Writing the Casual Games Syllabus

(or, “I don’t know how to skim a game.”)

Here’s my question: What is the ideal list of 16 games that, if you played them, would give you a picture of all that is possible in gaming? Oh, yeah, and they have to be fast, quick-to-learn, and mostly free (hence the “casual” in the title).

I’ll be teaching a course next Fall at the University of Michigan entitled “Play and Technology.” It’s an advanced seminar that surveys the social science and humanities literature on the idea of “play,” then applies that literature to computer-mediated communication, video games, and other kinds of what we’ll call “playful technologies.” It requires both a midterm and a final project that each require students to craft a conceptual design for a playful technology.  Hopefully we’ll learn something about people and something about designing play experiences.

If you’re still curious, here is a printable flyer for the course (PDF).

In the past I’ve taught a similar course. A serious problem with it has been that people come to the topic of play and new media from such a wide variety of practical perspectives. Since it is an elective, usually everyone who enrolls likes games or play or technology — likely all three. And people like particular games A LOT. But… everyone’s a fanatic about a different thing.

So student #1 will let loose in a class discussion with what is probably a brilliant analysis of Aristotle’s Poetics as applied to Escape from Rungistan which he/she plays religiously every evening on an Apple II emulator.  But after they’ve finished speaking, since no one else in the class has ever played Escape from Rungistan (or heard of it)* there is an awkward silence.

Escape From Rungistan Screenshot

Escape From Rungistan, c. 1982


(*Okay actually that’s not 100% true.  I’ve played Escape from Rungistan.)

Then after a long pause, Student #2 will try to explain Piaget using an example from Farm TownFarm Town is the game that FarmVille ripped off, by the way. So no one else — maybe no one else in this state — has ever played it except for student #2.*  But student #2 knows every nuance. Every vegetable.  And student #2 wants to get down and dirty in the details. Student #2 is talking about growing Chamomile vs. Quinoa and their implications for the ontological trajectory of developmental psychology, which is totally a level 112 kind of debate. Since no one else has any idea what he/she is talking about, there is an awkward silence.

Farm Town Screenshot

Farm Town, c. 2009


(*Okay actually that’s not 100% true.  I’ve played Farm Town.)

So what’s the solution? In the past I’ve asked students to try a specific game that we all play together.  It has often been a recognizable game (e.g., once, a long time ago, we played a version of Quake). That’s useful but it really does an injustice to the great diversity of kinds of play that are possible. We get stuck in one play mode (FPS, in this case). It also feels unfair because many students are already experts in any given mainstream title, and I find the novices resent it.

What students seem to need is a variety of ideas that they can use to template their own projects, not an in-depth, semester-long study of a mainstream title. And many mainstream games are LONG. I once required that an undergraduate class play Civilization IV. I thought it would be great (bestselling, award-winning game, right?), but a lot of students absolutely hated the fact that it was so involved.

One student summed it up by saying: “If you assign a game instead of a reading, I don’t know how to skim a game.” It takes hours and hours of work to get anything out of Civ IV. Come to think of it, it takes hours and hours of work to finish a single game of Civ IV.

So here is my challenge to you, dear reader. I have sixteen weeks in the semester. Let’s say we assign a game a week. For the reasons specified above these games would have to be short (“casual”) or at least you should be able to get the idea in the first level (or in a demo). Honestly I think these games should ideally be obscure so that everyone starts on the same page. The set of games as a whole, as befits a syllabus, would emphasize the diversity of different kinds of games that are possible.

Being required to do something can completely drain the fun out for some people. So this isn’t supposed to be a list of super fun games, since as soon as I require them I will drain the fun out (at least for some students). Instead, each game should have something unique to say about the art and science of game design. Each should have something to say about human behavior. If the game isn’t particularly fun (hello, Ian Bogost’s brilliant Cow Clicker), so what? It’s required. It’s important. There’s something to learn from it. We can have a productive conversation about it.  This is not a “T0p 16 Cazual Games EVAR!!!1!!1!!” blog post.

The games would have to be free or cheap. Just as I try to keep assigned textbook costs down, I want to keep assigned game costs down. I would feel OK if a few weeks of the class required a game purchase — we can set the game up in a computer lab for those unwilling or unable to pay. But a console title per week? Impossible. That’s a $700 textbook budget for one class.

I have some key dimensions in mind that it would be great to explore with this list: e.g., social vs. not social, narrative vs. non-narrative, violent vs. non-violent, historical vs. contemporary, etc.  But I think rather than giving you an exhaustive list I’d rather hear what you are thinking and adapt this to my own purposes.

However, to get things started here is a draft of what I am thinking about. What are the areas that I’ve left off?  What are the games that are better exemplars in their category — however you define their category?

