Minecraft is more than our object of study: it’s also the platform we use for teaching. Since 2014, Minecraft has been particularly important to one of several video game studies courses that we teach at Concordia: Video Games and/as Theory.
Video Games and/as Theory
Video game studies is a nascent, fragmentary discipline that draws on many different philosophical perspectives and methodologies. Focusing on history, ideology and political economy, this course pairs a range of critical approaches with specific video games in order to consider what the theories can teach us about the games, and what the games can teach us about the theories.
The current version of this course explores the theory and history of modernity through intensive interaction with Mojang’s Minecraft — one of the most popular but least studied video games in history.
Further, this is a “flipped” class; we spend our meeting time in-game, engaged in various collaborative activities designed to teach aspects of the readings on the syllabus through material experience. Lectures take the form of prerecorded podcasts, which students can listen to while playing or at any other point during their week.
Integrating Teaching and Research
One of our goals is to break down as many of the barriers that separate teaching from research as possible. Ideally, we would like students to come away from Video Games and/as Theory with a sense of themselves as researchers — that is, as producers as well as consumers of knowledge. During class, students work in teams to identify objects of study, develop their own research questions, and use the material affordances of the game to investigate their questions. If you’re curious, there are some examples of student work on our Projects page.
For those students who want to develop the research aspect of their studies further, we offer the opportunity to use our servers in the summer, then hire and train as many as possible as Research Assistants, who also work in teams.
Moloch’s Gauntlet, a Minecraft escape room, was produced by Angelica Calcagnile, Theodore Fox, Nat Torre and Andrew Rochon, aka the “Student Cabal,” our very first undergraduate research team. We think this project is a very strong example of research-creation at any level, let alone undergraduate. It demonstrates that the approach we are taking to the integration of teaching and research fosters skills in critical thinking, project ideation, protyping, planning, execution, academic writing and the communication of research findings. The Cabal is currentl;y working on a draft of a paper about their project to be submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal. The net result is an unusual and exciting trajectory from the undergraduate classroom into either graduate studies or possible careers in digital media research.
We also formally study the course as we teach it (with university ethics approval), while making our research process visible to the class members. We aim to develop insights that will allow us to better achieve our own goals, and to share our findings with other educators interested in using digital games in undergraduate teaching in innovative ways.
Pedagogy: The Allegorical Build
Allegory is a powerful interpretive tool that has a long history of use in philosophical and critical thinking, from classical antiquity to contemporary materialist investigations of digital media and culture. It uses assemblages of events, actions, and objects as an occasion to think through complex ideas.
“The allegorical build” is what we call our pedagogical model. We describe it in detail in our paper of the same name, but briefly, the allegorical build occurs at the moment when students use their relationship to game procedures to think about a range of other things. In the case of our current version of Video Games and/as Theory, those “other things” are a series of core readings concerning the theory and history of modernity, but instructors could, with a little work, use the same approach to create classes on Indigenous futurity, environmentalism and sustainability, archaeology, geology, architecture, engineering, computer programming, medieval culture, or any number of other topics.
The allegorical build is not speedy. It begins with hesitations and the realization of misperceptions, then slowly but deliberately negotiates its way through a series of in-game activities and critical readings toward a third thing. That third thing is not simply a theoretically informed understanding of the game (which would be the goal in game studies); nor is it a better understanding of the critical material (a media-historical or cultural studies approach), but an ongoing, intensive form of learning in which the theoretical and philosophical potential of the readings is doubled by the experimental and technical milieu of procedural elaboration in the game, transforming both components in the process.
If you want to know more about how we actually run Video Games and/as Theory, and what it feels like from the instructor’s side to try and teach it, check out the audio recording of Patrick Lejtenyi’s conversation with Darren.