Postmortem: Frames, Claims, and Videogames


Ian here—

Well, it’s that time of the semester. Grades for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Spring 2017 semester were due Sunday, so it seems that it’s time to offer up a postmortem.

Last time around, I opted to do a postmortem on “Comedy and the Moving Image,” as I felt that it was my most successful course of the Fall 2016 semester. This time, I’m choosing to go with “Frames, Claims, and Videogames.” It must be said that this was not my most successful course of the Spring 2017 semester. That honor would go to “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art“—a fact that is of little surprise, given that it’s now the third time I have taught that class. “Frames, Claims, and Videogames,” by contrast, was a learning experience. It was the first time I’ve helmed a course solely focused on games, without any dependence on a cinema studies context, and it wasn’t taught under ideal circumstances. (As I have mentioned before, it was a late addition to the course roster, which meant that my students didn’t have a very good heads-up about what the course’s material would actually be before they set foot in the classroom.) One could say that it was a trial-by-fire situation, of sorts.

And, in this sense, it was quite effective. To start things off, here are four different lessons I learned over the course of the class:

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Adobe Plug-ins in 2017: A Tale of Five Browsers (on two operating systems)


Ian here—

Some of this material used to be over in the “Practical Pedagogical Notes on Games” section of the site. I’ve decided to migrate it to a blog post, however, for logistical reasons.

It’s an HTML5 world out there. The plug-ins that used to define the landscape of the internet—Flash, in particular—are a dying breed.

If those previous two sentences don’t mean anything to do: Congratulations! You are like most people. This guide is for you. It is a practical, logistical resource to take a peek at when a browser-based game doesn’t work.

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Lesson Plan: Borders, Boundary Crossings, and Subaltern Images


Ian here—

Well, you can’t win ’em all. Over-ambition gets to the best of us, and sometimes a somewhat incoherent lesson is the result. Consider this post to be less of a how-to guide, and more of a postmortem on what is clearly still a work-in-progress.

Migration is a topic that, from the beginning, I knew I wanted to tackle in my Avant-Garde Film and Video Art course this term. US immigration reared its head quite explicitly in my week spent on Bill Brown’s The Other Side, but I also wanted to try out some more conceptually far-flung approaches to the topic. Key here were two texts: Hito Steyerl’s article “In Defense of the Poor Image,” which re-casts image quality as an image of global politics, turning a close eye on how media objects circulate around the world in the current neoliberal order, and Jacqueline Goss’ video Stranger Comes to Town (2007), which tells tales of entry into the US that have been metaphorized into World of Warcraft machinima.

I thought I could draw out some sort of grand theme from this material, about how the circulation of images maps on to the migration of people in our contemporary political regime. It turns out I wasn’t really up to this task. And it’s a shame, too, because I dearly love the videos I assembled for this week, and wish I could have done better by them.

[Update: I asked for feedback in the last day of class, and it turns out that several students actually really liked this class session. They thought its sketched-out argument left them room to think, and really appreciated having to fill in the blanks themselves. Apparently, for some students, it was perfect seminar material. Their only real complaint was that I could have expanded this material, and stretched it out over several weeks! So take the self-criticism in this post with a grain of salt, I guess.]

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Discussion: Robert Breer’s Recreation and Jodie Mack’s The Saddest Song in the World

Ian here—

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m hesitating to call write-ups of classes in the section of “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” I’m teaching this semester “lesson plans.” The course discussion I’m reporting back on often proceeds more from my students’ on-point engagement with the films than it does from any carefully-planned questions on my part. I still want to post some details on this blog, though, because I’m certainly learning a lot about how to tackle these subjects in the future, and would love to share.

Up today: two animated films, one of which unexpectedly became one of the most contentious things I’ve shown so far in any class.

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A Practical Guide to Gone Home


Ian here—

Two weeks ago, I taught Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) for my “Frames, Claims and Videogames” course. I hadn’t played the game in quite some time, so, in the run-up to the course, I re-played it, searching through the house exhaustively, reminding myself of where every last note and prop was, re-acquainting myself with the ins and outs of everyone’s story. Taking some notes, it occurred to me that it would be nice if there was a guide to it online. Not just a guide to picking up all of the items that give you achievements, or something like that—there are plenty of those online, already. Rather, a guide to the stories Gone Home tells, and where exactly you can find the environmental elements that move those stories forward, and flesh it out.

Well, I guess it falls to me to create what I’m looking for. Again.

My guide to Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic (2013) was just a walkthrough. This is a bit more, as I have specifically designed it to aid in things like class prep and analysis. It isn’t, by itself, analysis, but tends closer to that direction than the Problem Attic one does. (I’d place it roughly in the realm of my Virginia videos.) Enjoy!

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Discussion: Bill Brown’s The Other Side


Ian here—

My teaching style for my “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” first-year seminar course at the School of the Art Institute this semester has been relatively hands-off. I show students things in class, give a short 10-20 minute lecture, have students give presentations (you can see their handiwork here!), and then launch into discussion.

One way to conduct class discussion is to have a very specific set of interpretive moves you want to make, and to tailor your questions in order to guide your students through your own thought process. Sometimes I’ll do this type of in-class discussion. (My lesson plan on Bruce Conner’s A Movie details a lot of the points I like to hit up when discussing that film). I’m drifting away from that, though, in this particular class. I give students more work to do, in the form of blog posts and presentations. Likewise, I’m more fully embracing the seminar format in class discussions, allowing conversation to be guided by students’ interests, instead of carefully crafting questions to serve a particular road map.

This has lead to some really wonderful in-class moments that I wanted to report back on. I bristled at the thought of calling these “lesson plans,” given that such language gives me too much credit, and my students too little. Instead, they’re best thought of as the collaborative results of loosely-planned conversations, that hold within them the potential to become future, more strictly-planned lessons.

Up today: some points made while my students and I discussed Bill Brown’s essay film The Other Side (2006). If you haven’t seen it, the entire film is available on Brown’s Vimeo page, here.

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Lesson Plans: The Definitions and Expectations We Have of Games


Ian here—

This post serves as a little mini-postmortem on two difficult class sessions in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” course. There are multiple overlapping reasons why these class sessions were difficult for me. One is that my lesson had to pivot strangely from seemingly-academic debates on the definition of games to a sudden dive into matters of harassment in game culture. Harassment itself is, needless to say, a difficult thing to discuss in class. It becomes exponentially more difficult when one is teaching  a class with a high percentage of international students, many of whom (thanks to the registration realities of late-scheduled courses) have no particular interest in games, and who simply cannot fathom the cultural forces that align to drive a certain subset of American men to use things like changing conceptions of videogames (videogames!) as an opportunity to harass women online. I mean, how do you explain this, really—to anyone at all, let alone someone completely on the outside of American “gamer” culture?

I won’t go so far as to claim that my approach to this material was entirely successful. (The class did not, for instance, become a platform for thoughtful discussion in the same way my unexpectedly post-Trump-election lesson on the politics of American comedy did.) It was, though, a learning experience for me, so it’s worth sharing some details.

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