Example Syllabus (DRAFT)

  1. Passage. A free art game that defies simple explanation and takes just 5 minutes to play.
  2. World of Tanks.  Quick online team combat with strangers. Likely they’ll be some weird lobby talk (“Hetzer gonna Hetz!”). A standout in the freemium realm, it would helps people experience an FPS-like game even if you suck at shooting and running around — just pick a slow tank.
  3. Escape From Rungistan. (You saw that coming, right?) The text/graphics split screen adventure game has died out. Playing it via an emulator would be an interesting way to comment on history, genre, and technological limitations of a platform. Not a particularly fast game but we can play just the first few screens and get an idea of things.
  4. SpaceChem. We have to have a puzzle game, and I think it would be interesting to put in one game that is just terribly and intentionally hard for most people. It’s a great game but it’s an interesting design choice to make a game that most players will never be able to finish. Also there’s a free demo.
  5. (or 4.5?) Lego Junkbot. Another ingenious puzzler. Could be paired with SpaceChem so that there is a simple puzzle alternative to SpaceChem’s insanity. However I can’t find Lego Junkbot online anymore. Is it dead?
  6. Diner Dash. Classic. Quick to play and you get to experience the real time management genre.  I see that I’m on a bit of an Eric Zimmerman theme now but that’s only because he is brilliant. It looks like you can play it for free with a trial subscription.
  7. (or 6.5?) Atom Zombie Smasher. Also a real time management game but quite a different take on things. And so much style! It has a free demo, at least on Steam.
  8. Façade. Fast to play, free — and great way to talk about narrative. Can be paired with an article talking about the game.
  9. (or 8.5?) Thirty Flights of Loving. Oooh, this could be assigned along with Façade. Another interesting take on narrative. Another art-y, indie blast of freshness. Now I’m on a Brendon Chung roll here. But I may have to repeat some game designers due to their absolute brilliance. 
  10. Electro City. Simple and obscure city simulator that has a green power agenda. Free online, quick to learn, quick to play, and speaks to G4C and simulations.  Not a great game though — maybe there is something better?
  11. Some sort of children’s game that is supposed to teach you something? My gaming repertoire is too antiquated to know what to put here.  Lemonade Stand anyone? Not sure.
  12. Something from GWAP (Games With a Purpose)… maybe The ESP Game — a free online multiplayer anonymous guessing game that serves the strict master of human computation.
  13. Some kind of game of chance or gambling.  Hard to think of one that would be unfamiliar and not illegal, but this is such a big domain of human play it seems important to include.
  14. Some kind of multiplayer game with really simple rules that leads to very complex gameplay, so that we can talk about how to write rulesSiSSYFiGHT 2000 would be perfect if it is finished in time. But that would be my third Zimmerman.
  15. Habbo Hotel or another social environment without much gameplay per se. Hopefully class members will not be arrested as stalkers.
  16. Maybe another classic game included because it was historically significant in the development of games?  Hard to think of one right now.  A kind of “this was the first game to do X” kind of game. Not sure.  You can see I’m running out of ideas at #16!

I pledge to you that the most useful response submitted will receive a prize of my choosing, entirely at my discretion. I will actually mail it to you. It will be a physical object. You are welcome to submit a thought, an idea, a criticism, a single game, or an entire syllabus.

If you’d like, please include your suggestions as a comment to this post. Or if you’d prefer to do this privately, email me at casual-games@umich.edu.  Let the syllabus writing begin!

This is a cross-post from Multicast.

10 thoughts on “Writing the Casual Games Syllabus

  1. Pingback: multicast » Blog Archive » Writing the Casual Games Syllabus

  2. Christian Sandvig

    Mia Consalvo kindly shared this list:

    Week 1: Space Invaders; Pac Man; Asteroids

    Week 2: Aardwolf MUD or The Dreamhold

    Week 3: Ultima IV

    Week 4: Dungelot; Drawn: The Painted Tower

    Week 5: Runescape

    Week 6: Farmville 2; Every Day the Same Dream

    Week 7: A Closed World, The Sims

    Week 8: The McDonald’s Game, Disaffected, Layoff

    Week 9: Maple Story, Second Life, Rift, World of Warcraft, or EVE Online

    Week 10: Angry Birds, Unmanned, Dys4ia

    (Looks like they have 10-week semesters in Canada!)

    1. If only! There were just a few weeks in the semester when no games were due, as students had other assignments that precluded playing those weeks.

    1. Christian Sandvig

      I’ve never seen PONGS before. It’s weird, it feels like it was designed to be played just after reading the classic article: Malone, T. W. (1981). Toward a Theory of Intrinsically Motivating Instruction. Cognitive Science, 4, 333-369. (Which I plan to assign.) The article deconstructs Pong into parts.

  3. These are all available for free.

    In no particular order…

    1. Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier): I always mention this game when people want to talk about what games are capable of. The game’s system creates empathy through working class tedium. Would spawn interesting conversations about the place of banality and the mundane in game design.

