Computer Games as Art, Culture & Technology

Course Outline, Garnet Hertz

Administrative Summary: This course is based off of "US12ABC - Compuer Games as Art, Culture and Technology," a three quarter course at University of California Irvine that I taught with Peter Krapp, Bill Tomlinson, and Dan Frost during the 2006/7, 2007/8, and 2008/9 academic years. The concept for the course is to provide an introductory offering for undergraduates that introduces them to the disciplines of computer science, media studies, and digital arts. In the process, students are taught basic programming skills and English composition and research skills. At UCI, this course achieved equivalency as a lower-division writing course and served as the flagship for the "First Year Integrated Program," an interdisciplinary initiative by the Department of Undergraduate Education.

Course Overview

Computer Games as Art, Culture & Technology investigates computer games as artistic, cultural, and technological phenomena. The course is a lower-level undergraduate course that introduces students to computer game programming and the analysis of computer games as cultural artifacts: as a fertile medium for artists, educators, economists and anthropologists. This course exposes students to the vocabularies, perspectives, tools, and skills from multiple disciplines necessary to create and critique computer games. Exposure to contemporary art practices utilizing game metaphors, design principles, and technologies is emphasized. Students will also design and create games by programming and utilizing content creation software.

At the conclusion of this course, you will be able to:

  1. Understand how computer game technology and techniques are used for purposes other than entertainment.
  2. Design new computer games based on a variety of themes, patterns, and genres.
  3. Implement simple code, art, and sound/music within a computer game.
  4. Identify and critically evaluate the cultural and historical contexts of a computer game.
  5. Be able to articulate some differences in the way computer science, media studies, and digital arts approach computer games and gain perspective on how viewing this topic through a variety of lenses can enrich a conversation about it.
  6. Have opportunities to develop and demonstrate skills in several broad areas of written communication:
    1. Evidence: Students will improve their information literacy and research skills.
      • They will locate, evaluate and summarize discipline-appropriate sources.
      • They will successfully integrate these sources into their writing.
      • They will use an appropriate citation style for the discipline.
    2. Writing: Students will improve their written expression.
      • They will demonstrate their ability to think critically by composing well-supported, thesis-driven essays.
      • Their essays will be clearly organized and designed for a particular audience.
    3. Research: Students will compose a research project.
      • They will locate, evaluate, synthesize, analyze and present information on an appropriate topic.
      • They will write more than one draft, participate in peer reviews, and produce a sustained argument in a final, well-written, proof-read product.
An important theme of this course is collaboration. All but the simplest computer games are created by more than one person. We want to promote a collaborative spirit throughout the course, while being aware of the need for each student to master the material individually and to receive a grade based on his or her own performance.

Class Format & Sources

Fall: History, Basic Tools and Design Fundamentals

The fall quarter of this course introduces students to the history of computer games, fundamentals of software and game design, and games in a cultural context. Students are introduced to programming through the Scratch (MIT Media Lab) environment in weekly labs, and lectures are focused on providing students with foundational histories and issues in video game culture. Beyond this, weekly discussion sections are primarily used as writing workshops to help refine written communication and research skills while preparing research essays on the topic of computer games in culture.


Winter: Art, Modelling and Animation

From a project perspective, students develop a team-built game project in Java. Tutorials are taught in how to build 2D sprite-based games with Java using a game-friendly development library. In addition to project development, students explore a number of issues in lecture, including art practice and computer games, current business and distribution trends, concepts in 3D animation and modeling, affective computing, music & sound, net & web, quality assurance, and games and politics. Students produce two written essays during the quarter that explore social aspects to computer games.


Spring: Games in a Social Context

Students during this quarter work in teams to develop a substantial design document and a game project. The theme of this project is 'serious games,' and students are encouraged to develop games that confront relevant, real-world issues. Students are able to develop their project in any environment or programming language of their choice. Lab sessions are dedicated to developing the group project, and discussions provide tutorials in building a good design document. Lectures cover a range of topics within the theme of serious games, including military simulations, games for education and social change, issues and challenges with serious games, game economies and real money trade, gold farming, and game criticism.


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Garnet Hertz, 2008