Seminar in Digital Game Studies


USC School of Cinema-Television, CTCS 564


Instructor: Tracy Fullerton


Contact Info:

(310) 390-5520 main

(310) 985-1167 mobile;


Course Description:

This class will explore the formal, aesthetic, and cultural aspects of digital games, the emerging critical discourse around the nature of meaningful gameplay, and the relationship of digital games to media such as television and film.  Readings will include recently released texts and articles which establish a basis from which to examine games as an artistic medium.  Classic and cutting edge games will be played both in and out of class of class to encourage wide-ranging literacy in various genres and historical periods of gameplay and to provide context for the critical discussion.


Students will:

·         Read and discuss class materials on the nature, history and aesthetics of games.

·         Play and analyze games -- both in and out of class -- in terms of the topics explored in the readings.

·         Keep a game journal, chronicling game play experiences and critiques.

·         Choose one specific game in which to become the “class expert” and present an overview, walkthrough and analysis of that game to the class.

·         Produce a final paper that rigorously examines one or more games in regards to the topics explored in class.


Meeting Information:

Interactive Media Lab, G142 Main Room (below the Carson Stage)

Thursdays, 9AM – 1PM


Course Website:


Pre-requisites: CTIN 488 is recommended but not required.


Evaluation of student performance:


a.  Assignments (see full descriptions below):

1.       Game Journal

2.       2 Short Papers (5 pages)

3.       In-class Game Presentation

4.       Final Paper (15 pages)


b.      Criteria for grading:


Game Journal


Short Papers (2)


In-class Game Presentation


Final Paper





Course content (summarized by class meeting)


Week 1: Introduction 

Discussion:  Why study game theory and how?  Overview of course format, readings and assignments and central topics.

In-class games:  Werewolf, Colossal Cave Adventure, Tic-tac-toe


Week 2: Core Concepts

Discussion:  Rules, systems and interactivity; meaningful play; design and authorship.  How can we approach games and gameplay critically?  The emergence of “ludology” as a field of inquiry.  What starting points do existing fields of study offer to the game theorist?  What new concepts need to be defined?

In-class games:  Pong, Zork, Asteroids, Chess

Assignment:  Bring a game to class next week that creates meaningful play, be prepared to discuss how meaning is constructed in the game you bring.


Rules of Play:

§         Preface, Chapters 1, 3-6


§         The Grasshopper:  Games, Life and Utopia, “Construction of a Definition” (Suits)

Mentioned in class:

§         Art of Computer Game Design (Crawford)


Week 3: Defining Games

Discussion:  What are games?  How are they distinct from other media or experiences?  How are they the same?  Overview of definitions from traditional game studies and recent attempts towards deriving a lexicon of game concepts.

In-class games:  Discuss games that have been brought to class.


Rules of Play:

§         Chapters 7-9


§         The Study of Games, “The History of Games” (E.B. Tylor)

§         The Study of Games, “Structural Elements of Games” (E.M. Avedon)

§         The Grasshopper:  Games, Life and Utopia, “Taking the Long Way Home” (Suits)


Week 4: Approaches to Game Study

Discussion:  An introduction to ludology, the study of games and game structure.  Ludology vs. narratology.  The challenges of reading ergodic art.

In-class games:  The Sims, Grand Theft Auto III

Assignment:  Short Paper #1


Rules of Play (Salen, Zimmerman)

§         Chapter 10


§         The Video Game Theory Reader, “Simulation vs. Narrative: Introduction to Ludology” (Frasca)

§         Cyberspace Textuality:  Computer Technology and Literary Theory, “Aporia and Epiphany in Doom and the Speaking Clock” (Aarseth)

§, “Literary Theory and Computer Games” (Kücklich)


Week 5: Games as Play

Discussion:  Games as sub-set of play; play as an element of games.  Gameplay in terms of competition, challenge, ritual, pleasure and meaning.

