University of Massachusetts, Amherst
ENG 494DI, Dystopian Games, Comics, Media, is a course I teach in one of the Team-Based Learning classrooms at UMass, Amherst. It is a teacher-student collaborative pedagogical experience that includes many moments of student-led demonstrations and active experimentation with the course materials. During the semester we asked questions about the popularity of dystopian narratives in print and digital visual culture. Students were required to complete one of five mainstream video games during the semester (Portal 2, Half-life 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, The Walking Dead, and Left 4 Dead). Since it was not feasible to play all of each game during class or lab hours, we used fan-created video game walkthroughs to help us discuss key game mechanics, elements, and themes. At the end of the semester, each team of students created their own “critical walkthrough”.
What is a video game walkthrough?
Documenting, viewing, and commenting on gameplay sessions has become a pervasive part of digital games culture. As such, video game walkthroughs are fan-created paratexts, extra diegetic instructional manuals, and do-it-yourself descendants of the printed strategy guide that methodically demonstrate how to play levels, scenes, and even every minute of a video game. There are an almost endless number of ways to create a walkthrough. For example, some walkthroughs are a combination of screenshots and textual commentary; some are hundreds of pages of step-by-step written instructions that are then shared as game “FAQs” or wikis; some walkthroughs are designed to show only part of a game while others present a game in its entirety.
Increasingly, paralleling the popularity and accessibility of websites like YouTube, GamersTube, and UStream, many video game walkthroughs are created using video capture and audio commentary. These videos sometimes provide a frame-by-frame capture of the game’s original footage and sound. Other times, walkthrough authors add images or audio of themselves commenting on the game’s atmosphere as they speak directly to an assumed viewing audience.
How do walkthroughs function as social media?
Though typically overlooked in scholarly conversations about video games and less obvious than Twitter or Facebook as social media, the gaming walkthrough has become an almost obligatory part of playing and teaching narrative games. Our class decided unanimously to treat these documents as social media. The vast majority of walkthroughs we looked at as examples of the form were uploaded to YouTube or uploaded and discussed on the Let’s Play website and forums. The interactions between walkthrough creators and viewers on YouTube and Let’s Play made a compelling argument that part of the reason people make and view walkthroughs is to be a part of a community with a common interest. Further, in many cases there was also a seamless integration of Facebook and Twitter into some walkthroughs in order to extend reflection and interaction between and among community members.
Our treatment of games as social media, however, often departed from my preconceived arguments about the form. In thinking about how games function as social media, I was interested in arguing that there is a relationship between walkthroughs and proceduralism. If proceduralism can be understood as a style of game design that emphasizes rules in order to create a process-intensive experience that becomes more about a player’s engagement with the meaning behind the rules of the game, video game walkthroughs (both in how they are made and consumed) turn games into a process- and experience-oriented endeavor. For me, the experience of watching and commenting on the “process” of another person playing makes clear the rote pleasures evident in this type of social networking.
I wanted to explore this connection to proceduralist discourses in game studies but I found that students found the readings on proceduralism tedious and unconvincing. The majority of the students in my class, many of whom identified as “gamers” in one way or another, insisted that they use walkthroughs as a way to connect with other gamers. The class was not convinced that walkthroughs strip games down to a rule-based, abstract, introspective process even though they commented often that they were more aware of their feelings and the emotional “rhythm” of a game when they watched walkthroughs that do not include author commentary. As a result, a large part of our discussions on walkthroughs as social media centered on why we think people create or watch what might otherwise seem to be a boring process.
We concluded that there are numerous and complex reasons why people create and view walkthroughs. In a class activity, each team of students used their whiteboards to list reasons. This activity revealed the following motives for walkthrough participation: catharsis; instruction on how to beat a difficult or long game; out of a sense of admiration for the author/gamer’s “skillz”; as means of study; as a way to interact with an audience around the game; to listen to humorous commentary and reactions that add entertainment value to a game; to appreciate the rhythm or flow of a game that can be less apparent when actually playing it; as a form of nostalgia, including reminiscing about the “glory days,” wanting to re-experience an “old friend,” and learning how to “finally beat a game you couldn’t beat as a kid.”
How can we use walkthroughs in the media studies classroom?
