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Knowing the Past: Game Education Needs Game History

I gave a lecture yesterday with Jesper Juul and Clara Fernandez-Vara called “Knowing the Past: Game Education Needs Game History.” It was part of the Game Education Summit at GDC and Frank Cifaldi wrote a nice discussion of a couple of the key themes for Gamasutra.

We put our slides together on Jesper’s computer, so I don’t have them all, but here are mine with my presenter’s notes (what I actually said varied, of course).

The nice thing about teaching game history now is that we’re very close to agreeing on the list of essential games, from around the world, that students need to master in an introductory game class

Okay, not so much. How many of you have taken an “introduction to literature” class? You probably remember that the class was not a march through “the essential works of literature” the world has produced. Similarly, introduction to film courses are not a march through “the essential works of film” the world has produced. We need to give up on the idea of identifying the key games that students need to know. We can’t cover even the most minimal list in an introductory class, even if we could agree on how to make it. Our introductory classes should be about method and approach, not about becoming familiar with some list of material. And to teach such classes we need a different approach to game history than focusing on highly-influential games or systems.

One essential viewpoint is “diachronic” — changing through time. Types of gameplay, like other media styles and genres, influence each other over time. Tracing this is a way of practicing historical method, and getting into the specifics helps undermine the fetish of “first” (notice Jesper’s family tree of matching tile games has two top nodes). Tracing this is also a way of understanding the process of game design and innovation. Designers play other games, respond to them, and borrow from multiple traditions. Games are also part of wider culture. The favorite games of particular communities, historically, produce genre literacies and take on affective charge. Other games build on this much more effectively than, say, movies.

Another essential viewpoint is “synchronic” — in a particular slice of time. That slice doesn’t have to be a particular year or a particular decade. For example, it can be the time during which the 2600 was a popular platform or text adventures were a dominant genre. Synchronic viewpoints help us narrow in on design spaces, to understand the technical and artistic creativity that went into responses to them, and see how they are situated in history and culture. A synchronic view helps us see how amazing it was to take a machine made for Combat and use it to create Pitfall, as well as the economic and cultural forces that gave rise to ET. Understanding this can provide a new perspective on today’s game design spaces. For example, if Dance Central is Combat for the Kinect, what might be the path to Pitfall …. And what might be the path to ET?

Setup does work for you — seminar and lecture classes know about readings. Notice I don’t have to describe these assignments to you. Must set parameters, since students can’t finish Tetris, don’t need collaborators for most readings, etc. Must ensure legal access to all games, for all students, and give student timing flexibility.

Clara will say more about access strategies, including some used in this model. I worked with campus IT to install games, including ones that required being compiled in weird ways and purchased off the shelf, in general purpose labs. Some games could not be purchased in any legal way. I contacted rightsholders and got permission for some games. For example, Activision gave permission to install old Infocom games in the lab. Some games could not be installed in the lab — a disk was required. So I worked with my department’s existing equipment checkout to provide disks for students to check out. Some historical games were available commercially, so I just had students buy them from the bookstore, like they would any other readings.

Can you spot why I love the UC Santa Cruz library? It’s this: the sign says “Instruction Room, Gaming Lab, Reference Staff.” Game research is totally integrated into the library. Whitehead initiated ambitious work with library. Dedicated game playing room in library with historical systems always set up. Lending catalog of about 700 games and game systems. Just added what is probably the first-ever games-dedicated, library-lent iPad. A library research room and collection makes it easy for students to act like historians, but you can encourage the behavior without either, doing research online, etc.

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