In Fall, 2020, Dr. Duncan will be offering a new advanced course on game studies entitled “Critical Game Studies,” offered at both the 4000-level for undergraduates as well as section for Masters students at the 7000-level. For undergraduates, this course follows on themes begun in MDST3704: Games and Play, providing students further opportunity to delve into advanced topics of interest in game studies. For graduate students, the course provides an opportunity for advanced students interested in media to assess and engage with the history of “game studies.”

Please note: This is not an introductory course in game studies (please see MDST3704 for that course). Instead, this is an advanced game studies course, and students are presumed to have had significant experience with game studies as an academic field, or be an advanced (graduate-level) media studies student or graduate student in an allied field.

In both courses, we will approach the topic through a cultural studies perspective, engaging with interdisciplinary investigations of game industries/game design, and gaming communities. Given the switch by UVA to online teaching in Spring, Summer, and Fall 2020, we now have an interesting opportunity to rethink and consider how online gaming in particular has been affected by the worldwide response to COVID-19. Thus, these courses will have a new, special focus on online games — massively-multiplayer online games, collaborative and competitive online games, esports, and similar gaming spaces. As part of participation the course, all students will be expected to play multiple online games as well as regularly inhabit online gaming communities — online play will be central to the course, and several games (costing a total of less than US$100) will serve as the only course texts that students will need to purchase (all other course texts are available as free e-texts for UVA students or as PDF selections).

A bit more on this: This course meets entirely online, with a majority of the course being held asynchronously over Collab, Zoom, and Discord, and only a small degree of synchronous instruction (which will take place on Zoom and in games). As such, online games will be both our through-line in terms of the media we focus on in this class (and an important focus for understanding the history of game studies), but will also be the course’s instructional spaces — classes will be held within online gaming spaces, and assessments in this class will be tied to participation (not performance) in these spaces.

Being a “gamer” is by no means a prerequisite for this course in several directions. First, there is no expectation that students will have had previous experience with these specific games; many of these games are older virtual worlds, and will be new to students. Second, students who self-identify as a “gamer” but are unfamiliar with academic study of games and media will find themselves at a large disadvantage — it is not sufficient to “like games” for success in this course. All students will be required to use these games regularly, immerse themselves in the online communities of play within them, and will need to have the technical capabilities to regularly play them, but these media are presented here for critical engagement.

The list of games/online platforms students will need to use includes:

  • World of Warcraft Classic — The “classic” (and cheaper) version of the world’s most prominent massively-multiplayer online game. Currently $15/month; students will be required to keep a subscription for the entire term. Required of all students.
  • Minecraft — Mojang’s (then Microsoft’s) recombinatorial, exploratory game. Currently $26.95 for Java (PC/Mac) edition. Required of all students.
  • Second Life — Less of a game than a virtual world/social network, Second Life provides us with interesting questions around game economies, the presentation of self in virtual spaces, and the ways virtual worlds have been used to market everything from political campaigns to news organizations to universities. Free, requires Mac/PC.
  • Discord — There will be a course Discord (voice and text chat community) for this class, providing students with opportunities to continue the class discussions outside of class, as well as coordinate play sessions. Free, available on PC/Mac, as well as mobile devices. Required of all students.

Other, optional spaces that will be topics of discussion include:

  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons — The cute animal island simulation game that took self-quarantined homes by storm, featuring the third-largest release of any Nintendo game, ever. Currently $60 for Nintendo Switch. Optional game, not required of any students.
  • Other web-based virtual worlds — Club Penguin, Runescape, and other spaces of this sort will also be engaged with by students in the class. Free, and will require access to a web browser.

The topics of the course will, to some extent, follow student interests in advanced topics in game studies, and focus on the evolution of student research into online games (e.g., online ethnographic fieldwork, and the construction of a semester-long research paper). All students will be responsible for independent research on topics of their interest, with our readings/discussions focusing on several potential themes across our investigations of online gaming, including:

  • metagaming” — the evolving perspective encompassing that what we have typically called “games” might be more productively considered as platforms for complex social, cultural, and economic practices
  • spectatorship — considering the rise of game streaming (Twitch, Mixer, YouTube), performance in online environments, and its significant subcultural, economic, and industrial impacts
  • the “culture wars” — considering games as one important “canary in the coal mine” for the rise of the alt-right and other attempts to challenge movements to create diverse and inclusive spaces around media.

These topics cut a wide swath beyond games and into other areas of media studies research. Please note that the emphasis here will be on specific trends in game studies research, and so previous experience with game studies in some fashion is strongly recommended. That said, we will not focus on textual analysis of games, on debating games’ nature as systems vs. narrative platforms, nor other historically-significant but long-in-the-tooth discussions in game studies. Building off of earlier research in game studies (and the study of virtual worlds), students will try to “connect the dots” between the historically-dominant emphases in game studies and the current state of game studies, which privileges research that attempts to capture player experience and player agency.

Assessment will consist of both written research papers as well as assessments tied to the play of games in sophisticated and contextualized manners (an ongoing “Gaming Journal” assignment). In these, students will be asked reflect on the spaces we virtually embody over the term. Additionally, student progress on semester-long term papers will be regularly tracked through smaller, milestone assignments. Graduate students will have higher expectations regarding the size and complexity of their term papers, as well as additional requirements related to the introduction of and consideration of course readings (e.g., creating a video presentation on a book-length critical game studies text).

All students who enroll in this course will need to be prepared for the complex mixture of academic discussion, gameplay, engagement in gaming communities, and game design. Experience with game studies is strongly preferred, and students who are unfamiliar with game studies as an academic field may need to do additional “catch-up” work to get the most out of this course. Students who would like more information about the course expectations should email Dr. Duncan at his first name dot his last name [at] virginia period edu.