Monday, June 2, 2008

I have 120+ game prototypes to play!

If you are wondering what happened to that guy who said he was going to teach a new course at the University of California at San Diego about games and culture, and even started a blog about it that abruptly stopped, I'm happy to report that I'm teaching that class right now.

I apologize for disappearing from my blog, but my workload got unexpectedly larger. Shortly before the start of the term, I was asked if I would be willing to teach the class twice, which meant I would be lecturing every day. I visualized my paycheck getting larger and neglected to think about how tiring this would be. I now have nearly 400 students. By the end of the term (this Friday), my students will have written more than 1000 essays on game-related subjects. I assigned a team game-design project and now the department's office is filled with more than 120 game prototypes. (Fortunately, I have 12 teaching assistants to help me sort through them. They are a fantastic group of grad students.)

This has been a crazy but exhilarating quarter. All told, I will have delivered about 50 lectures on topics such as Huizinga's theories about play; Caillois' taxonomy of games; games and gender; social behavior in alternate realities; gaming subcultures; games as art; the effects of competition; "serious games"; and the debate over video games and violence. I worried about not having enough material for the course and I soon realize there's so much more I won't have time to talk about.

My students have been enthusiastic, and became especially engaged when we began the game-design project, and I have to say (in my proud parent voice) that they did an incredible job coming up with some very clever ways to model real-world systems (the assignment focused on modes of representation, so there were no abstract games). I played a student's party-oriented card game this afternoon that was a cross between Werewolf and TV's "Survivor" -- fun and amazingly well thought-out. It needed much more development, of course (the students only had a few weeks to work on the project), but it included some ingenious ideas that I would love to see in a published game. I will be documenting the projects in photographs and will post some picture on this blog in a couple of weeks.

In addition to the course reader, I assigned Stefan Fatsis' book about Scrabble players, "Word Freak," and McKenzie Wark's fascinating but difficult "Gamer Theory," which has divided the students into those who hate the book and those who love it. For first-year college students, they are tackling it bravely.

We also have had some great guest speakers, including a "Jeopardy!" champion, a video game designer and producer, and a competitive salsa dancer. We've had competitions and contests in which student win games (including What's It to Ya? -- thanks, Mike Petty!) and other prizes. We are in the middle of a Scrabble tournament in which the top prize is an iPod. I showed three game-related films outside of class for extra credit (the thriller "The Game"; the Donkey Kong documentary "The King of Kong"; and a terrific film about girls basketball, "The Heart of the Game"). I suppose I am teaching the course I wish I could have taken when I was an undergraduate.

One of the best things about this job is that I have been able to play games with my students and teaching assistants (and occasionally other faculty) during my office hours and justify it as research. I love to introduce them to games beyond Monopoly, Clue, and Sorry, and have had students and TAs rush to buy their own copies of Mission: Red Planet, Settlers, Hey! That's My Fish, Chrononauts and other games we have played. I'm doing my best to spread the goodness around.

Most important, students have been telling me that this course has changed the way they think about games. They still play them for enjoyment, but they also able to view them as a mode of cultural expression worthy of critical analysis. They have learned how to think about a game in terms of its structure and mechanics and interpret its cultural meaning. As a college instructor, those are the kinds of things that I find the most gratifying.

When the course finally is over, I will return to this blog and write more about my experiences. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Short Course Description and Required Reading

Just a quick post to keep you up to date on a couple of things. First, here's the official short description of the course for catalog purposes. It's pretty much the same as the first paragraph of the course proposal.
Playing by the Rules: Games In and Out of the Ordinary World

