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.

11 Responses to “Computer Game Curricula”

  1. Jim Whitehead Says:

    Thanks, Noah, for starting this thread.

    I can see several ways students can gain access to computer games.

    You can require students to buy the games themselves. This works for open-ended assignments where the instructor doesn’t need control over the games used in the assignment. A compare-contrast essay on a student’s favorite 3 games would work well, since most students already have access to this many games (or could easily borrow/rent/buy three games to complete the assignment). A big drawback is the inability to control which games the students are guaranteed to have seen. Deeper studies within a specific genre are also difficult, or impossible. A course, like Noah’s, where each week covers a specific genre or class of games would not be possible, or would be very expensive for students. Alternately, it would require significant coordination work to package together all of the games needed for the course, and negotiate usage fees, etc.

    In the large physical collection approach, an institutional library acquires a significant collection of computer games. This collection is then used by instructors across one or more courses. There are many challenges here. Acquiring substantial collections of computer games is costly. Since games are small, portable, and more easily understood to be valuable than books, secure storage is a concern. Since the games are not playable without the right hardware platform, this also needs to be madea available, either by checkout, or in a lab within the library.

    At UCSC we’re trying both approaches, allowing students to checkout consoles, as well as having a dedicated game play lab within the library (away from quiet study spaces, of course). This approach is the most clear in terms of copyright, since it falls under typical library physical acquisition and lending models (buy book, lend book –> buy game, lend game). A drawback with this approach is that it doesn’t scale super well. The 1-2 hour reserve approach used by many libraries for textbooks used in large classes doesn’t work well for a game that may take 10-12 hours to deeply appreciate. This leads to buying multiple copies of games and systems.

    It’s very unclear how well the old NES systems will handle transport by students, and how well students will handle these notoriously tempermental machines (I plan on having in-class demonstrations of the famous ‘blowing on the contacts’ technique for removing the NES ‘blinkies’). It also doesn’t scale well in number of systems, as one could imagine a large storage room filled with multiple copies of NES, SNES, Genesis, Saturn, Dreamcast, PS1, PS2, Apple II, etc. systems.

    Instead of checking out systems and games, a game playing lab could be created, presumably not in a library setting. Such a lab could have multiple stations, where each station had multiple game consoles and a single TV. Students would check out games and controllers (and presumably some headphones) and then play games at one of the stations. This addresses some of the issues of checking out games from an institutional library since it reduces wear and tear on the consoles, and provides more controlled access to the games. Students also do not have to deal with setting up each system, and there would be help available to address console-specific quirks. Students can play games together in the lab, and game playing would be a more social experience. A lab could support class sessions where all students in a class play a game, then discuss the game immediately afterwards. This approach is also clear in terms of copyright, since there is always one physical game per player/station.

    However, there are drawbacks. A dedicated lab is expensive. Instructional lab space is always precious at universities. The lab would also require staff for the lab. The lab would not catalog the collection as well as the library if the collection grew large. Buying all of the consoles, TVs, games, etc. initially would be expensive, with $3k-$5k per station being reasonable estimates, if current/next-generation consoles are included.

    A drawback of both the institutional library and game lab approaches is their need to have physical copies of games and consoles. In the emulator approach, an instructor would put game code (ROMs, disk images, etc.) on a password-protected web site (or hand out CDROMs) along with an emulator for the machine that plays the game. This has a lot of advantages. It’s inexpensive, and the games aren’t prone to being broken or stolen (in a physical sense — we’ll get to IP in a minute). Emulators can play games from any region, and avoid the need for mod chips. Emulators can also freeze a game in session, and can easily capture screen shots. As a result, they are perhaps more amenable to some kinds of analysis than the original game system.

    Unfortunately, the use of emulators has some problems. The emulated games do not always exactly reproduce the original game play experience. On the NES, game graphics often depended on some bleeding together of the pixels on a TV, and hence today’s ultra-sharp LCDs aren’t the same. Screen aspect ratios also change over time, and playing NES games on a DS under emulation involves a tradeoff of chopping a few lines, or squishing the screen. It’s very different playing a game with the original controllers, though there are some options for getting USB-modded versions of console controllers. In terms of IP, there is no established precedent for whether using ROMs and emulators in the classroom falls under educational fair use. Since there is no easy way to just “quote” a portion of the game experience, it’s unclear whether rulings would support playing the entire game as educational fair use, or whether any play of the game would violate copyright. There is also ambiguity surrounding copyright on videos of game sessions, such as speed run videos.

