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COMM 3344: Games for the web (Interactive multimedia)
Spring 2005

Dr. Aaron Delwiche (
Course meeting times: T + TH 2:10 - 3:25 (RCC 400 /402)
Office Hours: M + F 10:30-1:30T + TH 9:30 - 11:30
Office: Laurie 363
Phone: 999-8153

Course description

A staple of nerd subculture for almost three decades, role-playing games have taken on new life in the era of networked computing. High-speed connections, sophisticated graphics and powerful microprocessors have paved the way for massively multiplayer games (MMOs) such as City of Heroes, Star Wars Galaxies, and Second Life.

The popularity of these virtual environments is staggering. At any given moment, at least 90,000 players are interacting with one another in Norrath -- the fictional world of Everquest. With game characters and virtual objects fetching thousands of dollars on eBay, sweat shops have been set up in developing nations to service this micro-economy (Dibbell, 2003). According to one recent study, the world of Everquest is the 77th richest “nation” on the planet with a per-capita GNP that outstrips China and India (Castranova, 2002).

In recent months, we have seen the emergence of second generation MMOs characterized by stunning visuals, improved artificial intelligence, and game dynamics that appeal to a broader variety of playing styles. One of these games, World of Warcraft, sold 250,000 copies in November 2004. It was the most successful PC game launch in history, outstripping the sales of Halo 2, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Half-Life 2.

Of course, MMOs are just one subset of a much larger videogame industry. From home gaming consoles to arcade-based machines, gamers are confronted with a staggering array of choices. As more individuals turn to interactive media for entertainment, television and film audiences are dwindling. In 1999, “total videogame software and hardware sales in the U.S. reached $8.9 billion, versus $7.3 billion for movie box-office receipts” (Poole, 2000, p. 6). Clearly, videogames are here to stay.

In this course, we will conduct an ethnographic study of the behaviors, cultural practices, and motivations of MMO gamers. Along the way, we will play and critically analyze a variety of videogames. In addition to exploring game mechanics and video-game aesthetics, we will investigate sociological and psychological dimensions of virtual worlds as well as social controversies surrounding game violence and gender representations.

We have three objectives:

1. to explore themes of cyberculture studies through sustained interaction with other residents of World of Warcraft

2. to understand the behaviors, cultural practices, and motivations of MMO players through the use of ethnographic methods

3. to develop a critical vocabulary for analyzing all types of videogames

Prior technical and gaming experience is not required for this course.

Course requirements and materials

Readings will be drawn from the course packet and from two assigned texts.

  • Communication 3344-1: Games for the web
  • Richard Bartle (2003) Designing virtual worlds. Berkeley: New Riders Games.
  • Vernor Vinge and James Frenkel (2001) True names: And the opening of the cyberspace frontier. New York: Tor Books.
  • World of Warcraft game software ($45)
  • World of Warcraft monthly subscription ($15/month. First month is free.)

The course packet, which costs $___, is available at Kinko’s Paw Prints on the third floor of Coates Library. You are responsible for all assigned readings, even if they are not addressed during class.

Throughout the semester, we will spend a significant amount of time in World of Warcraft. This virtual world is an ideal location for studying on-line gamers, cyberculture, and videogame aesthetics. A significant amount of class time will be spent in the game-world, but you are also expected to devote at least five hours a week to ethnographic research within World of Warcraft. To ensure that everyone spends enough time in the virtual world, two group gaming sessions will be held between 6:30 and 9:00 on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. You are expected to attend at least one of these sessions each week.

You are welcome to play the game on the lab computers when other classes are not using the facilities, and you may also be able to install the game on your personal system. If you want to install the game on your home system, it must meet basic system requirements.

If your computer is more than two years old, your graphics card may not be capable of rendering this three-dimensional environment. If this is the case, you will have to access the game via the lab machines.