September 18, 2006

Computer Game Curricula

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 3:18 pm

Last summer an email from Jim Whitehead kicked off an interesting GTxA thread on teaching computer games. Since then, Jim has taught his Foundations of Interactive Game Design and helped launch the new undergraduate degree in computer game design at UC Santa Cruz (where they’ve also recently hired GTxA’s own Michael). I’ve also recently put together a draft of the syllabus for my Fall graduate seminar in computer game studies, where I tried to put into practice some of my thoughts from the conversation we had here last summer.

Recently, in an email exchange with Jim, he and I started talking more concretely about a problem that also came up in our earlier theoretical discussions: getting students access to games. We can’t do what people do with the last generation of “new media” (film and video). We can’t do group showings, because students need to experience the games individually and in small groups. We can’t send students to the library media center, because libraries may be set up for individual experiences of laserdisks, but not game disks.

My initial, temporary solution — for my grad students this Fall — is visible in the syllabus linked above. I’ve gotten friendly lab folks to help me set up a Mac lab with some relatively current commercial software (e.g., The Sims) and a lot of older games running in emulation or ported versions (e.g., Doom, Karateka, Zork I, etc). In addition, the students are assigned to buy the Atari Flashback 2 (giving us games from Pong to Pitfall!) and we’re installing an Xbox 360 in the lab (for Oblivion, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and other games TBA as I work with students to build the agenda for the last three seminar meetings). Finally, we’re looking at current, freely-available Mac/Windows games like Facade and Disaffected! as well as web-available games like September 12th and the original SimCity (now on EA’s site in a Java port).

Jim’s solution is a bit different, because he’s working with a much larger number of students, and undergrads (as I will be this coming Spring). He wrote in a recent email:

We’re working with our local library to make some older systems and carts available for checkout by students during the CMPS 80K course. We’ll have 5 NES, 5 N64, and 5 PS2 systems available, with 5 games each of note. I’ll have two or three assignments that make use of the systems during the quarter. Curiously, we’re most worried about the PS2 access, since emulators are freely available for the NES and N64. But, we think students will have fairly ready access to PS2s of either their own, or their friends’.

I can see this solution working, but it also makes me uneasy. I think, if we’re going to have non-web games as part of our curriculum we should provide the ability to study them in a lab environment. It’s more important for computer games (which can be tricky to run in emulation, which can differ from platform to platform, etc) than it is for film — and yet we don’t structure our film curricula to assume that students can just check out a DVD. Of course, Jim goes further, checking out both the game and the platform. Is that the right solution?

With either approach, giving students access to games in an academic environment presents many challenges, including those of copyright for older games and emulators. I mentioned to Jim that for my course we were going to be using the Apple II ROM that Apple gave permission for Nick and me to distribute with The New Media Reader — otherwise playing Karateka would have been impossible. Further, for other games, I just don’t have enough lead time to work out a legal way to make them available. Jim wrote:

This is a huge problem for game studies education, since there is no good legal way to provide access to students of a large number of older games. Buying lots of old consoles and older games for checkout to students is a fragile solution. Creating an enormous old console game lab is very expensive in space and maintenance. Legal copies of some older games of interest are sometimes quite expensive, and not readily available in large quantities (the great space shooter Radiant Silvergun for the Saturn regularly fetches $150 on EBay).

So, that’s where Jim and I are now. I think we’d both be very interested to hear the solutions others have devised for providing access to games, the thoughts others have about how we might move forward in this area, any suggestions/ideas people have about our syllabi, and any pointers people have to interesting related developments. There’s a lot of energy going into thinking about game curricula these days — witness the recent GDC discussion where they invited faculty and students to share their desires, and learned that at the top of the list for the students was “more ‘game studies’ — games as creative entities, including genre theory and game analysis.” I’m very interested to hear what GTxA readers are thinking.