This past January, I taught a week-long January term course entitled “Winners Don’t Smash Buttons: A Video Game Practicum.” This blog post is a summary of what happened over the course of the week; if you’d like a more detailed, day-by-day version of what happened, visit gaming.thecritical.is. If you’re interested in reading a digital essay on the experience, the course website (gaming.5colldh.org) explores issues of death, reincarnation, play, and so much more. Course syllabus is available here.
Given all the snow and subzero temperatures we’ve had in the last month alone, it’s hard to remember that January was actually an okay month–that workshops happened, and courses were taught. Since we’ve been inundated with white (snow), I thought it appropriate to bring some black (text) to our lives by recapping the January term course I taught over at Amherst College. The course, entitled “Winners Don’t Smash Buttons: A Video Game Practicum,” was developed as a way to explore two ideas: first, that video gaming is a skill that can be, if not taught, learned. And second, that video games, like all media, is a heavily coded text with societal biases and norms.
The course was broken down across general themes, further refined and shaped by readings, videos, and digital games, all meant to help guide the discussion and the way the students engaged with the interface as a skill-building device and a man-made device. (Skill-building related to the first goal of the course, man-made related to the second.) Most of the students who attended the course were undergraduates from Smith and Amherst (with one Mount Holyoke student); a pleasant surprise was staff from Hampshire College.
The theme of the first day was “Play ± Games”. Many of the students had played games before, though they oftentimes qualified their admissions with a sort of guilty look. Statements like “I’ve played Mario Kart, but no real games” or “I’ve never played any digital games. The closest I’ve come is 2048” were common when the students introduced themselves. On the flipped, there were other students who professed to familiarity with many types of gaming systems and game genres, who felt “comfortable” about their skills when gaming.
In order to mitigate the differences between students, the first day was spent familiarizing students–particularly the students who had little to no experience with console based gaming–with the the Playstation 4, via the game LittleBigPlanet 2. The result: a gaming experience that, as one student put it, “firmly places the viewer outside of the game. I wasn’t immersed in quite the way I expected.” Describing the experience of playing the game (in the dark, nonetheless) another student confessed that she was “hyper-aware of the controller and the system because I knew what I wanted but the controller wasn’t doing what I wanted.” She then corrected herself: “Or rather, I couldn’t get the controller to do what I wanted. Because I didn’t know what the buttons signified, what they did, so couldn’t make myself do the right thing at the right time.”
As the students continued to play, they continued to bring up issues of embodiment: what happens when the gamer tries to control the character through the controller? What happens when the character “fails” to do what the gamer wants? Furthermore, they began to engage with the intersection of playing, games, and immersion.
Day two tackled race and representation through the backdrop of Grand Theft Auto: V. Given the historical moment and the then-recent #BlackLivesMatter protests in the Pioneer Valley, the students (of whom only one was of color) were particularly subdued. Our discussion of the space, place and times that we live in helped to articulate the ways in which digital games carry forth these same biases and presumptions; as someone put it: “we carry with us the world we live.” In other words, engaging with a game like GTA:V became impossible to do, without simultaneously engaging with our own reaffirmations of, places within, and resistance to the social structures such a game reflects.
While discussing gender and sexuality in video games, we used Dragon Age: Inquisition, an open-world, fantasy-adventure game in which players are given near complete control over the creation of their character. Everything, from voice to scars, can be customized by the player. My class chose to create a human, female Inquisitor, and although we didn’t get a chance to actually engage in any romantic narratives with other characters, the students nonetheless were quick to point out the disproportionate number of women in the game. “It’s like all you’re seeing are women in this world,” one student commented.
“But is it that there are way more women than men, or is it that it feels like there’re more women than men because we’re not accustomed to seeing so many women represented in the media?” another student quickly followed up with.
The last day of the course, we discussed failure–the one thing that is the same across all genres, platforms, length, and rating when it comes to video games. To kick things off, we looked at merritt kopas’ LIM, before following up with The Last of Us, an action-adventure game that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. After having played all the other games on the easiest level, we dared to try this one on “hard.” The result? We only died 24 times. Not bad.
The final day meant as a chance for students to reflect on the week, the discussions we had, and also on the fact that, while they were on their way to having the language to be able to talk about and critically engagement with digital games as a medium and text, that it was okay to get something personal and/or emotional from the games they play. Whether that be an escape from daily life, a rush of adrenaline as you try to escape from zombies in an underground crypt, or a moment to cry, its okay to consume games for the reasons we do. As long as we know when to step back from ourselves for a moment and breathe.