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GDC 2012: The unique challenge of making students play old video games
GDC 2012: The unique challenge of making students play old video games
March 6, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi




One wouldn't think it would be difficult to get college students to play video games, but as three educators described at a GDC session on Tuesday, there are a lot of challenges.

All three professors teach the history of video games at their respective universities, either as its own subject or in order to provide context for video game writing or design studies.

The first blockade toward making this happen is convincing students to actually play old games. Though most (if not all) students in these courses play video games in their private lives, their personal tastes do not often intersect with what would be required to play important classics.

"Rather than pretend that we're immersed in the same gameplay culture as students, we need to take a step back and find what needs to be told," said Jesper Juul of New York University.

One of Juul's courses is Games 101, an introduction to the breadth of video game history, meant as a stepping stone toward further, deeper classes (should they exist, which they don't yet). The class requires students to spend significant time with older titles and write specific reports, which are often revealing, with one of his students starting a paper with "Zork was the first text-based adventure game I have ever played and probably the last text-based adventure game I will ever play."

"Old games are really hard," says Clara Fernandez-Vara, of the Singapore MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, who says that her students have yet to meet the challenge of getting to level 5 of Jet Set Willy without losing any lives.

"Our students are going to get frustrated and pissed off at us because why the hell are they playing these stupid games that are broken?"

Inspired by her mentors when studying Shakespeare, who explained a work's historical context in order to help her better understand it, Fernandez-Vara encourages her students to play together in class. Sometimes she'll be at the helm, and sometimes it will be a student, but in either case discussion and experimentation is encouraged as the class tackles a game together.

"Playing together always helps," she stresses.

A Problem of Access

Getting students to want to play games is only part of the problem. The bigger issue is giving them access to old games, many of which are no longer commercially available.

"We're lucky enough that there are a lot of legal ways to getting access to older games," said Fernandez-Vara, "but ... I like weirder games and going into the offbeat material."

While all campuses offer games in their respective libraries (UC Santa Cruz's Noah Wardrip-Fruin describes a substantial game lab that rents out everything from Atari 2600s to iPads), it is difficult to not only source original hardware and software, but to have enough of it available for individual students.

Wardrip-Fruin took a somewhat creative approach when he wanted his students to play Infocom's classic line of text adventures, which are no longer available to purchase. He wrote a letter to Activision, which retains the rights to Infocom's catalog through an old acquisition deal, and was surprised to get a noncommercial license to install the games on a set number of computers on campus.

Fernandez-Vara takes a different approach: she champions software emulation, despite its legal gray areas.

"I advocate to use emulators in class under the assumption that it's fair use, that we're teaching students, and that the potential monetary loss [to rights holders] is offset by the education to our students," she said.

And this isn't just an easy way to source games and save money. Her courses in design and writing source many titles for the ZX Spectrum and MSX computers, systems that never had a presence in the United States (but thrived in Spain, where she grew up).

"Using emulators and ROMs should be covered by fair use: we're educators," she stressed.


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[User Banned]
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Roberto Dillon
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> which universities have dedicated modules to the history of games?

We do @DigiPen and we analyze games in the context of the industry and its developments. I think this is also what Clara meant with the analogy to Shakespeare: I guess playing a game together (reading Shakespeare together??) by itself doesn't really help in understanding the context the work was developed/written in...

Interestingly, I'll have my class playing Infocom's Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy next week while discussing storytelling. I don't expect them to solve the Babel Fish puzzle but I'll do my best to have them appreciate how the puzzles were constructed and how they helped the story progression. Usually there's also no need for getting into gray areas with emulators as many games can be played online straight away without downloading/installing anything (in this case, go here: www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/hitchhikers/game.shtml )

Anyway, I'd have loved to be at the panel too...

Ian Uniacke
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The babel fish wasn't so difficult. It just required patience and a willingness to experiment. The payoff was so good that it was worth the time invested. The feeding the sandwich to the dog puzzle on the other hand *facepalm*.

