Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Textbook Review: Teaching Videogames

It's been awhile since I did one of these. I just got a new shipment in, but I chose this one first because it was short.

"Teaching Videogames" (Barney Oram & James Newman)

It may seem strange to call this a "textbook" since it's targeted at teachers and not students, but it's a book on teaching and games so of course I had to take a look. It's written by two people with no game industry credits that I could see, it's barely large enough at 88 pages to qualify as a book (at that size it's more like an oversized pamphlet), and they're charging $42.95 for it, so I wasn't in a particularly generous mood when I started reading.

To be clear, this is not a book on game development. It's a book on game studies. This wasn't clear to me from the title, although I suppose being part of the "Teaching Film and Media Studies" series of books (as shown on the cover) should have been a big hint.

What exactly is this book about? It appears to be a primer on games (in the context of media studies) for those unfortunate souls who teach media studies courses, somehow found themselves tasked with teaching a class on video game studies, and feel completely lost because they don't know the first thing about video games. For those people, this book offers an overview of games and the game industry: a brief history of the industry, important types of businesses (developers, publishers, retailers, etc.), ludology and narratology, women in games, and violence in games and its effect on society. It offers workable syllabi for a pair of six-week classes, one on the study of games and one on the study of play, and includes some worksheets that can be given as class assignments (printed in such a tiny font that I had to squint to read it, but thankfully including a link to a soft copy online).

I didn't see any blatant errors; the content is pretty solid for what it is. In fact, my lesson plans for my Game Industry Survey course already contain a lot of this information, so I may not be as hopeless at game studies as I used to think I was. And the book is a fast read, so if you know nothing about video games and need to get up to speed pronto, this is a pretty decent bet. It starts off with a bit of academic jargon in the first few pages, but quickly lapses into a more readable, conversational tone.

That said, the book has what I see as a major conceptual flaw, and it's something that has probably been bugging some of you since a couple of paragraphs ago: this is written to assist those who are teaching a game studies class, but don't know the first thing about it. So I have to ask... for those who don't know anything about a subject, why are they teaching it in the first place? This book doesn't qualify someone to teach a class in game studies, any more than reading the Cliffs Notes version of Hamlet would qualify me to teach a class on Shakespeare in the English department. A teacher who knows nothing about a subject should not teach a course in that subject. Period. Am I the only one who thinks this? Am I oversimplifying? At any rate, it seems to me that if someone needs this book, then really they don't need the book, they need to not teach the class. So I'm suddenly not seeing the point of this book existing in the first place.

For those who teach game studies and are fully qualified, most of the content in this book is a waste of time, because you know it already. You won't see anything new. About the only thing that might be of use is the worksheets and lesson plans, which amount to maybe a tenth of the total book, and you can probably find more and better content in the IGDA Edu Curriculum Knowledge Base. The best reason to buy this book, then, appears to be the picture of Lara Croft wearing glasses and looking all educated on the front cover.

Students: Ironically, I think the people who would get the most use out of this book are students who are contemplating a Game Studies or Media Studies major. The book is short, it's easy to read, you can skip over the academic parts, and it'll give you a head start for your Game Studies 101 class (and give you some idea of the kinds of things you'll be studying). Just be aware that neither this book nor any related course of study will actually help you to make games, it will only let you study them.

Instructors: As mentioned above, either you don't need this book (in which case, buying it is a problem), or you do need this book (which is itself a problem). I did think of one edge case where the book might be useful: if you're teaching a more general Media Studies class (comparing and contrasting various media and how to study them) and you want to include a week or two on games but you're unfamiliar with this medium, then this book would be suitable for you to build that content into an existing class.

Professionals: If you're a practicing professional who knows all about making games but you never actually got to take any game studies courses in college (because you were too busy learning game development), and you'd like to read the books out there like Rules of Play except they're too big and intimidating to fit into your busy schedule, this will give you the quick-and-dirty introduction you're looking for.


Anonymous said...

Teaching is increasingly identified with "delivering content". The content deliverer doesn't actually need to know much beyond what is delivered (mostly by a textbook). The idea that the instructor should be an expert practitioner is nearly dead, even if community colleges, in large part thanks to SACS and other regional accreditation agencies, which presume that the only way to be an expert on something is to take classes on it. (As someone who's taught graduate classes part-time for 20 years, I know how untrue THAT is.)

When the standard track for a teacher is college-graduate school-teaching, with no actual experience, it's not surprising that there are lots of people "teaching" subjects they know nothing about.

So the typical teacher who has no real-world experience doesn't blink an eye at someone "teaching" something they know nothing about. Just a little more content to deliver, and evidently this book is a considerable part of that content.

Ian Schreiber said...

I have to say your logic seems reasonable (especially for an anonymous post), and it scares me to no end.