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.