On topic, what is the purpose of ANY history class? To learn from our mistakes. To learn things that might have been forgotten to modern culture (case in point, interactive fiction...the conversation trees that make up so called interactive story telling in modern games are pretty lame by comparison). I guess there are more but the benefits of studying history are rarely appreciated by students and in this case I believe it's no exception. Changing the lesson to create a more utilitarian approach will not necessarily be in the best interests of the student, even if he doesn't realise it while he is learning.

Daniel Brogan
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To be blunt, when introducing the "younger generations" to older titles, they are just not prepared for the horrors they'll encounter. And there are indeed lots of horrors, far more than what Doom could put out that's for sure! When I've introduced children to games that I played when I was younger than they were, they are so used to Nintendo DS titles through to XBox 360 titles that they are already jaded.

And as for text adventures? They are a historical footnote, and this is from someone who used to play text adventures as a youngster. They only hold nostalgia value for those who *really really REALLY* liked them as children and can't see that such games were absolute rubbish most of the time. The "I do not understand." and "What do you mean?" texts aren't myths, nor is trying to figure out what the developer(s) were smoking whilst designing the "game". Let's not forget that such mechanics were carried over to the point'n'clicks as well.

To me, playing games from the 1980s and prior is like watching an archaeology program where they find a small piece of pottery or a coin. Very interesting but ultimately its not going to teach us how to make better pottery or coins. Add to that they aren't typically usable.

It's far better to look at the games of the 1990s (everything from Commander Keen through to Thief 2) where there is a wealth of interesting titles, developments and tonality shifts. By 1995, we had Descent and Quake 1 and these games are still relevant when looking as to what's "fun" and what works and does not work. Obviously, 1998 brought the original Half-Life (a game fanboys the world over will get their underwear in a twist when I point this next bit) that was arguably one of the most polished games that got everything it done right...without actually introducing anything new. And no doubt it has had many a thesis written about it. It was also about this time that adventure games weren't being seen as commercially viable in that shift to make everything a shoot 'em up. Heck we had the original Unreal in the same year, arguably a glorified tech demo - and what a tech demo! Not universally grey or brown, but actually colourful! And look! Outdoor environments that actually look the part! Well, for the time anyway. :)

Therefore, wouldn't it be more valuable to speed through the 1980s games? Acknowledge their contributions, play no more than three titles, but ultimately look at them as what they are: highly unrefined, generally unusable today and - like the aforementioned piece of pottery and coinage - belong in a museum. Then skip to the games of the 1990s and ask the following questions:-

"Was there any baggage brought over from the games of the 80s to the games of the 90s? List any you can find."
"What, and why, was their such a tonality shift from 1990 to 1999?"
"If you were to play 3 of the top rated games from each year, what do you think they contributed - if anything?"
"If you were in charge and had three months to make any changes to a game, which game would it be and what changes would you make?"

There are more questions, but I'm not writing the course and nor am I being paid for it ;) so those above shall suffice as examples. Also, I realise it would be 30 games in total (re: third question) but you wouldn't necessarily have to play them all to completion. You certainly wouldn't have to with Quake, what a boring game that was! I remember getting to level 7 of episode 1 and I couldn't stand (sit? :P ) the game anymore...Duke Nukem 3D on the other hand... :D

Of course, if it were up to me, I'd have them playing Grim Fandango, Thief 2, Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, Wolfenstein 3-D (for motion sickness and migraines if nothing else ;) ), System Shock 2 ("OMG! I only have my crowbar left! Don't mind me...I'm off to hide amongst the crates..." ;) ) and other such titles rather than "I'm going to lead you by the nose and make everything nice and cushy should you fail (but you won't really!)" type games we have today that's for sure!

