MDST3510 – Fall, 2021 | Meets MoWe 2:00pm – 3:15pm

Have you ever wondered how and why people play games? How games convey meaning? How people make sense of characters, stories, and actions in games? How fan cultures around games provide contexts for players to make meaning of their play?

While many of us are familiar with games as players and sometimes as designers, there is a burgeoning field of researchers who study games, the play of games, and the communities around them. In this course, we will focus on the research that comprises game studies, with an emphasis on understanding the different methods that have been used to investigate these media. We’ll look at games, play, and the fandom around games from a number of perspectives, giving you small hands-on experiences with research in this field, building toward a research proposal on a topic of your interest.

At least in part, we will be using the above — free! — textbook, Game Research Methods, edited by Petri Lankoski and Staffan Björk to help frame the range of methods used in “games research.” In the Lankoski and Björk book, they identify five different kinds of game research methods — qualitative studies of games themselves, qualitative studies of playing and players, quantitative studies of games and play, mixed methods (qualitative and quantitative studies intertwined) approaches, and then experimental game design itself as a method. We will initially survey all of these approaches.


By the middle of the term, we will focus on qualitative research methods, looking in particular at player research. How and why do people play games? In what contexts? For what reasons? How do we understand their explanations of their own play? How does the play of games reflect their engagement with gaming culture with race, gender, class, dis/ability, sexual orientation, and gender identity? How do we look at games and play as sites of cultural contestation? We will look at “player research” from particular social, cultural, and political lenses.

Students will be invited to take a “deep dive” into qualitative research methods for understanding games and game play, developing their own research proposals that rely on qualitative research methods. These may involve: interviews, focus groups, ethnographic field methods, online ethnography, and Discourse analysis, among others. Some texts which may be excerpted or read in whole include:

The approaches students will take will address player research — proposing new research that can help us to study how and why players engage with games. While interest in these media is a plus, there is no expectation that a student have any experience with either games research or any research methods before this course. By the end of the semester, all students will identify a research question related to games that they’d like to apply one or more qualitative methods toward, and will be tasked with creating a brief, directed research proposal on their chosen topic.

This course is a seminar, with student discussion and active participation in the face-to-face and online components of the course serving as the primary activity. Students who are unprepared or uninterested in seminar discussion should not register for the course. Also, assessment for the course will be in the form of multiple written papers — no examinations will be given, including no Final Exam. Finally, we are assuming we’ll be meeting face to face in the fall, but this course will have a required online component, which will likely take the form of the occasional Zoom call replacement for a class session and the use of a course Discord to foster out-of-class discussion.

The course is designed to fulfill the MDST major requirement for Media Research, and so all Media Studies students who successfully complete the course will receive credit toward this major requirement. Students who are interested in games, qualitative research, audience/player research, or the study of computational media are also welcome!

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Dr. Duncan at sean [dot] duncan [at] virginia [dot] edu.