    One of the bug advantages of the emulator approach is having a big library of games on a hard drive. An interesting thought is a disk to console conversion approach, where a hard drive contains a huge collection of game code, and there is special-purpose hardware that permits downloading the game code for play on original consoles. One could imagine a flash-programmable game cartridge for the NES with a network tap for downloading games from a central server, or a CDROM emulator device that would permit a game to be downloaded and played on a Sega Saturn. This would be the best of all worlds, having a compact collection, but still support play on the original hardware. It would require licensing of the collection, but with such specialty hardware, it might be possible to have multiple universities collaborate on the task of licensing the collection. Alternately, there might be a role for a small, dedicated for-profit company here. There is also a non-trivial overhead in creating the custom hardware the first time, though perhaps this could be tackled by a research grant.

  2. mark Says:

    It’s possible to completely legally use emulators if you purchase the physical games and either purchase or build the commonly-available ROM-downloading devices. Of course you would still need to buy the physical games, but could then lock them away safely and use the ROM copies for regular use instead instead of having to lend out the originals and keep them from being stolen/lost. Heck, you could even download the ROM back onto a blank cartridge if the physical copy did become lost or stolen at some point. So long as the copies in use at any given time are equal in number to the copies owned, there’s no copyright issues, since medium-shifting is a well-established right.

    (Of course that doesn’t fix all the other problems with emulators.)

  3. Ian Bogost Says:

    For better or worse, we’re primarily using the game playing lab approach at Georgia Tech. Michael started it when he was here and I’m running it now, although it poses all the problems Jim mentions. The biggest problem, which I am correcting this year, is that students tend to think of it as an arcade rather than a lab/library. As for costs, I think the trick is not to buy a library of games, but to slowly acquire the titles that really make sense in a canon or for certain classes. Still expensive, but at least expensive over time rather than all at once. That said, it does require constant upkeep.

    There’s another option not mentioned here: aggregators like GameTap or (depending on how it turns out) the new Nintendo Wii downloadable virtual console games. All the problems of emulation still persist, but these companies are taking care of the aggregation for us. Wii even promises replica controllers.

    Solutions like the Atari Flashback 2 are really godsends. Even though it doesn’t allow cartridge play (although hacks do exist), the chipset is accurately reproduced, and it provides standard composite video out for modern TVs, and it’s cheap. The seelction of games included are good and even include some unreleased ones. I’d love to see more of these for other platforms, but the market may not support the idea.

    I like the idea of assigning students to buy the games that are easily available on the market. While it could get expensive for them, it would also free up institutional resources to solve the harder access probles.

    One more idea: there still exist small cadres of video arcades in some locations, or at least cabinet arcade systems in many public locations. In the future I’d probably lean toward assigning students to play Ms. Pac Man on the newer Ms. Pac Man / Galaga stand-ups at the local theatre than to play on an emulator.

    I think the eventual answer will probably include a combination of solutions. I doubt that one sole approach will ever work.

  4. sam wu Says:

    What about making use of game portals that out there?

    Perhaps negotiate with them on an “education pass” to places like RealArcade, Yahoo Games and such?

    Then, there is Gametap? They have such an extensive library of classic games of many platforms. Gaining access here will expose your students to a wide array of games.

    Of course, let’s not forget XBox Live Arcade, the Wii’s virtual console, and maybe PS3 will have something similar as well? This should, with time, provide a plethora of video game exposure that would more than assist the dearth of necessary choices at the moment.

  5. nick Says:

    A great dicussion – quick comments on it:

    A lab, if set up well, can contribute to productive group play of non-massively multiplayer games (2- and 4- player games) and can allow students to watch others play and reflect on how they approach the game, work the controller, plan and react. The lab is probably more suitable for this than a check-out system is, although it depends on how students are willing to use checked-out systems.

    In my limited experience, just assigning students to go to arcades isn’t a good way of getting students to go there. I’m not sure what would work better, though – a field trip?

    Finally, I just wanted to say explicitly that it’s great that people across the country (and elsewhere, such as ITU-Copenhagen, where they have a game lab) are trying to tackle these problems instead of ignoring video games completely, instead of discussing them but ignoring what they actually look like and how they play, and instead of just showing screenshots and box covers in lieu of access to running, functioning games.

  6. Jim Whitehead Says:

    GameTap is nice, providing a legal way to play a large number of older games. I’m very glad this service exists, and some UCSC students in the past have signed up for this service on their own, and have found it to be useful in their studies of games. However, from a game studies perspective GameTap has some drawbacks. It suffers from all of the problems of emulators in general, since players are not experiencing the original video and original controllers. My guess is the sound is different from the original as well.

    GameTap also lacks depth in many genres. Consider shmups. There is loose agreement among experts in the genre that specific games in the Gradius and R-Type series are especially noteworthy. Does GameTap have any of these? Not that I can tell. While it does have Defender, Galaga, Galaxian, and Zaxxon (good), it has very limited examples of the genre after 1990. The 90’s saw many excellent shmups, including Dodonpachi and Radiant Silvergun. In the early 00’s we have Rez, Ikaruga, Gradius V, and R-Type Final, all superb.

