What we call a videogame is not a product. It's the creation of an author and her accomplice, the player; it is handmade by the former and personally distributed to the latter. The videogame is a zine. -- Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters
HELLO! This is a course about making indie games. It's also about demystifying technologies and understanding videogames as arguments about power, systems, and social relations. I will not assume you're a gamer, that you want to be a gamer, that you've ever made an indie game, or that you know how to develop, program, or design games. But I will encourage you to craft an argument about culture through your own game prototype. In short, we're going to use games to talk about what games do, can do, or should do. Looking forward to it!
Week 1: PLAY + INDIE GAMES
What if some games, and the more general concept of "play," not only provide outlets for entertainment but also function as means for creative expression, as instruments for conceptual thinking, or as tools to help examine or work through social issues? -- Mary Flanagan, Critical Play
FOR YOUR MANUAL: This semester, you'll gradually develop a manual for your own game, which you'll prototype. (Details here.) For your first contribution to that manual, mind answering two questions? First, what's an indie game? Second, what's play? For each definition, just use a sentence or two. No worries if your pithy definitions aren't that original. "Game" and "play" have been defined and redefined for centuries now. It's a mess, really. Aside from addressing these two questions, you might also consider subscribing to Steam, if you don't already. Maybe install the Unity web player, too? More important, please carefully review the entire course outline. You might want to play some of the games now, take notes on the topics we're covering, ask me any questions you have, and start brainstorming what sort of game you want to prototype. As the semester proceeds, I'll recommend specific readings depending on the trajectories of your work; however, it would be wonderful if you could play most, if not all (!!!), of the games in the course outline.
RELATED: merritt kopas, forest ambassador; Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters; Mary Flanagan, Critical Play and "Critical Play" (TED talk); Amanda Phillips, "Gaming the System"; Bingham Center Zine Collections, "A Brief History of Zines"; Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens; Zimmerman, "Manifesto for a Ludic Century"
PLAY: Molleindustria, Game Definitions
Week 2: AUTHORS + PLAYERS
To take play seriously is also to take the risk in play seriously. Whether playing a video game or writing a personal essay or giving a public speech, the sense of safety, the space of safety, must be a contact zone . . . -- Edmond Y. Chang, "Gaming as Writing"
FOR YOUR MANUAL: Using whatever medium you prefer, sketch at least three characters (i.e., entities that act) for a game you want to prototype. For at least three of those sketches, please also provide brief character descriptions (50-100 words) that account for questions such as: What do your characters do? What don't they do? Are they player characters? Non-player characters? Are they human or non-human? How are they embodied? Under what assumptions? How do they interface with norms and expectations? How are they seen and heard? How do they communicate? Through what language? With what audiences and actions in mind? Are they based on people, places, or things that you know well? Are they based on existing games or fictions? During class on Friday the 16th, you'll circulate these sketches and get some feedback from others (including me). Then you'll gradually revise your characters based on that feedback. P.S.: You might find it refreshing to sketch a bunch of characters but only describe three of them. After all, I'm only asking for three character descriptions.
RELATED: Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark, A Game Design Vocabulary; Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play (especially pages 28-105); Tracy Fullerton, Game Design Workshop; Nick Yee, "A Model of Player Motivations"; Greg Costikyan, "I Have No Words and I Must Design"; Eric Zimmerman, "Jerked around by the Magic Circle"; Mattie Brice, "Death of the Player" and "Moving On"
Week 3: MECHANICS + VALUES
And more broadly, we need to ask whether or not games truly empower players to understand the systems they purport to describe. -- merritt kopas, "What Are Games Good For?"
FOR YOUR MANUAL: Create some basic relationships between the characters you sketched last week. Write executable rules for these relationships. Make sure these rules could be written in binary, with corresponding keystrokes. Consider expressing your rules as subject-verb-object or if-then. You might find this exercise liberating or frustrating. Or both. Now, in 100 or so words (drawing upon material, including games, from the course outline), write about how these rules might ultimately correspond with or enact a social/cultural issue, which you could of course change later. That is, either implicitly or explicitly, what could your game be about, and for whom are you making it? Additionally, in 100 or so more words (drawing once again from the course outline), write about what the "feel" of the game might be. Artsy? Activisty? Escapist? Fantastical? Realist? Abstract? Subtle? Forward? Short? Long? Simple? Elaborate? Snobby? Poppy? To be sure, this stuff will morph down the line, but it doesn't hurt to start thinking through it all. And, with other students in the class, you'll workshop your rules + relationships during class on Friday the 23rd.
