have to experience the work. If I play Metal Gear Solid 2 or A Mind Forever Voyaging for thirty minutes in class, live, together, and talking about the decisions I make, and that’s the only experience I have of these game that take many, many hours to get through, it is quite like watching a clip. Similarly with games where you have to develop some skill to advance and see why the game is fun, or, of course, with a MMORPG. It’s okay to watch some clips, and it’s okay to write about some games without playing through them (as I know both of us have done), but I wouldn’t want all student experience to be limited to play time in class.

  16. Barry Says:

    Sure Nick — we are actually in agreement, I think. See my earlier comments on sending the students off to do the main work of playing the games outside class. I suppose I am just keen to have the games in motion when teaching, much as I have seen you speak with games up and moving behind you. I notice that David Thomas (Buzzcut) makes it a requirement that his students have access to a gaming platform for the course he runs, which, given the PC as a platform, must be more a way of hinting heavily that students will be expected to pursue independent study than a demanding requirement.

    For anyone interested, there should be a PDF here:


    This is a working document, written for the students and not to impress other academics. The degree is essentially practical, and the unit is slanted towards this. I didn’t design the original structure, which belongs to my predecessor Simon Redman. It is also for a course taught concurrently with a Digital Games: Research and Critique module that all the studenst take, so some of the more obvious stuff is not present. Tomb Raider is present as an example of unsuccessful design. Given that we are still such a small bunch across the world, I would be fascinated to see how others have approached the same kind of material.

    On a practical note, I have 15-20 students at MA level in a dedicated studio that is our space alone. I can imagine that larger numbers would make anything difficult, but that is true of most education. I have ‘lost’ a huge number of controllers, memory cards, software, and even a Zelda mousemat, so keeping an eye on the equipment is an issue. As Atul said, student experience is not a particular problem. Oddly enough, by hopping about in terms of time and genre I have yet to encounter a student who has universal knowledge, and however much they are gamers they will not have played the games in such a critical context before, so we have been able to deal with a vast range of prior knowledge quite easily.

  17. nick Says:

    Barry, thanks for the syllabus and your comments. I love the idea of your students playing tag in class. I’ll hope to comment on the syllabus more later, but wanted to say yes, I think we agree about the value and limitations of in-class play. I didn’t mean to say that playing in class was like viewing non-interactive video clips of game play; just that interactions limited to a bit of class time don’t give a good sense of the extent of very involved works.

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