Poker, chess, tennis, Scrabble, World of Warcraft, Guitar Hero—we may know how to win at our favorite games, but do we know what these specialized forms of play say about us and and world we live in? This interdisciplinary course explores games as a reflection of culture-based values and as a means of experimenting with those values in a "safe," rule-bound environment. We will study classic and contemporary theories about play and apply them to a broad spectrum of games—board games, video games, computer games, gambling, sports, school-yard games—discussing concepts such as "performing belief" (willingly abiding by the rules of a game-created fantasy) and the "magic circle" (the border between play and reality). We will examine behavior such as risk-taking, teamwork and cheating, and look at what lies ahead at the intersection of games, art, and technology. You will be asked to analyze the games you play and apply your discoveries to the "real" world. What rules do we live by in our everyday lives? In what ways do we perform belief and how does it help maintain cultural cohesion? When are we inside or outside the magic circle, and what happens when we cross that border? What happens if we don't play by the rules?
Since the topic of this course is bound to attract the attention of students, I didn't think I needed to sell it by emphasizing how fun the course will be. It was more important to convey that the course will be an serious, in-depth exploration of the its subject involving close reading of texts, critical analysis of games, and a lot of writing. After all, the leading item on my agenda is to show these first-year students how anything they are passionate about can be the subject of scholarly study.

The second thing I wanted to report is that I have chosen the two required texts for the course. These are in addition to a course reader (which I am in the process of assembling). I had narrowed the field to about six books, decided on three, and at the last minute threw out one of my choices because the director of my program said realistically I could expect my students to read at most one inch of book during the quarter on top of the articles in the reader. That was disheartening. So out went Roger Caillois' "Man, Play, and Games" (excerpts will go into the reader).
Required Reading

"Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players" by Stefan Fatsis (Penguin, 2002)

"Gamer Theory" by McKenzie Wark (Harvard, 2007)
The other two books represent contrasting approaches to the study of games. One is a look at a subculture of gamers from an outside perspective; the other attempts to interpret the outside world from within the world of games. One is from popular culture; the other is steeped in critical theory. One is "easy reading"; the other presents more of a challenge. I'll talk more about these books in a future post. If you're curious about "Gamer Theory," it was originally published online in a format resembling a pile of notecards—an interesting approach, but not really practical for the classroom. At least, not yet.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Big Hurdle Passed

I've been quiet for a few days because I had to prepare for a meeting today with the program chair and three directors to go over my plans for my games course. I presented my syllabus, about half of which is developed and the rest skeletal. (More about that in a future post.)

I'll cut to the chase: They loved the course and fully approved of the content. What a relief!

They had some valuable suggestions on how to reorder some of the units to create thematic consistency with the previous courses in the series. The chair suggested I return to the syllabus some topics that I forgot to include or removed because of time constraints. One embarrassing example: games and gender. Oops. I have a collection of articles and ideas pertaining to that topic. More cross-cultural examples, they said. OK, easily done.

I wish I had the energy to write more, but I need to take a nap right now. I'm fighting a nasty cold that just won't go away.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

(Not) Playing by the Rules: Proposing the Course

When it came time to write a short description of the course to appear in the schedule of classes, on bulletin boards, and on the syllabus, I dredged up my original proposal, which I submitted just about one year ago. I’ll admit I was pretty ignorant of the bureaucratic procedures involved in creating a new course. I just typed up some, printed it out, and gave it to my program director. It helped that her areas of research were equally quirky: stage magic and automatons. It also helped that my games course fit into an existing series of required courses.

Audacity, especially when coupled with ignorance, can take a person far. I wasn’t completely ignorant, of course. I had sat on committees in which we discussed the curriculum of the program and looked for innovative ways to present the material. That helped me specifically address the curriculum’s key concepts in my proposal and match topics with those concepts.

Here is an excerpt from my original proposal:

Playing by the Rules: Games In and Out of the Ordinary World
Roger Ngim, lecturer

This interdisciplinary, writing-intensive course will explore the idea of games as both a reflection of culture-based values and a method of experimenting with those values in a bounded, “safe” environment. The course will take a close look at the games we play—board games, video games, computer games, gambling, sports, school-yard games—and examine them in terms of theories of play by Huizinga, Sutton-Smith, Caillois and others. Students will discuss concepts such as “performing belief” (willingly abiding by the rules of a game-created fantasy) and the “magic circle” (the border between play and reality), as well as in-game behavior such as risk-taking, teamwork and cheating. Students will be asked to demonstrate their understanding of classic and contemporary texts by analyzing the games they play and applying their discoveries to the “real” world. What rules do we live by in our everyday lives? In what ways do we perform belief and how does it help maintain cultural cohesion? When are we inside or outside the magic circle, and what happens when we cross that border? What happens if we don’t play by the rules?