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Eric Schwarz
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Games like Super Mario Bros., Metroid, Pac-Man, Tetris, Donkey Kong, Pong, etc. are foundational to the medium and every aspiring game designer should have a thorough understanding of them and the mechanics that drive them. I think it's common even amongst professionals to trust in things that work not because they understand them, but because they've worked for others; branding older games as "footnotes" without taking time out to understand their successes promotes such a mentality. We still see games with problems that were solved decades ago; I just don't think you can be a competent designer when your gaming experience doesn't go back past Halo.

Daniel Brogan
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Bill: That's one of my points, I did originally toy with an automotive anecdote (along the lines of "why start with the horse and cart in trying to understand how today's cars work in whole or in part?") but it felt like I was repeating myself.

Also, just to be clear to all - I didn't say there was nothing to learn from old games, the paragraph:-

"Therefore, wouldn't it be more valuable to speed through the 1980s games? Acknowledge their contributions, play no more than three titles, but ultimately look at them as what they are: highly unrefined, generally unusable today and - like the aforementioned piece of pottery and coinage - belong in a museum."

Now that's not a comfortable statement - I remember playing on the BBC Micro and Commodore VIC20 (and cutting my programming teeth on the BBC Micro) - its simply true. And to gain an understanding of that era, the tutor cherry picking three (and let's be clear: very different and unique for all their own reasons) titles should be sufficient.

As for IGF winners being inspired by the 8-bit games, I agree with this sentiment - but I haven't checked the IGF to count them all or to go through them and see which are inspired and which ones are essentially remakes (but that's nitpicking). Regardless, there's a lack of creativity issue there that would be worth an article all its own.

Your final point is mostly addressed by my quote above, as with my archaeology allegory, we learn from archaeology - but we don't let it rule what we do in the present or future (e.g. we don't make coins by hand, we have machines for this and pottery is still being made by hand even in the "modern" world - but we have better materials and have much better tools).

So for gaming examples, with the inception of Doom back in December of '93 (I remember that date, well, for the shareware version anyway!), the concept of having "lives" was done away with (although it should be pointed out for those that don't know, is that "lives" existed all the way into the late beta versions) and gradually other games followed suit. Adventure game makers realised that randomly killing the player wasn't fun, along with pixel-hunt puzzles (not to mention text parsers).

Anyway, I realise this has been a relatively long post (I apologise for that). Of course, it had to be done to make sure I was being clear for others as Bill, it seems to me that we have the same or similar thinking.

Daniel Brogan
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Eric: If you read my post properly, you would have seen that I ascribed "historical footnote" to text adventures. The quote being: "And as for text adventures? They are a historical footnote, and this is from someone who used to play text adventures as a youngster". Perhaps I should have said "largely a historical footnote", because any text adventure can be used as an example, with the rest being also-rans or merely uncredited.

Now your other point as regards Super Mario Bros and all other Nintendo titles, Tetris and Pong are "foundational to the medium" and "all aspiring game designers should have a thorough understanding" is over-stating their importance. Now that being said, the first Super Mario Bros is important to point out (if only for that its the first of a long chain of the same game) and granted Tetris is a little more complicated than stacking with shaped bricks whereas Pong is simply bat 'n' ball - or vastly simplified tennis - and all the rest that you mention are rehash jobs in the very traditional manner of Nintendo.

None of those previous titles solved any problems that are being made today, I agree with you that problems are still being made today that have been solved already, but even the games I'm going to mention (to use the "three games" premise I put forward in my OP) didn't solve anything either.

One of those three games would be Rogue. As Rogue is very important when it comes to the concept of fun and difficulty (as completing Rogue is reduced to chance over ability, an important discussion point). You mention Pac-Man which is more important than Super Mario, especially with the different AIs; has a lives system as well; a way to keep the player's score; you have to collect things and - unlike Mario - you initially have to run away from the monsters (with opportunities to turn the tables on the monsters) - all of which present their own discussion points. Then any text adventure could be played, it doesn't matter which as the discussion points are the same: the clunky nature of the text parser, picking the designer's brain and how much better it was when adventures became point 'n' click (although with some carry-overs as I alluded to in my original post).