RELATED: merritt kopas, "What Are Games Good For?"; Julian Stallabras, "Just Gaming"; Mia Consalvo, "It's a Queer World After All"; Elizabeth LaPensée, "Why Cultural Collaboration Matters"; Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett, "Hypermasculinity and Dickwolves: The Contentious Role of Women in the New Gaming Public"; Adrienne Shaw, "On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience"; Feminist Frequency, including Anita Sarkeesian's "Ms. Male Character" and Jonathan McIntosh's "25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male"; Elizabeth Losh, "#GamerGate 101"; Helen W. Kennedy, "Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo?"
Week 4: PERSUASION + PROCEDURE
We must take seriously the vulnerability that comes with communications---not so that we simply condemn or accept all vulnerability without question but so that we might work together to create vulnerable systems with which we can live. -- Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Control and Freedom
FOR YOUR MANUAL: You've sketched some characters and written some rules. Now sketch more characters (if you wish) and/or revise existing characters through new/edited sketches (if you wish). Please also make the characters' jobs in your prototype more concrete. You could do this in a number of ways: create profiles, write short biographies, provide sample interactions, or the like. Whatever your approach, in your manual just be sure to share all your characters, together with the actions for each. This way, you have a character + rule inventory of sorts. Please also describe or label how your characters relate. For instance, are their relationships premised on deceit, opportunity, love, power, verbal communication, body language, telepathy, envy, exploitation, sharing, capital, dependency, chance, distance, intimacy . . .? This description could also be expressed in a number of ways: through an "interaction map," simple sentences, tags, symbols, or some graphical representation. Your choice. Finally, please answer each of the following questions using about 100 total words (drawing upon material, including games, from the course outline): what kind of game (e.g., puzzle, first-person, platformer) are you anticipating here? 2D or 3D? To what games would you compare it? How many players are you considering (one, two, multi)? How will those players interact with your game (e.g., through what mechanics and controllers)? And do you think you'll build your game from scratch or mod an existing one? We'll start unpacking these questions as a class in February. For now, I'm just floating them by you. Again, I only need about 100 words total. Keep your responses to the questions brief, and get in touch with any questions or concerns.
RELATED: Paolo Pedercini, "Designing Games to Understand Complexity"; Alexander Galloway, Gaming (especially "Gamic Action, Four Moments") and "Protocol"; Ian Bogost, "Persuasive Games: The Proceduralist Style," How to Do Things with Videogames, and Persuasive Games; Maddy Myers, "Bad Dads Vs. Hyper Mode"
PLAY: Lucas Pope, Papers, Please; Tarn Adams and Zach Adams, Dwarf Fortress; Admiral Jota, Lost Pig; Emily Short, Bee; Mordechai Buckman and Kyler Kelly, Gamer Mom; Lana Polansky, Hey, Free Cheesecake
Week 5: ENGINES + INTERFACES
Games are activities, and activities are best understood when carried out. Playing games is therefore essential when we want to understand games and how they work in practice. -- Kristine Jørgensen, Gameworld Interfaces
FOR YOUR MANUAL: This week, we'll start moving from game prototyping in general to videogame prototyping in particular. In preparation, please review these game-making tools to determine what might be best for you. Try a few of them, if you have the time, interest, and patience. Some involve programming; some do not. Some are free; some are not. Some are genre-specific; some are general purpose. Some are cross-platform, but many are only for Windows. Aside from these options, you could also consider authoring your game in, say, Python or Processing, especially if you're modding something. Or you might look at super-handy options such as The Open Game Art Bundle. I'm happy to help you here. And once you pick the best tool for prototyping your game, please write roughly 100 words about what the tool does and how, together with a rationale for why you selected it. In your rationale, please draw upon material, including games, in the course outline. In that rationale, feel free to provide sketches or screengrabs of the tool you selected. Please also keep in mind that I'm very open about how you proceed with your prototype. For instance, it does not have to be 100% digital or entirely screen-based. It simply has to involve some computational elements, which make it (if only in part) a videogame. Persuasive games don't need to be technical or flashy. P.S.: As you think about mechanics and engines, consider whether you want to collaborate with others in the class. Perhaps a shared engine or mechanic could be used for several different videogames?