    So, GameTap is a very nice resouce to have access to as a student, but it doesn’t solve the complete problem of game access for game studies students.

  7. noah Says:

    I’m finding this conversation very interesting. It’s helping me clarify some of my thinking about the Spring class and the future beyond it.

    I’m nervous about depending on a service like Gametap, both for the reasons just cited by Jim and (especially) because it might go away. I know libraries increasingly depend on electronic versions of journals and other resources — but I think they also get to archive the content in such a way that they know they’ll still have access to the ejournals if the publisher/service disappears. Maybe universities could negotiate something similar with services like Gametap?

    Beyond that, as Jim points out, there are games of interest that aren’t/won’t be part of services. This should be no surprise — scholars are often interested in books that aren’t currently being reprinted. I think Jim’s suggestion of a large institutional collection makes sense, and I think having a way of burning items from that collection onto appropriate game media is going to be essential. Emulators are good, but we also want to be able to play on original (or replica) equipment sometimes.

    Thinking about this leads me to another issue we haven’t put explicitly here: the needs of game research and game pedagogy overlap, but are not identical. If you do the research to understand the difference between a game played via emulation/replica and played on original equipment, then you know enough to decide whether you want students in your class to use the (presumably simpler, cheaper) emulation solution.

    The plan for my Spring course, at the moment, is for there to be lecture meetings run by yours truly and discussion meetings run by TAs. I want a game-play lab because that’s where I want the TA-run meetings to take place, as well as the between-meeting student play. Nick and I are in total agreement about the students playing together, seeing each other play, and having critical discussions in the immediate aftermath.

    Of course, Jim is completely right about the challenges. If there aren’t enough faculty wanting to use a dedicated game study lab for their classes then it doesn’t make sense to set aside space for one. I need to keep talking with other UCSD faculty to find out. But if that fails I hope that I’ll be able to hook up game equipment (and install game software) for each station in one of the existing instructional computing labs. I could easily buy 30 copies of the Flashback 2 out of course funds, which would be a start — we could take it from there.

    Many people I’ve spoken with have expressed Ian’s concern about students seeing the facility as an arcade rather than a study space. The most popular solution suggested is to limit physical access to students currently enrolled in game studies courses. I don’t know if that’s the solution Ian is taking with the Georgia Tech EGL — but I’d be curious to hear how other people have (or are planning to) address this issue.

    As for copyright, I must admit to some confusion. I like the sound of what Mark says, but I suspect that a panel of experts might give us answers like those Jill posted recently. Nevertheless, I think we should go forward with good faith, trusting our experts (probably drawn largely from the library community), and deal with legal challenges when/if we face them.

  8. michael Says:

    With the Tech EGL (at least when I was there) students who were engaged in specific research projects or taking specific courses would have access to the EGL. In addition, there were 12 or so open hours a week when the door was open to anyone; a TA was present during open hours to help with equipment, make sure people weren’t walking off with games, etc.

    The EGL was originally created with the goal of primarily supporting game research, and supporting game pedagogy at the graduate level. Since the graduate classes tend to be fairly small (20 or so students), there was actually enough equipment (4 game playing stations – one big plasma screen for the small group play Nick mentioned, 3 individual stations) for all the students to play the assigned games. But there’s no way it would scale to large undergraduate classes (100+ students).

    At UCSC Jim and I are creating an EGL-like lab to support the senior game design year long sequence. The focus of this lab will be game development, with two game playing stations (one large-screen for group play, one individual station). These game playing stations are primarily intended to support the analysis of games in the context of designing and implementing games, not to support the large game studies courses.

  9. mark Says:

    I’m a bit confused about the worries with it being used as an arcade, at least part of the time. Is it monetary (stuff wears out/breaks faster) or a feeling that it’ll *always* be an arcade so students wanting to get work done won’t be able to?

    In many areas that sort of dual-use study/entertainment is common and nobody seems to care much—sometimes it’s even encouraged as a way of building interest. When I was an undergrad, for example, we used film-studies resources (their film collection and nice on-campus projection room) to hold Saturday-evening movie nights, and the film-studies folks seemed happy that some students from the general student population who would never take a film-studies class were being exposed to at least some moderately interesting films. (Of course, during most of the week only people doing real work could use the resources.)

  10. michael Says:

    The arcade concern is that it’s used as an arcade all the time, interfering with game-related academic work that’s trying to use the same space.

  11. noah Says:

    Right — folks at UCSD have told me that they estimate we’ll need twice as many stations if use is not restricted to those doing work for game-related courses, just to ensure those students can get access during the week to do their homework. But perhaps there could also be “open hours” of the sort Mark describes.

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