This summer I’ve been knees-deep teaching an intensive course on race in video games. I’ve taught games plenty of times before as part of classes on digital cultures and/or new media, but this is my first shot at all-games-all-the-time. One of my main tenants for students is that we don’t just talk about video games, we play them. Interactivity is, for obvious reasons, crucial when it comes to understanding games. I want the class to experience that together.
Playing games as a group sounded great on paper, but the reality has been challenging. Most classrooms and/or university media labs don’t have the resources to support access to expensive mainstream titles. Meanwhile the balance between long play-through times and busy teaching schedules makes pedagogical decisions tough. A new 80+-hour game has just come out; it seems right on target. How long do I need to play it before I responsibly present it to the class?
I’m also learning the importance of setting ground rules that make the classroom a safe space for all students to feel comfortable playing. For me, it’s crucial that the group doesn’t replicate the dynamics of sexism and one-upmanship so ingrained in gamer culture. This is especially important, and especially tricky, because any given bunch of undergraduates will likely include players with considerably different levels of experience and considerably different social backgrounds.
Here are the ground rules I’ve learned to set before the group plays a game together (students take timed turns on one-player games):
1. Watch carefully and think critically even when you’re not playing.
2. Never tell another player what to do or offer “help” unless they directly ask.
3. Be patient with yourself and others.
4. Don’t skip cut scenes or text boxes. Do feel free to explore.
And here’s one more ground rule I wish I’d set at the very beginning of the semester:
5. This is a class about viewing media critically. It is not about performing extensive outside gamer knowledge. References are fine, but our focus is the material at hand.
These ground rules help promote inclusivity by taking the wind out of competition and pressure. They encourage the group to watch with intellectual engagement and mutual support. Most of all, they make it clear that those who “do well” at the games we play or can list off obscure game facts are valued no more and no less than those who are still learning their way around the medium. We are experiencing video games, and experiencing them together.