Home » Classes » In4rmatx 295: Digital Media & Games

In4rmatx 295: Digital Media & Games

INF 295: Digital Media and Games, Winter 2016 Syllabus

Professor Joshua Tanenbaum, Department of Informatics, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences

Meeting time: TBD (see this doodle to register your preferences: http://doodle.com/poll/hy5q2cmukf9wmv9x)

Location: The EVOKE Lab (CalIT2 room 2100)

E-Mail: joshua (dot) tanenbaum (at) uci (dot) edu

Course Description

This graduate level seminar course traverses the history of interactive media, touching on key works and writings from literary theory, new media studies and game studies. This course is an introduction to the study of digital media and the analytical tools used to grapple with emerging media forms. Combining theories of design, learning, interactivity, literacy, and aesthetics, this course will introduce students to contemporary debates and methods within the continually evolving landscape of new media. Drawing on methods from the humanities, this course will provide students with the techniques needed to critique, analyze, and reverse engineer digital media and its manifestations as a cultural, historical, and aesthetic phenomenon.

Course Structure:

As this is a seminar, the primary activity in this course will be discussion of the readings.  I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that you keep up with the readings in order to participate in the course.  Unlike previous graduate courses I’ve taught, this class will not rely upon student presentations to refresh us on the content of the readings, nor will it rely on extensive lectures about the material. Instead, everyone will be responsible for bringing in a notecard at the beginning of class with a question or provocation to start the conversation. I will collect these as we begin, and will use them to guide the discussion.  We will maintain an online discussion board, and students are encouraged to post items of relevance and interest including videos, games, and websites to enhance our class meetings. Depending on how the wind blows, we might find ourselves in small breakout groups for part of each class session – it will depend on how many people end up enrolled.

The final paper for the class will be a close reading of an exemplary New Media artifact, site, or environment. A close reading is a detailed deconstruction and analysis of an experience. The New Media object or experience must be digital, must be interactive or computationally generative, and should also include some sense of narrativity. The purpose of the paper is to describe, analyze, and discuss the creative choices embedded within the design of the experience. The analysis will rely on concepts drawn from the course readings – these are your toolkit. This toolkit is robust and large, and will form a solid foundation that you will build upon and add to over the course of your creative and scholarly career. Ambitious students should consider their final project as a first draft for a submission to the Well Played Journal: http://press.etc.cmu.edu/wellplayed.

Course Objectives:

The learning objectives for the class are as follows:

  • Critically assess and understand media studies within an historical context
  • Develop fluency with core terminology and concepts surrounding “new media” and games
  • Understand and respond to the contemporary debates and ongoing discourse within digital media and game studies
  • Develop and apply an understanding of hermeneutic methodologies for digital media.
  • Apply course concepts in the composition of a scholarly research paper that contributes to the discourse surrounding digital media

Grading and Evaluations

  • Note Cards: 20% (Have you been asking questions?)
  • Participation in Class or Online Discussions: 20% (Do I remember your participation?)
  • Final Paper: 60% (Can you construct an argument about digital media and games?)

Online Resources

We will have an online message board where we can post links to interesting and relevant papers, books, digital media pieces, games, etc.  There will also be opportunities to continue class discussions online. Your participation in this will contribute to your overall participation grade.  The discussion board is also the first place to take any questions that you have about the course.  I much prefer answering one question on the discussion board where everyone can benefit from the information over having to field the same question in multiple emails.

Final Paper: Close Reading/Hermeneutic Analysis of a Game or New Media work

For your final paper, you will select any game or work of digital media that you find interesting and engage in a close reading/hermeneutic analysis.  The goal of this is to demonstrate your ability to apply an analytical lens grounded in theory to a work in order to illuminate some aspect of the poetics of that work. You will need to construct a rigorous, carefully delimited, well evidenced, clearly explicated argument about your selected text.  What do I mean by this?

