MDST3704: Games and Play
Spring, 2022

Semester Topic: Analog Games

Games and play surround us. Whether as hobbies, entertainment, instructional tools, or as simply as frameworks for looking at everyday life, games and play are fascinating lenses by which we can understand popular media through culture, politics, and social movements. In this course, students will begin to learn about the evolution of the field of “game studies” while also questioning what we think we know about “play.”

This course will be taught face to face in Spring, 2021. However, we will still heavily use a course Discord and occasionally use Zoom for the replacement of class meetings (and occasional out-of-class meetings). Students will use the Discord for discussion of course readings, coordination of gameplay with other students, and collaboration on group projects.

Students will play games in the course and learn how to interrogate their own play, their own positions as players, as well as formally analyzing games. As part of the course, students will regularly read and then implement prescriptive game design concepts, in order to understand both how games are made as well as discourses of design. In the last section of the course, students will engage in small analysis projects, leveraging what they’ve learned about games so far in order to understand and interpret games of students’ choosing.

While much of the field of game studies has been built on research on digital games, this semester we are taking a different emphasis. This section of Games & Play will focus almost entirely on non-digital/analog games of various forms — board games, card games, role-playing games, larps, even covering escape rooms and the design of theme parks. A selection of board games, card games, role-playing games, and other gaming experiences will be put on reserve for students to access in Wilson Hall, and students will be encouraged to hold regular (but optional!) out-of-class game play sessions, either face-to-face or over Zoom.

There will be many opportunities for students to play and learn about the design of these games, and there will be virtually no discussion of digital (console, phone, computer) games. I repeat: This course will not focus on video games! Additionally, traditional athletic sports will not be an emphasis in this course. Students who are primarily interested in a course like this for the opportunity to discuss video games and/or sports will be very unhappy in this section of MDST3704 and should not register for the course.

Even though it seems to be a smaller subset of the things we call “games,” the realm of non-digital/analog games is quite large and has a much longer history than digital games. We will, to varying degrees, discuss topics ranging from: Chess and the gendered development of the Chess Queen in medieval Europe; the forms of identity play and collaborative world-building that take place in a Dungeons & Dragons game; the forms of competitive “sports” activity found in games such as Magic: The Gathering; immersive puzzle design in escape rooms; how to “read” colonialist and Orientalist context in board games such as Catan; gender and the malleability of rules in childrens’ playground games such as Four Square; board and card games as sites of media adaptation and transmedia storytelling (Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Doctor Who, etc.); fandom, fan expansions, fan modifications, and fan-managed futures for non-digital games.

Some of the course readings we may engage with (in whole or excerpted) include:

Students who have little game play or game design experience are welcome in the course, as are students who are interested in the design of games. This course attempts to cover research on games and play that can be beneficial for students who are interested in understanding games — in this case, non-digital games — as media as well as for those who are interested in game design. All students will gain experience critiquing these media as well as designing these media.

Here is the Fall, 2020 course syllabus — please note, the new emphasis on non-digital/analog games will mean there will be big differences in the kinds of discussions and kinds of media engaged with, but this should give an idea of what the course typically covers and how it runs. As with this syllabus, the upcoming course will require students to: (1) play and write a great deal about non-digital games; (2) gain some experience designing and iterating the design of a non-digital game.

If you have any questions about this or any other course (or anything else on this website), please don’t hesitate to email Dr. Duncan at his first name dot his last name [at] virginia.edu.