In-class games:  Breakout, Centipede, Loop, SSX3


Rules of Play (Salen, Zimmerman)

§         Chapters 22-24


§         Homo Ludens, “Nature and Significance of Play” (Huizinga)

§         Man, Play and Games, “The Definition of Play” (Callois)

§         The Ambiguity of Play, “Rhetorics of Self” (Sutton-Smith)


Week 6:  Games as Rules

Discussion:  Rules as the formal aspect of game systems.  Types and qualities of rules.  Conflict and challenge as emergent properties of rules in action.  Games without rules.  Breaking the rules.

In-class games:  Chutes and Ladders, Tetris, Joust, Gauntlet, Illuminati, Ironclad

Due:  Short Paper #1


Rules of Play (Salen, Zimmerman)

§         Chapters 11-13, 20-21


§         The Grasshopper:  Games, Life and Utopia, “Ivan and Abdul,” “Mountain climbing” (Suits)


Week 7:  Games and the Digital

Discussion:  Unique aspects of digitally mediated games.  How do digital interfaces -- screens, mice, controllers and keyboards -- change the nature of games, the complexity and accessibility of their rules, spaces, sensations, representation, and play?

In-class games:  The Game of Life, Gearheads, SimCity 4, Black & White, Halo, Warcraft III


Rules of Play (Salen, Zimmerman)

§         Chapters 14-15


§         Trigger Happy, “Solid Geometry” (Poole)

§         “Making Sense of Software:  Computer Games and Interactive Textuality” (Friedman)

§         The Video Game Theory Reader, “As We Become Machines” (Lahti)


Week 8:  Games and Other Media

Discussion:  How do we relate digital games to other media such as music, literature, film or television?  Are games a “mass media”?  How are players related to viewers/readers, if at all?

In-class games:  Amplitude, CSI, American McGee’s Alice, Star Wars Galaxies, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness

Due:  Game Journals



§         Understanding Media, “Games” (McLuhan)

§         The Language of New Media, “The Screen and the User” (Manovich)

§         The Video Game Theory Reader, “From Gamers to Players and Gameplayers:  The Example of Interactive Movies” (Perron)


Week 9:  Narrative Play

Discussion:  Games, characters, narratives and the problems and potentials of authorship vs. agency.  What is the relationship of games and narrative?  How is meaning constructed from gameplay?  How does narrative affect that construction?  Can game narratives be “read” in the sense of traditionally authored texts?

In-class games:  Atari Adventure, Super Mario Bros., Jak and Daxter, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Deus Ex

Assignment:  Short Paper #2


Rules of Play (Salen, Zimmerman)

§         Chapters 25-27


§, “The Gaming Situation” (Eskelinen)

§, “Games Telling Stories?” (Juul)

§         First Person:  New Media as Story, Performance and Game, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” (Jenkins)





Week 10: Guest Speaker (TBD)


Week 11:  Social Play

Discussion:  Historical patterns of multiplayer interaction.  What role does the social play in games?  Examination of the phenomenon of massively multiplayer worlds and the people that live, love and lie in them. 

In-class games:  Magic: The Gathering, Settlers of Catan, Mario Party 4, EverQuest

Due:  Short Paper #2


Rules of Play (Salen, Zimmerman)

§         Chapter 28


§         “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS” (Bartle)

§         “Befriending Ogres and Wood-Elves:  Understanding Relationship Formation in MMORPGs” (Yee)

§ “Who Killed Miss Norway?” (Spaight)


Week 12:  Games in Culture

Discussion:  How do games reflect culture?  How do they reflect it?  “Gamer culture” in comparison to the perception of film, television, comic books and music lovers.  Blurring of boundaries – games that invade players lives.

In-class games:  Family albums from The Sims, Machinima, mods, SiSSYFiGHT 2000, Survivor tribal council

Due:  Final Paper topics (1 paragraph summary), class discussion of topics


Rules of Play (Salen, Zimmerman)

§         Chapter 29-33


Week 13:  Questions of Violence

Discussion:  How are violence in games and violence out of games related, if at all?  What impact will perceptions of game violence have on the design of games and the laws protecting them?