Most popular narratives games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect, and Skyrim can take over fifty hours to play. Certainly, this fact alone makes some of the timeliest and most culturally relevant video games too time prohibitive or complex to complete during class hours. Video walkthroughs can be used in the classroom to answer questions, to provide examples of what will happen if a series of choices are made, and to glean how fans have interacted with a particular game’s content, themes, and latent arguments about culture. Consequentially, in media and game studies classrooms, the walkthrough has become an illustrative and synoptic tool.
While I have used video game walkthroughs in several of my classes, this was the first time I have taught the walkthrough as an object of study or as something that I wanted students to produce. In order to think about as many examples of the form as possible, students maintained a wiki on our Moodle site. The wiki included links to sample walkthroughs as well as notes about what made the example interesting.
Media studies scholarship on machinima and digital preservation helped expand our common language. We tended to agree that walkthroughs combine both low and high tech skills, and we thought productively about walkthroughs as a form of machinima. Further, several students in the class wanted to use diverse examples of the form to refute the argument that machinima skews “toward the traditional technophile demographic: white, male, middle class, 18 to 45.”1 After watching and analyzing dozens of walkthroughs in addition to playing the games, we fell just short of agreeing with James Newman’s provocative claim that the walkthrough is potentially “more useful to future game scholars than the playable game itself.”2
What is a critical walkthrough?
The class culminated with each group of five to six students collaboratively creating their own walkthroughs based on a game we studied. Since our class was thematically concerned with the dystopian impulse in popular culture, we took a cue from the discourses on critical dystopias as we defined what we meant by the “critical walkthrough.” As the critical dystopia has been defined as a “space of contestation and opposition” that despite its bleak and often depressing deconstructive work also engenders hope outside the text,3 we defined the critical walkthrough as a project that makes an argument about the limitations of the gameworld in a way that is mindful of the game’s unique mechanics and social commentary. The “hopeful” part of the critical walkthrough was often attainable only in discussions of the work as a type of cultural intervention. Students Steven Clarke, Kristopher Kiernan, Chelsea O’Hara, Noah Robbins, and Ian Sinnett have offered their final on GTA IV as an example of the walkthrough’s potential as expository essay. The video is hosted on my YouTube channel in order to discourage access to the students’ personal channels. Below are some of the guidelines for the walkthrough assignment, discussion questions that were used to get students thinking critically about walkthroughs, examples of walkthroughs that students found useful, and selected readings that helped students frame their experiences.
- Find and prepare some comments on two different walkthroughs of the opening five minutes of your video game. Try to find an example that includes commentary as well as one that does not. Does the commentary change your perception of the game?
- Add at least ten interesting, different, good, creative, objective, bad, problematic, and/or critical walkthroughs to our class wiki. Make sure to also include a few comments about the walkthroughs you upload.
- List some reasons people watch walkthroughs and reasons people make them.
- Do you use walkthroughs?
- Is the walkthrough social media?
- What is the relationship between a video walkthrough and a strategy guide?
- Are walkthroughs machinima, why or why not? Can you find examples to support your answer?
- Can proceduralism apply to the video game walkthrough?
- What is your team’s definition of a “critical walkthrough”?
Selected walkthroughs from wiki
Chien, Irene. “Playing Against the Grain: Machinima and Military Gaming.” In Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games, edited by Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne, 239–251. 1st ed. Routledge, 2009.
Lowood, Henry, and Michael Nitsche, eds. The Machinima Reader. The MIT Press, 2011.
Mackey, Bob. “Spectator Gaming: They Play, So You Don’t Have To.” 1up. n.p. 5 September 2011. Web. 31 January 2013.
Paryzer, Drew. “Literacy, Video Games, and the Strategy Guide.” Joystick Division. n.p. 29 February 2012. Web. 31 January 2013.
Sicart, Miguel. “Against Procedurality.” Game Studies 11, no. 3 (December 2011). http://gamestudies.org/1103/articles/sicart_ap.
Taylor, Brian. “So I Was Reading This Strategy Guide.” Joystick Division. n.p. 24 July 2011. Web. 31 January 2013.Works Cited
Hancock, Hugh. “Machinima: Limited, Ghettoized, and Spectacularly Promising.” Journal of Visual Culture 10, no. 1 (2011): 31–37.
Newman, James. “(Not) Playing Games: Player-Produced Walkthroughs as Archival Documents of Digital Gameplay.” International Journal of Digital Curation 6.2 (2011): 109–127. Web. 11 Oct. 2012.
Baccolini, Raffaella, and Tom Moylan, eds. “Introduction.” In Dark Horizons : Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, 1–12. New York: Routledge, 2003.