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COMM 3344: Games for the web (Interactive multimedia)
Spring 2006

Dr. Aaron Delwiche (
Course meeting times: T + TH 2:10 - 3:25 (RCC 400 /402)
Office Hours: TBD
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. According to a study conducted several years ago, the world of Everquest is the 77th richest “nation” on the planet with a per-capita GNP that outstrips China and India (Castranova, 2002). Others estimate that more than $900 million in virtual assets were exchanged in 2005, with a projected market that exceeds $7 billion by 2009. 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).

Last year, we witnessed 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, has sold more than 3.5 million copies in North America. 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 games. 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 cyber-culture studies through sustained interaction with other residents of Everquest II,
  2. to apply ethnographic research methods to understand the behaviors, cultural practices, and motivations of MMO players, and
  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.

The course packet, which costs approximately $75, 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 Everquest II. This virtual world is an ideal location for studying on-line gamers, cyber-culture, 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 Everquest II. 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 minimum system requirements. Even if your computer meets the minimum requirements, game performance might be sluggish. An ideal system would meet these recommended requirements. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about your computer's capabilities.

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.

At the outset, it should be noted that massively multiplayer games have a reputation for being addictive. When I taught a previous version of this course using Everquest, I received several e-mail messages from former players who were concerned about the potential for addiction. For example, one person commented “[Y]ou could potentially get people addicted and lost in this world. I was addicted to the game for 3 years and it IS a very, very powerful addiction. I strongly urge you to explain to everyone in advance that if they have strong addictive-type personalities not to force them to do this. . . [I] could not be any more serious.”

Of course, the same factors that make these games addictive make them highly interesting to new media scholars. If you have a compulsive personality, you might want to consider strategies for placing limits on your access to the game. One possibility is to avoid playing the game in any location other than the computer lab. Also, please remember that the game – though intrinsically fun – is merely a vehicle for understanding the dynamics of virtual worlds. If you are worried about your relationship to the game at any time during the semester, please do not hesitate to contact me.