One of my goals for the new year is to spend time in some formal “learning” and I opted to sign up for some online courses through Coursera. The short version is that I don’t need a certificate or another degree, this is learning just for me, and I’d like it to be relatively low-intensity, so mostly I’m just accessing the lectures and the reading material for self-directed learning more than taking an interactive class.
I decided to start with one that was potentially interesting more than life-changing, and the first out of the box is “Understanding Video Games” offered by the University of Alberta. Note that these courses are offered for credit too, I’m just not pursuing that option. The professors for the course are Leah Hackman and Sean Gouglas, both at UofA, and the course used a combination of written materials, video lectures, and discussion forum. I passed on the discussion forum part, mostly just interested in the written+videos. Truth be told, the course is “over” at this point, so I’m just accessing the archives, but in order, like the course was run. Hard to tell if I should use “past tense” since the course is over or “present tense” as it is an online course that I’m doing now.
The opening week’s readings are from Game Studies, a journal of game research, and the article is available online (http://gamestudies.org/1202/articles/the_algorithmic_experience). It’s an interesting article that explores how most games, in whatever form, are essentially algorithms with inputs and outputs, and once you give it the right input, you get the desired output. It also debates to some extent the “video game as an art form” that allows for interactive art rather than passive appreciation of art, “video game as sport”, since it has winnable solutions. However, I think of far more interest and yet not explored adequately in the article is how algorithms have evolved from a single window, 4-bit limited gaming (like say Pong) to 8-bit varied gaming (like Super Mario Bros) to 64-bit open gaming (like online systems). The algorithms have progressed from linear A to B storylines towards more multi-nodal storylines that can have innumerable outcomes, albeit with a few main ultimate outcomes.
The intro video pitches the course as looking at video games and how they entertain, inform and challenge us, but I think it is more the interactions between the three that interest me, and how we’re willing to sacrifice some for the other. For example, there are TV shows that are just watching other people play, to see how they do it, and it’s surprising to me that it is actually watchable TV. I enjoy watching my nephew play sometimes, and I follow along, but really I’m just a companion to his quest. The sidekick, not the hero. Yet others love games like Bejewelled and Candy Crush that hold no interest for me at all. There’s no story, it’s just repetition to me. Yet hugely popular — kicking up the challenge, downplaying information, and leveraging entertainment. Hackman notes that some game elements have stayed relatively stable over the years — such as moving around on a screen, using a controller, playing a hero, solving puzzles, finding patterns, and/or following linear processes — and the course will cover three main areas — they’ll start with basic terminology and concepts for the industry, how academics are theorizing about game frameworks, and then apply the theories to more cultural topics (like gender, identify, violence, etc.).
Not a bad start to the course, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it.