FMST 86: Theory and History of Video Games

Course Description and Goals

By any measure – industrial scale and profitability, cultural pervasiveness, size of audience, range of genres and aesthetics, and influence on and intersection with other media – video games have become one of the dominant entertainment forms of our time. This course investigates the video game medium in both its theoretical and historical dimensions, drawing on a variety of texts and perspectives as well as on play and analysis of video games themselves to build a portrait, not just of games, gamers, and gaming, but of a unique moment in the evolution of contemporary media.

The first half of the term will establish a basic conceptual vocabulary for thinking, speaking, and writing about video games, emphasizing the formal and aesthetic principles that distinguish them as a medium, and articulating these principles to a historical account of video game development. In the second half of the term, we will shift our attention to the broader contexts and cultural functions of video gaming – examining them as commercial and transmedia entities; as spaces for the forging of identity and sociality; as objects of fandom and instruments of ideology – culminating in interpretive and creative practices that push the definition of video games and gaming to, and past, their limits.

Throughout the semester, we will take pains to situate video games in specific contexts, distributing our attention among their technological, formal, and cultural aspects. Students are encouraged to bring their own interests and backgrounds to bear, illuminating video games with the insights of literary theory, film studies, philosophy, psychology, performance, economics, feminism, and any other rubric that enriches the object of study.


  • Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon, Jonas Heide Smith, and Susana Pajares Tosca. Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Galloway, Alexander. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
  • Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
  • Recommended: Donovan, Tristan. Replay: The History of Video Games. East Sussex: Yellow Ant, 2010.
  • All other readings available as PDFs on Blackboard under “Course Documents.”


Detailed instructions will be given throughout term. I am always available to discuss
particulars, suggest approaches, and negotiate alternatives.

  • 15% Participation
  • 35% Short Papers
  • 5% Ludology/Narratology Debate Week 6; pass/fail
  • 15% Team Presentation Weeks 7-11; schedule with me
  • 30% Final Project

Readings and assignments are subject to change

Week 1 (8/30 & 9/1): Overture
T Introductions and course overview
Th Framing videogames as objects of study
UVG Ch. 1, “Studying Video Games” & Ch. 6, “Video Game Culture”

Week 2 (9/6 & 9/8): Basic Categories
T Theorizing games and play
UVG Ch. 3, “What Is A Game?”; Galloway, “Gamic Action, Four
** Due: 1-page self-introduction
Th Thinking in (and about) genres
Foucault, “The Order of Things”
Excerpts from Wolf, The Video Game Explosion

Week 3 (9/13 & 9/15): History I
T Roots of video gaming
UVG Ch. 4, “History” (pp. 45-67)
Levy, Hackers

Th The arcade era

Hilbert, “Flying Off the Screen: Observations from the Golden Age of the
American Video Game Arcade”
Rouse, “Game Analysis: Centipede”
Fiske, “Video Pleasures”
** View on own time: The King of Kong (Seth Gordon, 2007)

Week 4 (9/20 & 9/22): History II
T Console and PC gaming
UVG Ch. 4, “History” (pp. 67-96)
** Due: Spacewar/Adventure Comparison
Th Mobile and casual games
Juul, excerpt from A Casual Revolution
Chien, “This Is Not a Dance”
Scott and Ruggill, “Simulation or Simulacrum? The Promise of Sports

Week 5 (9/27 & 9/29): Principles of Form
T Rules and representation
UVG Ch. 5, “Video Game Aesthetics”
Sudnow, “Eyeball and Cathexis”
Th Closeup: First-Person Shooters
Galloway, “Origins of the First-Person Shooter”
** Due: Midterm (between now and week 10)

Week 6 (10/4 & 10/6): Ludology & Narratology
T Ludology & narratology
UVG Ch. 8, “Narrative”
Aarseth, “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation”
Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”
Frasca, “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology”
Th In-class debate

Fall Break

Week 7 (10/18 & 10/20): Business and Industry
** Start of team presentations
T Gamemakers
UVG Chapter 2, “The Game Industry”
Birdwell, “The Cabal: Valve’s Design Process for Creating Half-Life”
Th Adaptations and transmedia
Excerpt from Brookey, Hollywood GamersTheory and History of Videogames / 4

Week 8 (10/25 & 10/27): Social Effects
T Reclaiming gaming
Johnson, excerpt from Everything Bad Is Good for You
McGonigal, excerpt from Reality Is Broken
Th Video game fandom
Rehak, “Mapping the Bit Girl”; additional reading(s) TBA

Week 9 (11/1 & 11/3): Multiplayer
T Game communities
UVG Ch. 7, “Player Culture”
Dibbell, “A Rape in Cyberspace”
Th Multiplayer
Bartle, “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS”
Pearce and Artemesia, excerpt from Communities of Play
** View on own time: Second Skin (Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza, 2008)

Week 10 (11/8 & 11/10): Identity
T Gender
Kafai, Heeter et al, excerpt from Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat
Burrill, excerpt from Die Tryin’: Videogames, Masculinity, Culture
Th Race
always_black, “Bow, N****r”
Nakamura, “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on
the Internet”

Week 11 (11/15 & 11/17): Gaming the Game
T Mods, cheating, and machinima
Galloway, “Countergaming”
Consalvo, excerpt from Cheating
Th Serious games
UVG Ch. 9, “Serious Games”
Galloway, “Social Realism”
Bogost, excerpt from Persuasive Games

Week 12 – Thanksgiving (class does not meet)

Week 13 (11/29 & 12/1): Colloquium
T Student presentations
Th Student presentations

Week 14 (12/6)
T Wrap up; course evaluations
** Final papers due 12/13