RELATED: Brenda Brathwaite (aka Brenda Romero), "How I Dumped Electricity and Learned to Love Design"; James Newman, Best Before; the Platform Studies series from MIT Press; Alexander Galloway, The Interface Effect; Raiford Guins, Game After; Kristine Jørgensen, Gameworld Interfaces; Laura Ermi and Frans Mäyrä, "Player-Centred Game Design: Experiences in Using Scenario Study to Inform Mobile Game Design"; Mia Consalvo and Nathan Dutton, "Game Analysis: Developing a Methodological Toolkit for the Qualitative Study of Games"
SOMETHING'S DUE: Please note that I will collect your manuals on Friday the 6th (end of class). At this point, your manual should contain definitions of "indie game" and "play," some character sketches and descriptions (at least three), some rules for your game prototype, a character inventory (i.e., characters + their actions), some descriptions of how your characters relate (or an interaction map), a statement on what technology you'll be using to prototype your videogame, a play log, and---finally---some thoughts on the kind of game you're prototyping, at least one social/cultural issue it's addressing, and some words on the overall "feel" of your game. Remember: your manual should clearly (even if casually) engage some games from the course outline as well as some research in game studies (including "related" material in the outline).
Week 6: ELEVATOR SEQUENCE
You're between levels. Take a break. (Jentery at the University of South Carolina)
Week 7: MOODS + SIMULATIONS
I see glimmers of a medium that is capacious and broadly expressive, a medium capable of capturing both the hairbreadth movements of individual human consciousness and the colossal crosscurrents of global society. -- Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck
Also note that Lisa Nakamura's Lansdowne lecture is Friday at 12:30pm in David Strong C116.
FOR YOUR MANUAL: Thus far, the course has been largely about the mechanics, kinesthetics, technologies, and cultures of indie gaming. Now it's time to focus a bit on aesthetics and history. Use about 100 words (drawing upon material, including games, from the course outline) to address the following three questions about your prototype: what's its overall mood and ambiance? What (if anything) is it simulating? And how (if at all) is it drawing from history or historical materials? Together with these 100 words, compose a scene for your prototype using whatever is appropriate: paper and pencil, audio, Photoshop, photography, Python, video . . . As you do this work, think about your prototype as a fully functioning videogame: how it will sound, how it will feel, what its palette might be, and how people might engage it (e.g., point-and-click, text fields, gesture). In many ways, you're starting to build a world. But keep the world small or simple for now. You only need one scene, and you may only need one aspect of that scene (e.g., only visuals, only sound).
RELATED: Marie-Laure Ryan, "Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory"; Matt Barton, "How’s the Weather: Simulating Weather in Virtual Environments"; Zach Whalen, "Play Along: An Approach to Videogame Music"; Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre; Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck; Patrick Crogan, Gameplay Mode; Matthew Kirschenbaum, "Contests for Meaning: Playing King Philip’s War in the Twenty-First Century"; Play the Past
PLAY: Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad, The Cat and the Coup; Robert Yang, Intimate, Infinite; Molleindustria, To Build a Better Mousetrap; Amanita Design, Botanicula and Machinarium; Jonathan Kittaka, Secrets Agent
Week 8: LEVELING + PACING
Interactivity: it can make a story powerful in new ways, but it's not a guarantee of fun. -- Emily Short, "The Path and Story Pacing"
FOR YOUR MANUAL: At this point in the course, you should be rather confident in the prototyping technologies you are using for your game. This week, please document where you are with the videogame aspect of your prototype. Add at least three screengrabs or photographs of it to your manual. Also, in 100 or so words (drawing upon material, including games, from the course outline), please address the following questions: how would you describe the relationship between time and space in your prototype (e.g., continuous, discontinuous, realistic, dependent)? How are time and space valued (e.g., through quantification, as territories, through exploration, as challenges, through chance)? Finally, how would you describe the relationships between characters and their environments, or between characters and their scenes (e.g., the environment as background, agent, character, or invisible feature)? These are big questions, but feel free to approach them descriptively through your prototype, which you'll continue to develop during class on Wednesday and Friday.
RELATED: Patrick Jagoda, "Fabulously Procedural: Braid, Historical Processing, and the Videogame Sensorium"; Emily Short, "The Path and Story Pacing"; Mark Davies, "Examining Game Pace: How Single-Player Levels Tick"
Week 9: NARRATIVE + VISION
[G]aming makes montage more and more superfluous. The montage technique, perfected by the cinema, has diminished greatly in the aesthetic shift into the medium of gaming. -- Alexander Galloway, Gaming
FOR YOUR MANUAL: This week, all you need to do is provide at least three more screengrabs or photographs of your videogame prototype. These images show how your prototype has changed during the last week or so. Although you don't need to respond to the following questions in writing, you might want to think through them: what are the narrative dimensions of your game? Is it non-linear? Abstract? Realist? Autobiographical? Does it depend on the player's geolocation? In short, what's the story? Or is there even a story? On Wednesday and Friday, you'll have a chance to circulate your prototype in its current state and get feedback from others (including me).
