Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Setting Out My Stall

Hi. My name is Rik, I'm a lecturer in philosophy, and I'm part of a project within my university to launch a course in video game studies. To that end, I'd like to ask for some feedback on our plans and their potential pitfalls.

Above all else, and the reason I'm doing this so early in the process, I want to create a course which doesn’t contribute further to the marginalisation of anyone. Since we're talking entrenched British academia on my end, that's a big ask. What I want is to teach a course that works against the gamergate mentality, the mainstream, product-oriented, privileging focus of so much of the cultural space given over to games. Here's our very tentative plan so far:

The project, for now at least, is happening within our School of the Arts, which comprises Philosophy (my department), Architecture, English, Music and Communication Studies. We hope to have collaboration from Computer Science eventually, and possibly also Psychology and Sociology, but for now this is specifically an Arts project (not necessarily a fine arts project).

Our initial offering is not intended to be a full degree in its own right – we're going to offer a minor and a 50% course. The minor will be cross-taught between the various departments, and the idea is to round it out to 50% with subject-specific modules. So, for example, the music department already has a practical 'sound design for video games' module in the works (they're a bit ahead of the curve because their head of department is our project leader).

Things are still at a very early stage with the specifics, so all of what follows is subject to change (and open to debate), but the first thing we've got to do is plan out the four modules we'll need to offer at the start of the program (which we're aiming to roll out in September 2016). Currently, those modules are:

'Histories, Cultures and Contexts' – this was my pitch, my aim being to cover both the development of 'video games' and of the study of games and gaming. Fundamentally, what I want to do with this is bring out the relationships between digital games and all the other forms of art they draw on – to challenge the exceptionalism that has motivated at least some recent commentary on the form (he said, eyes pointed firmly to one side).

'Gaming Genres' – which I'm a bit wary of, since it's a short hop from classification to prescription, but I know that a critical look at genre within film studies can be helpful, so there should be at least some use here. I don't know of much established work in this field, though, besides what's covered in this Extra Credits video, so any suggestions are welcome.

'Creative Principles in Game Design' – we don't want to create a course that is purely theoretical. I think this module is intended to take some of the theoretical material from the first two and look at how to use it in practice. I imagine this will primarily be the domain of music and architecture (who are already talking about what 3D modelling software to use), but there may be some room to cover themes like decentralising the player.

'Analysing Games' – this is to be a module in close readings. We haven't had any discussion yet of what games to look at, though it was suggested that we're looking for about 4. I'd welcome suggestions, obviously, but I'm also interested in what sort of balance of games would be appropriate – we're likely to have to look at at least a couple of AAA games, but I'd really like to push some less mainstream stuff as well.

That's what we're planning to develop, and there are specific pitfalls in at least some of those fields. There are also some general pitfalls. First and most problematically, the entire core team at the moment is white and male (though our Head of School is a woman, and we are reaching out to a couple of our female colleagues about possible contributions). Over the long term, I hope we can address this with some proactive recruiting, but we have no money for hiring at the moment (I'm not even sure if I'll be employed past June yet).

Student recruitment with diversity in mind is an equally difficult challenge. Access to higher education is contracting severely in the UK, and the institutional average is pretty terrible, but even matching the institutional average for such a male-coded field will take deliberate, careful effort.

The other big issue I worry about is how to relate what we're doing to established games academia. We have to cover that set of models and theories, and do so critically, but I know there are some sensitive egos in that part of the world and academic disputes can get pretty ugly (hence Sayre's law).

As I said above, this is all primarily concerned with teaching content rather than research. I'm aware that there's a problem of academics adopting and then claiming credit for ideas originally developed outside the academy, and I will try to oppose this, but any kind of centrally-organised research within our project is further down the line.

I hope I'm not asking you to do my work for me. As a relative newcomer, it's my responsibility to study the field of gaming scrupulously, and particularly when it comes to altgames and marginalised groups I'm aware of the problem of privileged, ignorant folks demanding to be taught. Any feedback you are willing to offer, though, is extremely welcome as a guide and check-rein. Comments are open below (I'll be moderating heavily, at least if it proves necessary), or you can poke me on Twitter for email contact.

A little bit about me, for background: my philosophical specialisms are idealism and the metaphysics of space, and I also teach logic. Besides gaming, I write occasional fantasy novels and I'm a musician (a thorough google search will probably turn up my rather lacklustre recorded efforts, but I'm not going to make it easy for you).

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