    2. Kompendium (Michael Brough): Two-player games are underrepresented in conversations about games, and Kompendium is an entire album of two-player games that can be played for free on any PC with two people sharing a keyboard. Brough has some great writings on two-player games as well, including “A two-player game is a tool for paying attention to someone and expressing yourself to them.” http://mightyvision.blogspot.com/2013/02/two-player-games.html

    3.Run (Christopher Whitman): Nice jumping off point for discussions of how games have developed an intertextual language and how they can use that to create meaning.

    4. Art Game (Pippin Barr): A fresh take on the tired old “Wat is GAME and R gamez ART?” debate. Also takes advantage of videogame intertexts. This game is so interesting because it comes off as simultaneously satirical and completely earnest. Here’s the best thing I’ve read about it: http://brindlebrothers.blogspot.com/2013/04/quizzical-play-2-optimising-for-beauty.html.

    5. Dys4ia (Anna Anthropy): Again, deftly takes advantage of a common language that has developed in games. Would inspire conversations about gender and autobiography in games.

    6. Bee (Emily Short): Accessible entry point into discussions of hypertext, which I think can’t be ignored if we’re talking about ‘playful technologies.’ The writing is great, and the story tracks variables. The protagonist is training for a spelling bee, and the game tracks how adept she is at spelling, as well as other stuff like relationships with peers and family.

    7. Flight to Freedom (Mission US): An edutainment game of sorts about slavery in the American South. It doesn’t attempt to deal in broad strokes; its approach is more personal. The game attempts to communicate what it feels like to exist under a poisonous, oppressive system. I don’t know that it comes close to achieving this–it’s sort of like an interactive history book with a fictional character attached, but Flight raises interesting questions about the limitations of interactive media: Can games portray victimization without trivializing the victims? Does the portrayal of a historical atrocity as an obstacle that can be overcome trivialize that atrocity? Even if it does, is it equally insensitive to portray an atrocity as insurmountable?

    8. Dwarf Fortress (Zach and Tarn Adams): This thing is neither short, nor accessible, but I think it just can’t be ignored. It’s a miracle of design–exhaustive, sprawling, mind-numbing simulation. It’s like the eighth wonder of the world. Two guys work on it pretty much full time and live off of players’ donations. It’s really opaque, of course, but there are a ton of Lets Plays and some fairly sophisticated player-authored narratives that would make having a conversation about the game easier than playing it.

    9. You Were Hallucinating the Whole Time (Darius Kazemi): A funny browser game that I’m pretty sure is directly critiquing Spec Ops: The Line. The game is really short, but the conversation around Spec Ops is divisive and interesting; I don’t think it would be necessary for students to play Spec Ops to enter that conversation, and this browser game would be a great entry point.

    10. Conversations with My Mother (Merritt Kopas): An autobiographical hyptertext that incorporates social media in really interesting ways. A tweet is a kind of artifact in this context.

    11. Don’t Take it Personally, Babe (Christine Love): A longish story-game that has a lot to say about sexuality, privacy and the internet and does really interesting things with interface.

    12. Epic Sax Game (Pippin Barr): Funny and frustrating, which is typical of Barr’s work. Sax Game takes a meme and turns it into a game. What’s interesting is the way the primary mechanic is transported to different levels of ‘reality’. Potential discussions of YouTube, metanarratives, viral media, etc.

    13. Lim (Merritt Kopas): Communicates what it’s like to have to navigate a hostile, oppressive environment with incredibly jarring feedback. Opportunities for discussions of gender and passing.

    14. CLOP (Bennett Foddy): Great for a laugh and conversations about ‘realistic’ physics in games.

    15. Unmanned (Molleindustria): A browser game about drone strikes. Good entry point for depictions of warfare in modern games. The way death is portrayed in Unmanned is really eery and distant and cold, which makes its message more effective and keeps it from coming across as preachy.

    16. McDonald’s Game (Molleindustria): Would be complimented well with this piece on ‘political games’: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/02/mcdonalds-sim-and-september-12-what-does-it-mean-videogame-be-political, especially this quote from Ian Bogost: “The McDonald’s game is a good example. It’s very anti-corporation, but a lot of students play it and say, ‘wow, I really empathise with the CEOs of multinational companies now – they have such hard jobs!”

    I like your inclusion of Facade just because it’s so weird. That game is a good example of the creepiness that ensues when games try to allow for a ton of different narrative outcomes. Passage is a go-to example of ‘art game’, but IMO it has become kind of passé since there are so many more interesting things happening in games now. Best of luck with the class!

    1. Oh and just to clarify, I meant the game, Façade, is weird—–not your decision to include it on the draft syllabus. I think it’s a good idea to talk about that game in a class—potentially some really interesting conversations there!

  4. Games I would recommend as being highly playable and not excessively expensive examples of different kinds of games – tower defence games like Field Runners or Kingdom Rush on the iPad, evocative arthouse games that are experiential – like Proteus on the Steam platform – open sandbox games like Minecraft etc.

    Having said all of this, I don’t honestly know if you can do a course on games without going near World of Warcraft at the moment. It’s such an elephant in the room. Maybe set up a couple of computer and get people to level a character up to level 10 or something…?

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