[-empyre-] Teaching Serious Games continued...

Joseph Delappe delappe at unr.edu
Fri Mar 15 11:16:15 EST 2013

To continue addressing Claudia's question.

It is interesting that students are so into the non-technical sides of
videogames. I was wondering (Soraya and Joseph and anyone else teaching
gaming classes) what your focus is in class. What games do you pick for
discussion? How do you decide? are they all industry games and/or artistic
interventions? and if the latter also what are the reactions of students to
these projects?

My Critical Play class involves a balance of studio making games and game related art, readings, discussions, screenings and looking at "serious games".  We pretty much avoid looking at commercial titles, although these do come up in discussions and for certain in critiques "this reminds me of…" kind of thing.  We've been doing selected readings from the book "Videogames and Art" (Mitchell/Clarke) and "Critical Play" (Flanagan", among others.

To dovetail off my last answer, we go from making Machinima's to actually making games.  We are using Gamesalad just now, last time I offered the class we used Gamemaker. To begin, I assigned the students to play as many titles as possible on the Games For Change website.  The students are then required to develop a "serious games" concept for a simple, multi-level game addressing an social, political or other concept for a game that exists for a purpose other than distraction or pure entertainment (although they could definitely create a "serious game" that addresses "distraction" or "pure-entertainment").  This is the second year of teaching this project.  What is most difficult seems to be that when you ask an undergraduate student to come up with such a concept - asking them specifically "what do you care about?", many seem unable to even begin to answer such a question.

This assignment produces some amazing and not so amazing results.  Two weeks ago we looked at their initial concepts, these ran from very strong to "meh".  For example, one student, whose brother is severely physically disabled, is creating a game where you must play being a disabled person, to communicate simple words, one must stretch one's fingers over the keyboard to create sentences.  Or the student proposing to create a game entirely of words - good words and bad words - one's choices takes one towards further positivity or negativity.  Another is proposing to create a soldier's passage through the Iraq war back into civilian life.  A pair of students are creating a game that will seek to represent what life might be like if "Roe vs. Wade" is overturned.  Some strong ideas!  On the not so great side would be the student who chose to address welfare - creating a simplistic image of a stick figure going left to right across the screen to catch welfare checks being dropped by Uncle Sam while at the same time avoiding jobs being dropped by the same Uncle Sam (I didn't realize Uncle Sam was handing out jobs!).  A teachable moment for certain.

During this part of the course, we are looking at numerous examples of games made by artists, activists, etc.  These include "September 12th", "Darfur is Dying", etc.  We also look at the amazing work of artist Jason Nelson http://www.secrettechnology.com/, as these are some "serious" art games.  We look at the work of Eddo Stern, Mary Flanagan, Jon Haddock, etc.

Once this project is completed (we have roughly 4-5 weeks of the term dedicated to each project), we will then move into a completely different direction.  Each student chooses a favorite, commercially made gaming avatar - this avatar is then recreated using Pepakura Designer/Papercraft techniques as a cardboard costume - they either extract the avatar data from the game or find a 3D model of the avatar online to translate to a wearable cardboard outfit.  The idea here being to literally become the avatar in question - once these avatar costumes are complete, we then stage a cardboard battle/performance just outside the art building.  This is an adaptation of "Boxwars" http://www.boxwars.net/ but with a gaming bent.  This project allows for discussions of fan culture, cosplay, creating art from game content and the literal moving of gaming assets into real life.  It is also a whole lot of fun!

This Critical Play class will become part of a new curriculum I am proposing to replace my program in "Digital Media".  The program will be called "Art, Technology and Social Practice" which will incorporate aspects of computer gaming, performance art, art in public places, art and activism, etc.  I am really excited in terms of thinking how to continue to adapt "serious games" meld into this new program.

Generally the students react well to this course.  One of the first classes I taught incorporating gaming was an intermediate level course where we focused for the entire semester to create a short Machinima work based on E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops".  This proved to be a very challenging course as the ability of students to remain enthused about such an intensive project developed over 4 months proved a challenge.  The results are a mixed bag as you see here.  As with so many educators, I've learned to tailor my project assignments to the short attention spans of my students.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85PrUavc2Ys

I'd be curious to hear how others have worked to address "serious games" in their curriculum (I do so wish we could come up with another term for what we are trying to accomplish here!).

Joseph DeLappe

More information about the empyre mailing list