I’m really excited to launch my spring course at Occidental College next week, as it represents a series of firsts: my first opportunity to teach within Oxy’s Media Studies department, the department’s first course offering in gaming and play, and the first gaming course I’ve taught that has an extensive design project attached to it. If you’d like to learn more about the course, ArtM 348 Topics in Digital Culture: Games, Play, and ARGs, you can download the syllabus, or visit our course blog (which will begin to be populated in the coming weeks with play journals and other posts, the bulk of the game design update will begin appearing in late March).
I taught two iterations of an Introduction to Video Game Studies course at UC Santa Cruz in 2010 and 2011, but both of these courses were limited by departmental context (hence an emphasis on representations of games, both fictional narratives and video documentation of live gameplay), resources (I had to rely on students’ gaming systems and library resources, so a “lab” component was out), and my own position as a commuting lecturer, which meant I wasn’t in a space to radically reinvent the aforementioned issues.
In the same way that players use “This is not a game” or “TINAG” as shorthand to differentiate between the experiential play of ARGs and other game genres, I feel compelled to preface the description below by noting that “TINAC”…or, rather, this is not just a class. This course, in part, is designed as an exercise in collective intelligence in the classroom. Occidental College is beginning to think about what a campus-wide pervasive game to develop digital media fluencies might look like, and this course is one of the first steps in that process. Thus, students will be designing a pervasive game both as an exercise in applying and exhibiting mastery of course concepts (as they would in any media studies course), but they will also be bringing their experiences as Oxy students, their spatial understanding of the campus and surrounding neighborhood, and knowledge about their peer’s use of mobile technologies, to bear on the design process.
Because TINAC (or not just a class), I’m also grappling with being not just the instructor, a role I’m exceedingly comfortable with. The course’s intensive game design/praxis component means that I will be wear the respective hats of Professor, Puppet Master, and Project Manager simultaneously once we move into the design unit. As a professor, we never enjoy it when our students hand in assignments late, but as the de facto Project Manager, who knows that missed deadlines might have a horrific domino effect on the design project as a whole, I need to think through more structured modes of tracking assignments. Do I use Basecamp? Our CMS, Moodle, because they’ll be familiar with it? Do I model the sort of agency players experience in ARGs and let the students collectively take ownership over these decisions? Where will what they create ultimately “live,” and how do we archive experience? These sorts of internal questions and debates have been invigorating, not just because they’re different from the normal minutiae of finalizing syllabi, but because they’re helping me re-think what it means to teach (digital) media studies. Based on my own research interests in participatory culture, I have long embraced the benefits of a more participatory pedagogical model, but this project will realize (and potentially complicate) these values in ways I can’t yet predict.
Though the “three P’s” here evoke a certain amount of authority or control, we all know that in ARGs, the players are anything but “puppets,” and shape the gameplay to a large degree. They aren’t “servants” to the game or their puppet “masters.” Likewise, students in this class are still students (they still need to complete work that will be graded), they will have unprecedented agency to shape the course, and its outcomes. The also have an opportunity to shape the pervasive game that Occidental ultimately develops. My position as a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoc has only made me more committed to using these moments to open up conversations about collaborative labor and credit on large scale, or iterative, digital projects, and this course will afford an interesting opportunity to raise these concerns with students.
You’ll be able to follow along via our course blog over the coming months, and I encourage you to weigh in on the students’ narrative design ideas, engagement strategies, and artifacts as they emerge. I’m especially interested to hear from those who have designed similar project-based game design courses, or participated in these courses on what’s worked and and hasn’t.