Game Culture and Design, Summer 2006

Special Topics in New Media: Game Culture and Design
COMM 6910/8790

Course Description

It’s said that “play is the work of children.” It’s how kids master their surroundings, explore the larger world, and experiment with identity, all within safe, structured settings.

But just as learning doesn’t end in childhood, neither does play. And in today’s sped-up, information-saturated world, perhaps taking the time to play is more necessary then ever.

Certainly play has never been bigger business. When I was a kid, computer games were assumed to be juvenile pursuits to be outgrown in adulthood. Today, the computer game industry is roughly the size of the movie industry, and its most lucrative patrons are adults in their 20s and 30s who never stopped playing. Meanwhile, the audience for live and televised competitions – from the Super Bowl to Survivor to the World Series of Poker – continues to expand. This summer, billions of viewers will tune in to watch the biggest sporting event on the planet: soccer’s month-long World Cup tournament.

This class has two goals. We’ll begin by examining the culture of sports and games, to understand what makes some games so compelling to so many. Then, we’ll combine theory with practice, and collectively design our own game.

There are three required textbooks for this course:
Ralph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design
Fullerton, Swain and Hoffman, Game Design Workshop (GDW)
Salen and Zimmerman, Rules of Play (ROP)

The books  can be purchased from,, and other online booksellers.

Some required readings will be distributed in a coursepack available at the BestWay copy shop, located on the first floor of One Park Place South. (The entrance is on Decatur Street).

Handouts and Online Readings
Additional required readings will be handed out in class and distributed online via the class listserv.

You will be required to play several computer games for class. All the assigned games will be available for free online.

You will be required to view several televised sports events for class. All events will be available on either a broadcast network or basic cable. Alternate arrangements can be made if you don’t have cable.

Class Schedule

Part 1: Play and Culture

6/13    Introduction

6/15    Sports I
Watch one World Cup match and one baseball game
Read Handout: Clifford Geertz, “Notes on the Balinese
Handout: Pat Kane, from The Play Ethic
Handout: Allen Guttman,“Why Baseball Was Our National Game”
Web: Franklin Foer interview –

6/20    Sports II
Watch one NBA Finals game
Play some form of basketball (full-court, half-court,
one-on-one, pop-a-shot, or any basketball video-game)
Read CP: Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling”
CP: Henry Jenkins III,“WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama”
CP: Allen Guttman, “The Fascination of Football”
Web: Bill Simmons, “Installing the NBA Upgrade” –

6/22    Computer Games
Play Adventure –
Read CP: Nick Montfort, from Twisty Little Passages
CP: Ted Friedman, from Electric Dreams

Part 2: Game Design Workshop

6/27     Fun
Play Kingdom of Loathing –
Read Ralph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design
Workshop 1: Discuss goals.

6/29    Game Design Basics
Play Diner Dash –
Read GDW Part 1
Workshop 2: Brainstorm modules, set teams.

7/4    No Class – Independence Day

7/6    Designing a Game
Play a game demo chosen by the class
Read GDW Part 2
Workshop 3: Team meetings.

7/11    Collaboration
Play a game demo chosen by the class
Read GDW Part 3
Workshop 4: Teams share module plan drafts with class.

Part 3: Game Design Studies

7/13    Design Concepts
Read  ROP Unit 1

7/18    Rules
Read ROP Unit 2

7/20    Play
Read ROP Unit 3

7/25    Culture
Read ROP Unit 4
Web: Julian Dibbell, “A Rape in Cyberspace” –

7/27    Demos
Final class at Ted’s house
Team demonstrations of works in progress

Final versions of modules and final papers are due Thursday, August 3.

Note: no class will be held on Monday, July 31. Instead, a make-up class/game session will be scheduled for earlier in the semester.


1. Lead (with a team) a class discussion of one of the assigned texts. 15%


6/22    Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages
6/27    Ralph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design
6/29    Fullerton, Swain and Hoffman, Game Design Workshop
7/13    Salen and Zimmerman, Rules of Play

2. Introduce a game to the class. 15%

In a 20-30 minute presentation, demonstrate and examine the game of your choice. “Game” here is broadly defined to include board games, card games, role-playing games, sports, simulation games, puzzles, toys, arcade games, computer games, video games, contests, game shows, and any other form of structured play.

First, demonstrate the game by playing some sample turns/hands/rounds/levels.

Then, discuss the culture and design of the game. How do concepts from the class readings apply to this game? How does the game compare to other games discussed in class?

3. Collaborate with a team on a module for the class project. 50%


6/27    Workshop #1. The class will discuss its general goals for the project.

6/29    Workshop #2. The class will collectively brainstorm ideas for modules, then set teams to work on each module plan.

7/6    Workshop #3. Teams will meet separately to work on module plan.

7/11    Workshop #4. Teams will present their module plan drafts to the rest of the class, followed by group discussion and revision.

7/27    Demos. Each team will demonstrate its work in progress at the final class at Ted’s house.

8/3    Final versions of modules due. Submit either a PDF file or a URL to

4. Write a short (5 page) paper discussing your work on the class project and its relation to class readings. 20%

Due 8/3 via email to

5. Attendance.

As Woody Allen put it, “80 percent of success is showing up.” It’s less than that in this formula, but the bottom line is that you can’t contribute to the class if you’re not there. You’re allowed one unexcused absence for the semester. After that, each unexcused absence subtracts one point from your grade total. Excused absences include medical and family emergencies. You will be expected to schedule any employment responsibilities around this class, or accept the consequences of missed classes for your grade. If you do need to miss a class, please contact me ahead of time, and make arrangements to catch up on missed material.

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