  • Rigorous: Have you done your homework in the literature? Are you citing appropriate sources? Have you connected your argument to existing discourses in the field? Are your terms defined? Have you documented your own bias/perspective in regards to the text? Are your references properly formatted and comprehensive?
  • Carefully Delimited: Are you able to make the knowledge claims you want to make with the evidence available? Is your argument scoped appropriately?  Have you identified the boundaries of your knowledge space?
  • Well Evidenced: Have you collected sufficient and appropriate data* from the text?  Is that data presented in a format that is legible to your reader? Is your argument grounded in the text?  Can your reading of the text be reproduced by another researcher, and will doing so strengthen or undermine your argument? In other words, does the data (the evidence) from the text support your conclusions?
  • Clearly Explicated:  Is your argument readable? Does the structure of the document support the reader in following the trajectory of your argument?  Have you used appropriate headers and footers? Are you using figures, charts, and tables appropriately? Is it grammatically sound, linguistically pleasing, and rhetorically sound?  Have you used jargon and gobbledygook appropriately and only when there is no clear alternative?
  • Argument: Are you making a claim, staking out a position, or otherwise arguing for or against a particular reading?  How well can you defend your claim?  Is there an idea there: something novel, or new, or otherwise interesting?  This paper should not be a review of a game.  It needs to take a position.  The best papers in this class will take a position that advances the broader theoretical discourse around games and digital media.

*I use the term data here deliberately, to invoke the fact that a close reading is essentially empirical in nature. Data could take any number of forms: screenshots, videos, or transcripts of playthroughs, “field notes”, ethnographic observations (if playing a game that involves other humans), system telemetry and log files, chat logs, voice records, etc.  Note that should your data include material collected from other humans beyond what might be reasonably construed as a public performance (such as survey data, interviews, or other research specific interventions) then you be unable to publish your paper without first obtaining IRB permission.  This line can get fuzzy in virtual worlds, so I suggest erring on the side of caution and seeking IRB approval the moment it seems like a close reading within a populated space starts to transform into a promising human subjects study.

Your paper should be between a conference paper and a journal article in length (7000 to 10000 words is about right – if you exceed 10,000 words you’d better have a good reason, and your writing had better be pretty damn enjoyable to read.)

This is a solo work, and not a group project.  Collaborative close readings are possible, but meaningfully more complicated (for reasons that should become clear in this class).


  • Week 2: Proposals due for artifacts to close read.  Bring a single paragraph to class with the name of your selected game/artifact and a few sentences explaining why you have selected it and what interests you about it. Be prepared to present your selection to the class. If two students have selected the same text, be prepared to fight each other in a cage match to the death over who gets to read their selected text, and who gets to close read a random Atari2600 game of my choosing.  Alternatively, consider having a back-up game or work in mind so that no blood need be spilled.
  • Week 4: A 1 page data collection plan, outlining your protocol for collecting, storing, coding, and managing your data, and a brief discussion of the possible costs/benefits of your strategy.
  • Week 6: A 1 page discussion of your preliminary outcomes for the close reading, to be discussed in class.  You should have a sense by now of what method you will be employing and what theoretical perspectives you will be drawing on.
  • Finals Week: The final draft of the paper will be due at midnight on the last day of finals week.


I don’t believe any of these books have made their way into the book store, so you are on your own for finding them.  All of them should be reasonably priced on Amazon (used for under $10).

Course books to purchase:

Additional resources you may wish to purchase:


NOTE: PDFs of the readings are available in a shared Google Drive Folder.  You should have already received an invitation to it. Let me know if you have any difficulty accessing the readings.

Week 1
The Class Awakens Post Introduction to Message Board (due before end of class) Set course schedule for the quarter

Discuss course policies and install Zotero


  • Borges “The garden of forking paths”
  • Zimmerman “Against Hypertext”
Week 2 Before Digital Media: Formalism, Politics, and Heteroglossia Due in class: proposal of artifact for close-reading Readings:

  • Standage “The Victorian Internet”
  • Innis “The Bias of Communications”
  • Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
  • Bakhtin “Discourse in the Novel”
Week 3
Cognitive Interaction, Interpretation and Openness Readings:

  • Eco “The Poetics of the Open Work”
  • Barthes “The Death of the Author”
  • Barthes “Selections from S/Z”
    • Pp 3 – 11
  • McLuhan “Playboy Interview”
  • McCloud “Understanding Comics”
Week 4
Critical Readings of Digital Media and Games Due in class: 1 page describing your data collection and management strategy. Readings:

  • Bizzocchi & Tanenbaum “Well Read: Applying Close Reading Techniques to Gameplay Experiences”
  • Tanenbaum “Hermeneutic Inquiry for Digital Game Studies”
  • Carr “Textual Analysis, Digital Games, Zombies”
  • Wolfreys “Readings Introduction”
  • Follesdal “Hermeneutics”
Week 5
Game Studies I: The Phantom Field Readings:

  • Huzinga – Homo Ludens – Chapter 1
  • Caillois – Man, Play and Games – Chapters 1 &2
  • Sutton-Smith – The Ambiguity of Play – Chapter 14
  • Aarseth – Cybertext – Chapter 1
  • Aarseth “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory”
Week 6
Principles of Digital Media and Interactivity Due in class: 1 page describing your approach for your close reading (method, theories, analytical lens, argument, etc.) Readings:

  • Selections from Murray “Hamlet and the Holodeck”
    • Chapter 4: Immersion
    • Chapter 5: Agency
    • Chapter 6: Transformation
  • Crawford – selections from “The Art of Interactive Design”
  • Manovich – selections from “The Language of New Media”
    • Chapter 1 – pp 27 – 48
    • Chapter 4 – pp 205 – 211
    • Chapter 5 – pp 212 – 243
Week 7
Immersion, Agency and Transformation



  • Csikszentmihalyi – Flow – pp 48 – 77
  • Douglas and Hargadon “The Pleasure Principle: Immersion, Engagement and Flow”
  • Ermi and Mayra “Fundamental Components of the Gameplay Experience “Analyzing Immersion”
  • Wardrip-Fruin et al. “Agency Reconsidered”
  • Tanenbaum and Tanenbaum “Agency as Commitment to Meaning”
  • Selections from Tanenbaum’s dissertation
Week 8
Game Studies IV: A New Field Readings:

  • Selections from “First Person”:
    • Zimmerman “Four Naughty Concepts”
    • Eskelinen “Towards Computer Game Studies”
    • Juul “Introduction to Game Time”
    • Pearce “Towards a Game Theory of Game”
  • Bartle “Players who suit MUDs”
Week 9
Games and Narrative Readings:

  • Bordwell – “Narration in the Fiction Film” – pp 48 – 53
  • Bordwell & Thompson – “Film Art” – Chapter 3: Narrative Form
  • Jenkins “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”
  • Bizzocchi “Games and Narrative”
  • Bizzocchi & Tanenbaum – “Mass Effect 2 – A Case Study in the Design of Game Narrative”
  • Mackey “Stepping into the Subjunctive World of the Fiction in Game, Film, and Novel”
Week 10
Game Studies V: The Field Strikes Back
  • Gee – selections from “What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy”
    • Chapter 2 – Semiotic Domains
    • Chapter 3 – Learning and Identity
  • Ian Bogost – The Rhetoric of Video Games
  • Sicart – selections from “Play Matters”:
    • Chapter 1: Play is
    • Chapter 8: Play in the Era of Computing Machinery
  • Flanagan – Critical Play – Introduction
  • Zimmerman -game design as 21st century literacy
Finals Week
Final Papers due at midnight on the last day of Finals Week


Important Class Policies


If you are a student with a disability (e.g., physical, learning, psychiatric, vision, hearing, etc.) and think that you might need special assistance or a special accommodation in this class or any other class, please check out the Disability Center online or visit them in person at: 100 Disability Services Center, Building 313, Irvine, CA 92697-5130.   If you are having difficulty with the class for any of these reasons please let me know so that I can work with you to meet your learning needs. If for any reason you are uncomfortable discussing the details surrounding a given situation you need not disclose anything, but at least let me know that something is going on so that arrangements can be made to adjust things for you before you fall too far behind.

Counseling Center

Likewise, if you find that personal problems, career indecision, study and time management difficulties, etc. are adversely impacting your successful progress at UCI, please check out the Counseling Center or Graduate Student Services. Graduate school can often have adverse effects on one’s physical and mental health, and it is better to seek help early than allow the trials of pursing and advanced degree to cause serious harm.


Email is BY FAR the most reliable way to get in touch with me; however, for most course related inquiries (anything that is not of a personal or individual nature) please post your question to our online discussion board FIRST. Likewise, I will use your university email address for all communications. Please check this account on a regular basis. When you communicate with me please put Inf295in the SUBJECT LINE.

Technology Requirements:

You need access to a personal computer (Mac or Windows) for major amounts of time for this course. You need Internet access for this course. You must be able to save word processing files in a .doc or .docx (Microsoft Word) or .pdf format for sharing and submitting files to the instructor. You are expected to have working knowledge and capability with your computer before entering this class. You will also need the means to access and play some form of digital game or piece of new media for your hermeneutic analysis.  If you do not have access to such things talk to me ASAP and we’ll figure something out for you – there are plenty of interesting digital works available online that will run on most computers.  As digital natives taking a course on video games and new media, it is my expectation that you be able to play and access games and new media.

Class information and announcements will be communicated through your UCI email address.  Additional material will be regularly posted in the message board, so be sure to check it regularly.