Interdisciplinarity, writing, culture, values. Trying not to use too many buzzwords, I worked hard to underscore the academic legitimacy of the course without making it sound too theoretical or inaccessible for first-year students. The proposal goes on to detail other course topics -- such as technology and games, and games as art -- as well as possible writing assignments and section activities, including games. Although I expect the course to be fun, exciting, and perhaps even entertaining for both the students and me, I avoided saying so.

The study of games has a relatively short history in academia and it’s easy to understand why. In popular culture, the defining characteristic of games is that they are fun; we use words like “ritual” for games that serve a purpose other than entertainment. On the other hand, film, which has been bestowed a greater academic legitimacy, can elicit a variety of emotional and intellectual responses. We play games because they are fun; we watch films for many reasons, only one of which is to have fun. Moreover, films exhibit their historical and cultural contexts in a more accessible and obvious manner. Games are just as much cultural artifacts as movies, but we have little experience analyzing them for their cultural meaning. (This is much less true of video and computer games than board games.)

Most of us, even dedicated hobby gamers such as myself, play games primarily because we enjoy them, and I don’t mean to devalue entertainment as a reason for playing games. I do think, however, that the game community as a whole may not be fully aware of the potential of games to go far beyond the fun factor to become a medium recognized as being as complex, nuanced and multivalent as film. We’ve seen enough strategy games over the years (or “Eurogames”) to spot trends and discern patterns, and decode the meanings behind them. I’m not saying we should all become academics, but that perhaps it’s time to make use of the huge amount of accumulated knowledge and experience in the game community and use it to further the cause of understanding how the world works.

It’s true I though teaching a college course about games would be just about the coolest thing I could imagine (apart from, say, being invited to the Gathering of Friends). But I wouldn’t have pursued teaching it if I didn’t truly believe that games have a lot of offer as objects of study, a framework for examining culture, and a method of teaching. I can't say how grateful I am to have this opportunity, and maybe that's why I feel obligated to share it with the gaming community. This is an invitation for all of us to think more deeply about what we love.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Why a Course About Games?

During a phone call with my mom last fall, I mentioned that I would be teaching a course about games at the university where I work. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey, Mom, the proposal I submitted for a new course was accepted. I’m going to be teaching it in the spring.
Mom: Oh, really? What it is about?
Me: Games.
Mom: Games? (A moment of silence most likely indicating confusion.) People don’t go to college to study games.
Me: Everything is worth studying, Mom.
Mom: What are you going to teach them? How to win? Can’t they learn that on their own?
Me: We’re going to look at what games we play, how we play them and what that says about our culture.
Mom: Well, I’m sure your students’ parents didn’t send them to college to play games. Games are just something you do in your free time.
Me: It’s a legitimate topic for scholarly research. (Getting a little impatient.) Aren’t you going to say “congratulations”?
Mom: Congratulations. (Pause.) But ... games?

At that point, it seemed best to change the subject. My mom studied business administration in college and my dad was a grocer. My brother and I often wonder how such a no-nonsense pragmatic couple could have produced such wildly impractical children. My brother is a music professor and concert pianist, and I am a former journalist who switched careers and became a conceptual artist.

It isn’t just my mom who has questioned my game class proposal. At a social event last year, a high-level administrator in charge of undergraduate education asked me what I was planning to cover in my course. He was friendly, but I thought I heard a note of skepticism in his voice. Caught off guard, I rattled off a list of some of the topics I had spent the summer researching, punctuated by a lot of uh’s and um’s. He frowned and thought a moment, then said, “I’m curious. How exactly do you define a game?” My mind went blank – not just a little foggy, but completely, utterly blank. (Usually this happens when I walk into a library without my notebook: Suddenly a curtain is drawn and my brain no longer has access to all the names and titles I want to look up. Funny how that happens.) Somehow I managed to say that there is little agreement on what a game is, and that I planned to devote at least an entire lecture to the subject. My response earned a “humpf” and the note rang just a bit louder.