Week 10: MODS + BENDS + CHEATS
As a broader practice, hardware hacking enables a creative form of gameplay that does not necessarily follow the routine interactions intended by game companies. As such, circuit bending sparks a critique of ideology and engages in gameplay at its most operational level, without any false sense of transparency or immediacy. -- Nina Belojevic, "Circuit Bending Videogame Consoles as a Form of Applied Media Studies"
FOR YOUR MANUAL: On Friday, you'll be modding someone else's videogame prototype, and they will be modding yours. In 100 or so words (drawing upon material, including games, in the course outline), please describe what you learned from how your prototype was modded. In 100 or so more words (again, drawing upon the course outline), please also describe how, under what assumptions, and to what effects you modded someone else's prototype. As you mod and respond to modding, you might return to our ongoing conversations about values, systems, power, and mechanics (among other things). Please also let me know what questions or concerns you have before, during, or after this week of mods, bends, and cheats.
RELATED: Nina Belojevic, "Circuit Bending Videogame Consoles as a Form of Applied Media Studies"; Cory Arcangel, Super Mario Clouds; Mod DB; Mia Consalvo, Cheating; Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon, "Self-Saving Princess: Feminism and Post-Play Narrative Modding"; Shawn Graham, "Rolling Your Own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals"; Austin Walker, "Real Human Beings: Shadow of Mordor, Watch Dogs and the New NPC"; Rosa Menkman, The Glitch Moment(um)
Week 11: LABOUR + SURVEILLANCE
Gold farmers are reviled player-workers whose positions in the gamic economy resembles that of other immigrant groups who cross national borders in order to work, but unlike other types of "migrant" workers, their labors are offshore, and thus invisible---they are "virtual migrants." --- Lisa Nakamura, "Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game"
FOR YOUR MANUAL: At this point in the course, you should be refining your prototype. When in doubt, focus it instead of expanding it, keeping in mind that it's really a proof of concept about what your game could (or will) ultimately be. Make what you already have convincing instead of stretching beyond the time and materials at hand. Also, in your manual, please provide at least three more screengrabs or photographs of your videogame prototype. With it, please include 100 or so words detailing how playing your game could be considered an emotional, intellectual, sensual, casual, or embodied form of labour. Please also mention how and by whom this labour could be quantified, tracked, and shared. Speaking of labour: you're almost there! I'm looking forward to seeing what you've made this semester. Thanks for your work.
RELATED: Lisa Nakamura, "Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft"; Alex Rivera, Sleep Dealer; Aubrey Anable, "Casual Games, Time Management, and the Work of Affect"; Ian Bogost, "Persuasive Games: Exploitationware"; Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire
PLAY: Molleindustria, Unmanned and Every Day the Same Dream; Nicky Case, Nothing to Hide (also see the GitHub repo for this game); Richard Hofmeier, Cart Life; Vince de Vera, Jason Garner, and Klei, Don't Starve
Week 12: NETWORKS + DISTRIBUTION
As relations are central in the network, the outcome of participation depends on the nature of the relations in the process. -- Karin Hansson, "A Micro-Democratic Perspective on Crowd-Work"
FOR YOUR MANUAL: If you haven't already thought about how you will (or could) distribute your game, then this week's the week. In 100 or so words (drawing upon material, including games, from the course outline), explain how others could find your game. Also address the following: would you allow others to mod your game? How would you license it? How would you (if at all) follow it once it's in the wild? How much (if anything) would it cost? And how would you (if at all) get feedback on it? During class on Wednesday and Friday, you'll also have opportunities to demo your prototype prior to next week's formal presentations.
RELATED: Mikael Jakobsson, "The Achievement Machine: Understanding Xbox 360 Achievements in Gaming Practices"; T.L. Taylor, Play Between Worlds; Karin Hansson, The Affect Machine
PLAY/WATCH: "Twitch Plays Pokemon"
SOMETHING'S DUE: Please note that I will collect your manuals on Friday the 27th (end of class). At this point, your manual should contain all the things: all of your responses to every instance of "FOR YOUR MANUAL" above. While assessing your manual this time around, I will be looking for the following from you: description of the mood and ambiance of your game (~100 words, from Week 7), a draft scene for your game (from Week 7), notes from the building a scene workshop (Week 7), notes from your building space and time presentation (Week 8), description of the relationships between time and space in your prototype (~100 words, with three screengrabs, from Week 8), notes from the prototype review workshop (three screengrabs, Week 9), notes from the modding workshop (~200 words, Week 10), notes from the prototype critique (Week 11), description of the relationship between your prototype and labour (~100 words, with three screengrabs, Week 11), description of how you will or could distribute your game (~100 words), and any notes and process documentation from the second half of the semester. Remember: your manual should clearly engage some games from the course outline as well as research in game studies (including "related" material in the outline). Prior to submission, let me know what questions or concerns you have.