In-class games:  Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto III, Waco Resurrection, Doom for Columbine



§         “Congressional Testimony on Media Violence” (Jenkins)

§         Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, excerpts from “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life” (Anderson, Dill)

§         “Rethinking Virtual Violence:  A Critique of Methodologies used in Violent Video Game Research” (Yee)


Week 14:  Questions of Gender

Discussion:  What are “girl games?”  Why have most attempts to make them failed?  Today’s most popular games are inarguably coded male, but what about girls and women who play them?  What kind of spaces, experiences and relationships do these games offer?

In-class games:  Barbie Fashion Designer, Ms. Pac-Man, Um Jammer Lammy, Quake grrl clans



§         From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, “Chess for Girls: Feminism and Computer Games” (Cassell, Jenkins)

§         “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat:  Further Reflections” (Jenkins)

§         “Killing Like a Girl:  Gendered Gaming and Girl Gamers Visibility” (Bryce, Rutter)


Week 15: The Future of Game Studies

Discussion:  What is the future of game studies in academia, in industry and in the culture at large?  How can or should the critical examination of games inform and influence design and consumption?  What are the next steps for this emerging discipline?

In-class games:  Review and any remaining game presentations

Wrap-up and course evaluation

Due:  Final Paper, Game Journals


Rules of Play (Salen, Zimmerman)

§         Forward


§         “Rethinking Agency and Immersion:  Videogames as a means of consciousness-raising” (Frasca)


Final Exam (Tuesday 5/11/2004, 11AM – 1PM)

Due:  Presentation of final papers and class review

Final papers for review:

§         Apicella, Mark

§         Buerkle, Bob

§         Chen, Jenova

§         Dillon, Julie

§         Dinehart, Erin

§         Hanson, Chris

§         Kim, Jean

§         Newman, Brad

§         Ruiz, Susana

§         Sacher, Andrew

§         Santiago, Kellee

§         Singh, Naveen

§         Steffan, Michael

§         Waynee, Matt




Game Journal

Students will be asked to keep a game journal detailing their experiences with games both in and out of class throughout the semester.  The purpose of the journal is to practice critical thinking skills in relation to games, their structure and content, and to develop a body of insight from which to draw inspiration for the short papers and final assignment.


The game journals will be turned in twice during the semester – once in week 8 and once at the end of the course.  They will be graded as to completeness, quality of content, and detail of writing.  The journal will be worth 20% of the total grade in the class.


Short Papers

Two short papers (5 pages) will be assigned in weeks 4 and 6, due weeks 9 and 11.  These papers will consist of close analysis of games played in or out of class as related to topics in the readings.  As mentioned above, they may draw on insights or work initiated in the game journal.  Each paper will be worth 15% of the total grade in the class.


In-class Game Presentation

Each meeting of the class will include both game play and discussion surrounding that week’s topic.  The games that will be looked at and the discussion topics for each meeting are noted above.   At the start of the semester, one game on the presentation list will be assigned to each student.  That student will be responsible for obtaining and playing that game to an expert level before the assigned night (see game list for dates).


During the assigned class meeting, the student will present their game to the class, playing through several sections or levels and demonstrating the various features of system, the types and quality of player choices and giving their expert analysis of the game to the class.  This in-class presentation will be graded on its depth and quality, not on the game playing skills exhibited.  The presentation will be worth 10% of the total grade in the class.


Final Paper

The final paper (15 pages) may be a rigorous analysis of a particular game or games, a game genre or an article or theoretical framework discussed in class.  Students must turn in a paragraph summary of their topic in week 12 for class review and suggestions.  As with the short papers, students may draw on insights or works initiated in the game journal.  The final paper is due during the last week of class and will be distributed to the class for review.  During the final exam period, each student will present their paper for class discussion.  The paper and presentation are worth 40% of the total grade in the class.


Course Text and Reader:

The required text is available at the University bookstore:

Rules of Play:  Game Design Fundamentals

Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman

MIT Press, ISBN:  0-262-24045-9


Alternatively, MIT Press is offering a 20% discount off the cover price if you purchase Rules of Play through their website at and enter code ROP2003 during the checkout process.