Those two conversations remind me what a long road it has been convincing myself that my obsession could be more than just a hobby, that the hours I have been spending playing games, reading about games, and listening to podcasts about games have not been a waste of time. Countless times I have invoked “I’m doing research,” a convenient and flexible excuse used by many an artist and academic, to justify spending an entire evening perusing or flying across the country attend a board game convention. This rationalization actually began long before there were any prospects for me teaching a course about games. My parents must have transmitted some of their pragmatism to me (they would strongly argue this point) for I truly believe that if I am spending so much time focused on something, it must be for more a reason greater than enjoyment. I must be preparing for something, even if I don’t yet know what that something is.

In art school, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, I took courses in play theory and game design. I’ll talk about those experiences in a future post, but those classes convinced me that games rightfully deserved a place in my both my academic and artistic lives. Eventually, I made a series of video-based artworks built around a game-inspired structure. (Again, I’ll talk more about that in a future post.) The success of those pieces demonstrated that I could build a body of work around certain aspects of games. I’m not interested in game design itself, which I’ll leave to the pros. I am, however, drawn to the social aspects of gaming, as well as issues related to play boundaries, representation, and narrative. Games can bring to my artwork social interaction, the excitement of competition, and tropes that can be reinterpreted and otherwise played with in innumerable ways.

As games have brought a new dimension to my artwork, the study of games will be an entirely new, entirely different approach to the teaching of my program’s central concepts. Not only will they provide the subject matter, being the lens through which the students will examine culture, the games themselves will be the method of teaching. How cool is that?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Uncorking the Genie

Welcome! This blog will be focusing on a new lecture course about games I will be teaching at the University of California at San Diego this spring. I created this blog at the request of some of the readers of who expressed interest in learning what exactly I will be covering in the course’s 30 lectures. Facing a mountain of books, games, films, articles, and notes, and watching the days count down, I’m eager to find that out myself.

Having fantasized for years about teaching a course like this, when the genie finally popped out of the bottle and granted my wish, I found myself overwhelmed by the possibilities. In my first brainstorming session, potential topics came pouring out: the definition of a game, the history of games, cross-cultural studies of games, play theory, game theory, boundaries of play, emergent play, narrative, the structure of games, the social aspects of gaming, cheating, competition, strategy, chance, technology and games, games and education, game design, gamer culture, the semiotics of games, and on and on. Clearly, I need to narrow things down, especially if I expect to fit in the various activities I’ve been thinking about.

My class will fit into a required series of courses (yes, required) designed to give first-year students an introduction to the humanities, so it doesn't make sense to teach this subject from the perspective of one academic discipline. Instead, students will get a mix of cultural studies, performance studies, art, sociology, anthropology, and history, with a wee bit of critical theory thrown in to confuse them. The point is to demonstrate to the students how anything, even something as “frivolous” as games, can be studied as a cultural artifact and subject to rigorous critical analysis.

If it sounds like I’m puncturing a hole in gaming and letting the fun drain out, be assured that I’m determined to make this an enjoyable, thought-provoking course for the students. In lecture, we will play large-scale games and have competitions such as quiz shows -- whatever I can devise for 300 students. I’m also hoping to create a persistent mystery or puzzle-oriented game that will last throughout the quarter. In section, the teaching assistants will conduct sessions of Werewolf and other social games. There will be the usual writing assignments, but students also will get the opportunity to invent game-like structures that model some aspect of their realities (I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask them to invent a whole game). They will be asked to identify cultural meanings embedded in existing games and to change those meanings by modifying them. And they will be asked to analyze the games they play, whether they be team sports, board games, a video games, or MMORPGs.

I’m making this all public because I view this class as an extension of the real-world and online gaming communities to which I belong. I know I’m not in this alone. I’m eager to hear your feedback, suggestions and criticisms. I want to know what you would talk about if you were the lecturer, and what you would interest you if you were a student. Please feel free to comment!

Next post: How this all happened.