This is an archived article.

October 30, 2008

Class Notes: Games class combines work and play

Class title: CHID 498: Poetics of Play in Digital Role-playing Games, taught by Terry Schenold, doctoral candidate in English.


Description: This course is a seminar that explores the digital role-playing game (RPG) as a new form of expressive media. Students discuss their experiences playing four fantasy RPGs — Quest for Glory, Ultima VII, Final Fantasy VII and Morrowmind — using what they’ve learned from critical readings in game studies and new media studies. They also analyze strengths and weaknesses in the relatively new field of game studies itself, and develop methods of “reading” games and communicating game experiences. Students analyze components of RPGs, such as moral problems and existential situations presented to characters, and discuss how they affect the games’ narratives. They also examine the spatial narratives themselves — unlike novels, in which plot events occur in a certain order determined by the author, RPGs allow players to move around a virtual space and encounter events at different times, meaning they get to make choices that impact what happens next in the game. This focused analysis of game components aims to disprove the assumption that games are all about action, and encourages students to reflect on and think critically about the simulated experiences of game play.



Instructor’s views: “The goal of the course is to enable these students to articulate meaningful experiences in this medium, both in a way that registers within the critical discourse on games and actually has something to do with their own interpretations of games,” Schenold explained. “You might say that the [class] is trying to figure out, as a group, what kinds of inquiries make sense in game studies or computer role-playing games. What are the interesting ways in which we can interpret and make meaning of these experiences?


“The broader context for this course is the growing need for what some might call a ‘new media literacy’ and a re-investigation of the impact of technology in our lives in general and … digital games in particular.”


Schenold said students also learn practical skills: “For instance, it’s much like any other humanities course where you have to critically read theoretical or methodological or interpretive works that are published within a discipline. They will know about game studies; they’ll be able to read this literature with skill.


“At the end of the quarter I’d like these students to be ‘critical gamers’ — as cliché as that might sound — to be able to communicate with more precision and clarity what they find unique and creative about this new artistic form of media.”



Unexpected experiences: Schenold said that in designing the course, he created specific and rigorous assignments to discourage students from thinking they could simply get credit for playing games. However, Schenold has been pleasantly surprised by his students’ enthusiasm.


“What has exceeded my expectations is the intellectual curiosity of people who take the course,” he said. “[There is a] tremendous amount of critical work being done by the students in relationship to their own experience of games … One of the interesting, unexpected results of the class is seeing students having those ‘a-ha’ moments … where they read some scholar who is conceptualizing something that they, in their own informal intuitive ways, have already grasped about their game experience.”


Schenold said one of the difficulties has been finding common ground during game discussions, as each student’s game experience is different.


“They grew up playing, and are continually playing, all different types of games, and they also have different language for speaking about games,” he said. “[Gaming] is very much a micro-culture in that it has its own language and its own way of seeing things.”


The overall difficulty of teaching the course, Schenold said, is that no one quite knows how to do it. There is no precedent for focused study of the role-playing game, which is a particularly overlooked game genre.


Schenold hoped to allow students to think more about their new experiences and the novelty of ideas in detail. However, he ran into an unexpected problem.


“The emphasis on inquiry and experience … [confuses] a lot of students who are used to demonstrating they understand what someone else has already said about a topic,” he said. “I’ve been surprised by how difficult it is for some students to see the value of their own insights when they do not match up with the discourse.”



Student views: Student Jon Sim wrote, “It’s exciting to finally take a serious academic approach to something that is very much a part of my life. Seattle is a central hub of gaming in the same way Hollywood and New York are hubs of filmmaking. The UW needs to capitalize on this subject because there is a prominent audience in this area. Intellectual gamers need an outlet and Terry provides just that.”


Student Tyler Morgan, who is an English major, wrote, “When it comes down to it, there isn’t a huge difference between CHID 498 and your average [English] 300/400 class. You read some theory, you read some literature (or play a game), then you try to make sense of the theory and connect it to the other half of the assignment.”


He said the homework — even the game-playing portion — is similar to the work done for an English class.


“You have to play the game; you have to spend the time doing whatever the goal is as set forth by Terry,” Morgan wrote. “To me, it doesn’t feel all that different from sailing through 60 pages of fiction in 1-2 hours for a night’s assignment … While I thought at first that this would be an exceptionally easy class where I did nothing but play games and chat about them, I am finding that the level of effort required so far is typical of your average — albeit relatively easy — English class.”


Reading: A selection of course reserves, including:


Computer Games: Text, Narrative and Play, Diane Carr, et al.


Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative, Mark Stephen Meadows.


Shared Fantasy: Role-playing Games as Social Worlds, Gary Alan Fine.


Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, & New Media, edited by Mark J.P. Wolf.



Assignments: Students critically read a text from the course reserves and write a formal, concise summary, formulating a discussion question based on a meaningful insight from the work. Students also write a focused analysis of a firsthand game experience or a particular aspect of interest in one of the four RPGs that draws on an idea found in the course readings. Finally, students design a small, individual project that can take many forms — for example, a traditional seminar paper in which they critically analyze an idea that has emerged in discussion or a digital archive of particular facets of a game experience.


Class Notes is an occasional column that describes interesting or unusual classes at the UW.