Plagiarism & Cheating:

Please read and heed the following information regarding academic dishonesty. The instructor cannot and will not tolerate academic dishonesty. For more information, refer to the UCI Student Handbook. The UCI campus policy on plagiarism can also be found on the Registrar’s website, under “Academic Honesty Policy”:http://www.senate.uci.edu/senateweb/default2.asp?active_page_id=754. If you choose to work with a partner on your term paper or final project, you will BOTH be held EQUALLY responsible for any plagiarism, regardless of who actually wrote what in the paper. Your reading reflections WILL BE CHECKED FOR PLAGIARISM. However, if you are leading discussion that week, you SHOULD use information posted by other students as part of their reflections in your discussion. You must in those cases note whose comment(s) you are using.

The penalty for plagiarism is at a minimum to receive a 0 on the assignment and have the case reported to the Associate Dean’s office. Particularly flagrant cases may receive more severe punishment (notably failing the course).

  • What is cheating?
    •  Supplying or using work or answers that are not your own.
    • Providing or accepting assistance with completing assignments or examinations.
    • Faking data or results.
    •  Interfering in any way with someone else’s work.
    •  Stealing an examination or solution from the teacher.
  • What is plagiarism?
    • Copying a paper from a source text without proper acknowledgment.
    • Buying a paper from a research service or term paper mill.
    •  Turning in another student’s work with or without that student’s knowledge. 
    • Copying a paper from a source text without proper acknowledgment.
    • Copying materials from a source text, supplying proper documentation, but leaving out quotation marks.
    • Paraphrasing materials from a source text without appropriate documentation.
    • Turning in a paper from a term paper website.

You should be on guard against plagiarism at all times.  At any time that you read anything in preparation for a paper or consciously recall anything that you have read or heard, you must be prepared to provide documentation.

Generally, when you use someone else’s ideas and/or words, you will either quote that person directly or you will paraphrase or summarize that person’s words. You must let the reader know which you are doing.

  1. If you quote the source directly, you must
    1. put quotation marks before and after that person’s words;
    2. let the reader know the source by (1) putting a footnote or endnote number at the end of the quotation, or (2) putting at least the source’s name in parentheses after the quotation marks (such as when being taken from fieldwork).
  2. If you paraphrase (a paraphrase is about the same length as the original, but in different words) or if you summarize (a summary is a severely shortened version of the original), you must
    1. introduce the source in some manner at the beginning of the passage being paraphrased (or summarized) so that the reader can tell where your idea stops and the other person’s begins;
    2. state the ideas taken from the source in your own words and your own arrangement. It is possible to plagiarize sentence patterns as well as exact words. A handy rule: if, in a paraphrase or summary, you use a stretch of more than three words in their exact order from a source, you should put those words into quotation marks;
    3. provide an exact source citation for those ideas paraphrased or summarized. This may be done either by footnote/endnote number at the end of the passages or by parenthetical references to the work and page(s). This citation provides credit to the author being used and allows the reader access to the material for further study.
  3. You must also provide a footnote for any chart, graph, figure, table, summary, or other data taken directly from another source or any information derived from such materials. You should also be sure to check copyright as to whether you are allowed to use this figure.

For example, the text here on plagiarism was initially written Gillian Hayes for the Winter 2013 version of INF 242, although some modifications and additions of my own have been integrated into it.  The original can be found here: http://www.gillianhayes.com/Inf242w13/, along with Professor Hayes’ own disclaimer that the material has been “generously borrowed and slightly modified from the UTC Center for Advisement and Student Success.” The course plan and syllabus also borrow heavily from a graduate course that I took from Jim Bizzocchi at SFU in 2006, although it has been highly modified to fit into a 10 week period, and to reflect my own preferences and ideas around this material.

Reference Management Software:

Oftentimes plagiarism isn’t intentional – it happens because the writer either isn’t in the habit of citation, or because the overhead of citing sources turns the process into a burden. For this class I am requiring you to adopt the use of a reference management system if you do not already use one.  This is one of the single best investments of your time you can undertake as a graduate student, and it will reward you a thousand times over once you have integrated it into your workflow.  Unless you are already heavily invested in a different platform, I would like you to use Zotero: it’s free, it works as both a stand-alone program, and as a browser plug-in, it integrates very smoothly with Word, it has great collaboration support, it has AMAZING citation scrapers for the major online repositories (ACM DL, JSTOR, Springer, etc.), and it has a very complete database of reference formats that are easy to install.  Did I mention that it’s FREE?  It is! For more information about the options out there, the UCI Library has a good resource here: http://libguides.lib.uci.edu/content.php?pid=19606&sid=583269.