The required reader, which includes all of the articles mentioned under each class meeting, is available from the IMS Copy House at 3399 Hoover Avenue.


Missing an Assignment, Incompletes:

The only acceptable excuses for missing an assignment or taking an incomplete in the course are personal illness or a family emergency.  Students must inform the instructor before the assignment is due and present verifiable evidence in order for a make-up to be scheduled.  Students who wish to take incompletes must also present documentation of the problem to the instructor before final grades are due.


Note for students with disabilities:

Any student requesting academic accommodations based on a disability is required to register with Disability Services and Programs (DSP) each semester. A letter of verification for approved accommodations can be obtained from DSP. Please be sure the letter is delivered to us as early in the semester as possible. DSP is located in STU 301, and is open 8:30am5:00pm Monday through Friday. The phone number for DSP is (213) 740-0776.


Academic Integrity:

The School of Cinema-Television expects the highest standards of academic excellence and ethical performance from USC students.  It is particularly important that you are aware of and avoid plagiarism, cheating on exams, submitting a paper to more than one instructor, or submitting a paper authored by anyone other than yourself.  Violations of this policy will result in a failing grade band be reported to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs.  If you have any doubts or questions about these policies, consult “SCAMPUS” and/or confer with the instructor.


Additional Suggested Bibliography:

Hamlet on the Holodeck, by Janet Murray

Homo Ludens, by Johann Huizinga

Man, Play and Games, by Roger Callois

Supercade:  A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984, by Van Burnham

The Ambiguity of Play, by Brian Sutton-Smith

The Grasshopper:  Games Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits

The Study of Games, E.M Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith

The Oxford History of Board Games, by David Partlett

The Video Game Reader, edited by Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron

The Well-Played Game, by Bernie DeKoven


Instructor Bio:

Tracy Fullerton is a freelance game and interactive designer with over a decade of professional experience.  Most recently, she provided puzzle designs for the new Mission: SPACE RACE attraction at Disney’s Epcot Center.  She is also the co-author of an upcoming book on game design from CMP Media entitled “Game Design Workshop.”


Previously, she was President of the interactive television game developer, Spiderdance, Inc.  Spiderdance’s games included NBC’s Weakest Link, MTV’s webRIOT, The WB’s No Boundaries, History Channel’s History IQ, Sony Game Show Network’s Inquizition and TBS’s Cyber Bond.


·Before starting Spiderdance, Tracy was a founding member of the New York design firm R/GA Interactive.  As a producer and creative director she created games and interactive products for clients including Sony, Intel, Microsoft, AdAge, Ticketmaster, Compaq, and Warner Bros. among many others.  Notable projects include Sony’s Multiplayer Jeopardy! and Multiplayer Wheel of Fortune and MSN’s NetWits, the first multiplayer online game show


Prior to her work at R/GA, Tracy served as creative director at Interfilm, Inc., an innovative interactive film company that partnered with Sony New Media to release interactive films in 47 theaters nationwide.  She began her career at Synapse Technologies in Los Angeles, where she was an interactive designer on the groundbreaking educational titles Columbus: Discovery, Encounter and Beyond, Evolution/Revolution: The World 1890-1930, and Air Power: WWI.


Tracy’s work has received numerous industry honors including best Family/Board Game from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, ID Magazine’s Interactive Design Review, Communication Arts Interactive Design Annual, several New Media Invision awards, iMix Best of Show, the Digital Coast Innovation Award, IBC’s Nombre D’Or, and Time Magazine’s Best of the Web.  In December 2001, she was featured in the Hollywood Reporter’s “Women in Entertainment Power 100” issue.


Tracy holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the USC School of Cinema-Television.  She is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, where she serves as a co-chair of the interactive Emmy awards committee.  She is also an active member of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, the International Game Developers Association, and serves as a mentor for the AFI-Intel Enhanced Television workshop.