Week 13: INDIEINDIECADE
Anyone can make a game if you make them try. -- Amanda Phillips, "Gaming the System"
SOMETHING'S DUE: Your final prototype is due on the 1st. You will present it during class on the 31st or 1st.
FOR YOUR PROTOTYPE: Your final prototype should have a videogame component, which accepts and processes input from players. While it may be built using whatever software you prefer, it should demonstrate how, with more time, labour, and materials, it could ultimately become a game. It should also clearly correspond with the entries and iterations you contributed to your game manual throughout the semester. It should demonstrate your awareness of key issues in the course material, and (at least implicitly) it should engage some debates, research, and ideas articulated in related readings and games. The files for the prototype may be published online or delivered directly to me. Since you may choose what sort of game you are prototyping, I will leave its duration up to you. But I recommend submitting a prototype that would engage most players for at least five minutes. Here, engagement may be defined through reading time, player input, narrative time, exploration, replay, challenges, and processing time, among others. As agreed upon during class meetings, I will use the following categories to assess your prototypes: design, culture, theme, procedure, and audience. Design: how compelling are the audio, visuals, characters, feel, pacing, transitions, or overall aesthetic? Culture: how compelling are the engagements with history, social justice, assumptions, norms, affect, power, systems, or matters of representation? Theme: how well is the prototype tied together through narrative, challenges, characters, atmosphere, mood, politics, or history? Procedure: how compelling are the mechanics, rules, play, experience, or reflexivity? Audience: how aware is the prototype of players, accomplices, accessibility, potential interactions, place/situation, or the general desire for fun, challenge, or play? If you have any questions about these categories, then please let me know. Also, please consult the assessment page for details about how marks will be assigned. Thank you!
FOR YOUR PRESENTATION: Your final presentation should blend a description of your game, a reflection on its development, and a demonstration of some sort. It should be between 6.5- and 7-minutes-long. During the presentations, we will use my computer for data projection. So that I can prepare, you should send all materials for your presentation to me, by email, by 5pm on Monday, March 30th (regardless of whether you're presenting on Tuesday or Wednesday). As you present, consider accounting for the five categories through which your prototype is being assessed: design, culture, theme, procedure, and audience. Also consider giving your audience an intricate sense of how your game has emerged over time. Underscore process and change. Also be sure to highlight how your design decisions were influenced by course material and related games/readings. As for the demonstration, feel free to demo it on your own, invite others to play it live, or . . . Most important: have fun with this. Feel free to combine something creative or experimental with a formal/prepared presentation. When your presentation is complete, your audience (including your 350 peers and me) should know why you made the prototype you made, through what mechanisms, and with what aims in mind. That said, be sure to prepare and rehearse.
Exams Period: README
SOMETHING'S DUE: Your final manual is due April 14th, by 4pm. You can submit it to me in my office (CLE D334). If I am not in my office, then you can submit it via my English Department mailbox (CLE C343).
FOR YOUR FINAL MANUAL: Your final manual should assume the form of a tactile medium, to be held and read in hand. While your final prototype (see above, Week 13) represents what your game could become (with more time, labour, and materials), your final manual should be made as if the game is complete and in circulation. This way, I will get a sense of where your prototype is going and under what assumptions. The manual can be designed using whatever approaches you prefer (e.g., drawing, Photoshop, MS Paint, photography, Word, typewriter), through whatever tactile media you want to use. However, it should persuasively combine instruction and reference with a coherent or meaningful aesthetic, perhaps informed by history (e.g., other game manuals, zines, book arts). At a minimum, its content should address your prototype's characters, mechanics, and atmosphere. You should also consider including a credits section (for attribution). If you want to run an idea by me, then feel free.
I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Anna Anthropy, Ed Chang, Mary Flanagan, Tracy Fullerton, Patrick Jagoda, merritt kopas, Paolo Pedercini, and Amanda Phillips, whose inspiring approaches to teaching and making games have especially influenced the construction of this syllabus.