So three games from the 80s that represent vastly different genres and all with talking points that can be used to gain a much better understanding of the era and games themselves in a class-based environment. If a tutor/student spent more time with games of the 80s, they'll quickly find that there is little else to be learned. Especially when games of the 90s are far more relevant to what they'll be making and/or contributing towards should they be fortunate get a job in the game development world.

And its games of the 90s that start to solve problems, which is why the last part of my original post focuses on the 90s (an example would be Doom dispensing with the lives system) and I would encourage all tutors and students to read the post-mortems right here on Gamasutra (I initially came to Gamasutra, many many years ago, just to read the post-mortems on No One Lives Forever and Deus Ex).

As an aside, and this is something I agree with - breathe easy Eric, yes I'm agreeing with you on one of your points :) - this bit here: "I just don't think you can be a competent designer when your gaming experience doesn't go back past Halo.", I don't know if that's aimed at me or the world at large (I'm thinking the latter), but it is a valid point. Especially as Halo 1 was released in November 2001 and Max Payne, which solved the problem of difficulty levels, came out in June 2001...and people *still* go on about solving the "problem" of difficulty levels...drives me crazy it does.

In fact, talking about the stagnation of games from 2001 to present would be an interesting discussion I thinks.

But anyway, I've edited this post down (yes it was much longer, far too long) and I'm more interested now in reading your reply. So, its your turn now :)

Raymond Grier
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"To me, playing games from the 1980s and prior is like watching an archaeology program where they find a small piece of pottery or a coin. Very interesting but ultimately its not going to teach us how to make better pottery or coins. Add to that they aren't typically usable."

-That explains why newer Nintendo games using the older 80s formats are making so much money (New Super Mario Bros sub-franchise, Donkey Kong Country reboot, etc). The main difference between older games and newer games is the restrictions to design imposed by the hardware.The lesson to be learned is how people figured out ways to work within those limitations.

Daniel Brogan
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Raymond, the only reason why Nintendo is making money is from consumers who don't know any better. Those who played, for example, Mario Kart back on the SNES when it was first out will not find much - if any - change in Mario Kart 7. Now, I don't hold any animosity towards Nintendo for making money, go them - especially if the great unwashed want to lap it up.

However, your point of: "The main difference between older games and newer games is the restrictions to design imposed by the hardware.The lesson to be learned is how people figured out ways to work within those limitations." is true and not in dispute, one of the main problems is with people who would select games based on their fanboyism as opposed to what they actually bring to the table (and not what is ascribed to them). That, and there is a *lot* of crap from the 80s that was only good then because no one knew any better and a lot of clones and rehashes that don't deserve the time of day.

I would also point out that even 1990s games will largely be irrelevant at some future point, with few titles being worthy of consideration. That's just the way it is. That doesn't mean that the games aren't enjoyable.

Like silent films of the 20s are enjoyed by a small portion of the population, with some of those films being of value today. Same with the 30s, 40s and 50s films. Quite literally tens of thousands of films of which, only a select few will be revered. Same goes for TV series of the 50s, much of it was awful and deserves to stay in the vaults and never be seen again. A select few are still repeated to this day. The phrase "timeless classic" would apply.

Additional: I am aware of "The Artist" before anyone pipes in with that. :)

k s
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I think there are a lot of great old games and many lessons current designers could learn for games of yesteryear.

Kelly Kleider
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I completely agree.

It also sets the context. The awesome thing about this part of history is it can be experienced
directly through MAME or various retro gaming sites, or even as DLC on the various consoles.

E Zachary Knight
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What's the old saying? "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Something along those lines.

There is a lot of great things to learn from the history of game design. We can learn what made certain genres and play styles good an bad. We can learn what design mistakes failed and how to avoid them. We can learn what worked well and what can be improved upon.

