Tomb Raider character Lara Croft

Theory and Play: an Introduction to Video Game Studies

Instructor: Joseph Earl Thomas
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

As the highest grossing consumer product in the world, how should we understand video games: as substitutes for frustrated social existence, as methods for knowing and thinking, as machines for feeling, as models and visions of 21st century life—or as something else altogether? In 2007, game designer Clint Hocking coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” in a blog post critiquing the critically acclaimed and popular video game, Bioshock. For Hocking, there is a “powerful dissonance between what it [Bioshock] is about as a game, and what it is about as a story”—that is, between the game’s narrative-philosophical critique of libertarian ideology and the practical gameplay constraints that compel the player to act selfishly. Ludonarrative dissonance has since become a buzzword in both academic and popular discourses, shedding light both on the broad cultural purchase of video games as well as the growing sense of disjuncture between narratives of progress and hope and the precarious reality of living and surviving (in an increasingly gamified fashion) in the social world we inhabit. But, why should video games exhibit a harmony between play and narrative in the first place? Or are games principally affective systems? Are these and other analytic approaches to games complimentary? How can we begin to understand this still new and yet far-reaching media form?

In this course, we will join a host of contemporary thinkers as we examine what video games are and what they do, how they differ from other media, and why they’ve come to play such a central, though sometimes shadowy, role in individual and cultural life. Understanding video games as a composite of pre-existing cultural forms, we will use analytic tools from critical race theory, black studies, queer theory, and media studies, among other forms, as we ask: What is the relationship between games and the forms of art which precede them? And how might our critiques of the social world look and feel differently as games become the dominant mode of aesthetic experience? As this course is interested in both what we do with games as well as what they do to us, we will be playing Jonathan Blow’s Braid and reading Jamil Jan Kochai’s “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” which structures textual narrative as gaming experience within late-stage global capitalism. We will read from works by Eve Sedgwick, Patrick Jagoda, Aubrey Anable, Jodi Byrd, Roland Barthes, Tyrone Palmer, and more, and consider a wide array of popular and indie video games, including Final Fantasy, Hades, Super Mario Bros., Devil May Cry, Bioshock, and more.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
January 29 — February 19, 2024
4 weeks


Registration Open

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