I think this is a really important topic that more game designers need to learn. It is easier for those of us that were raised on classic games such as Zork and Mario Bros. But the rising generation has limited exposure to such classic game design.

Daniel Brogan
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Of course and I agree almost completely. With the exception of Zork and Mario, as there were other text adventures before Zork and afterwards, just as there were platformers before Mario and afterwards.But here's the thing, as I've pointed out in my other posts, the 80s introduced problems (but weren't necessarily solved, I can think of Scott Miller's "Kingdom Of Kroz" Rogue-clone that required the player's ability and not random chance) but here's the problem. If a person is to focus on Zork and Mario (to use them as a common frame of reference), they'll only learn 80s fumbling about game design. It's why in my OP, I postulate that 80s games should be sped through in a class, not ignored (as others seem to think) but sped through to get to the games that solved previously introduced problems and are more relevant to today. Let's not forget the post-mortems right here on Gamasutra too.The other problem, however, is the focus on games from the 80s because there is another saying (roughly): "Those who live in the past are condemned to stay in the past". Otherwise known as Nintendo's new slogan! ;)

ADDITIONAL: When I have been talking about games and game design with those in their late teens, they are blissfully unaware of Gamasutra, IGF...hell even Penny Arcade. But I've talked about poor education here in the UK before (see my blog).

Jamie Mann
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Um...

["Old games are really hard," says Clara Fernandez-Vara, of the Singapore MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, who says that her students have yet to meet the challenge of getting to level 5 of Jet Set Willy without losing any lives. ]

Jet Set Willy doesn't have levels: it's essentially a giant map which the player can freely explore. I'd guess that Clara meant Manic Miner - JSW's predecessor - which was level based...

Joe McIntosh
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I think there's a discussion to be had about whether "old" games are more difficult than "new" games. I personally believe they are more stressful, not necessarily more difficult. Not to confuse *simple* with *easy*, the two examples below have similar mechanics: move & shoot ( & don't die ).

When playing Asteroids it starts off easy enough, but gets progressively harder (more and faster targets). It's not the difficulty that stresses me out, it's the fact that if I fail and it's Game Over I have to start completely over... from the very beginning. There's a sense of urgency and finality. No save points, no extra lives, and my high score goes away as soon as the Atari is shut off.

Go play Geometry Wars and you'll likely get a similar experience, but with the peace of mind knowing that your score will be saved on your HDD and uploaded to a leader board for bragging rights.

Philippe-Olivier Blanchet
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It would be interesting to see if any educators use a direct comparing approach towards old/recent games mechanics. By direct approach, I mean taking a somewhat innovating aspect of a recent game and link it back to it's original foundation.

It's a bit like when you're listening to a local radio show and they are broadcasting the"new summer hit", which in fact is an obvious remake of an old one. Some may call me a hipster for this comment, but I love that feeling when you actually know the original song... and you know it's still better then the remix.

Inspiration is sometimes disguised as innovation to the eyes of the new generation of gamers, and it would be wise for them to know the difference. Pointing out that recent titles are borrowing ideas from an 80's or 90's game by directly comparing them together would probably help student see the point of spending time on gaming history and, of course, to preserve it.

Joe McIntosh
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Agreed.So many current generation games are revamps of rehashes of re-skinned re-imagined classics.Asteroids > Food Fight > Smash TV > Xenophobia > Guerilla War > Zombies Ate My Neighbors > Hunter: The Reckoning > Dead Nation

Raymond Grier
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Something I like about older games is the abstraction provided by low quality graphics. Older 8-bit games were able to use imagery more like pictograms than pictures and hence create game concepts and scenarios that couldn't be pulled off using realistic graphics where the size and animation of objects would prevent the concept from working. For instance, in real life coins and fruit are much smaller than adult people but these kinds of objects were often iconified as being the same size as the playable characters. So many older games would never had been made if it wasn't for the limitations that lead to such designs.


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