• MUGC 4980:501 Video Games: Behind the Screens
  • 3 credit hours
  • MTWR 10:00 to 12:50 p.m. May 15 to June 1, 2017
  • UNT New College Room 121, Frisco
  • Instructor: Dr. David Bard-Schwarz
  • Office: MU 104
  • E-mail: david.schwarz@unt.edu

This is a screenshot of Limbo: one of the video games we will study in this course.


In this course, we will play, study, and theorize six video games in depth: Inside (playdead.com/store), Limbo (playdead.com/store), Braid (Mac App Store), Soundtrack Edition: Fez (store steampowered.com/app/224760), Dear Esther (http://dear-esther.com/ STEAM), and Monument Valley (iPHONE / iPAD App store). Special thanks to composer Dan Tramte who recommended several of these games to me.

Students should know right away that we will not be studying games that involve violent sexuality, military aggression, or gender-based exploitation on any level. There is an immense industry of video games in the west whose structure, imagery, narrative, interactive component, sound, music, and ideological underpinnings rely on these forces. It is possible and perhaps important to theorize them as fully as we will theorize the games at hand. But I find it critical to understand first what it means to play, what it means to identify with a character on a screen in an interactive game, what it means to commit to a narrative, or anti-narrative story, what it means to solve a puzzle before embarking on a study of more disturbing topics. On the syllabus below, you'll notice three entries for each class. Since the class meets for 3 hours each day, these are the topcs for each hour. We'll have 50 minutes on each of these + a 10 minute break.

Required Text and Software

In addition to the games we'll study and play, the required book for the class is The Video Game Debate Edited by Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt (New York and London: Routledge Press, 2016). You can get an electronic copy through UNT library services, or order the book hard back from an online supplier. You will also need the audio software editing program Audacity. It's free. You will also need Sonic Visualizer. It is also free.

Course Goals

For people who play, design, code, build, or market games, this class will help you understand: how it is that you identify with characters in a game, how games function as communication in social space, how games train you to think and feel (consciously), how games trigger deeper emotional responses and reflexes (unconsciously), and how games change your sense of experience outside the game. You will acquire this knowledge through the three things we are going to do in the class: 1) playing games and exploring how we think and feel as we play, 2) reading scholarly articles about games, sound-tracks, music, noise, narrative, fairy tales, psychology, sign systems, and 3) writing--individual responses to aspects of gaming, collaborative writing in which a handful of you will craft a single paragraph describing an aspect of a game, and longer critical papers bringing your personal experience of a game into a conversation with the scholarly readings for the course. Class meets for three hours per day; we will divide each class into three 50 minute segments with a 10 minute break between the first and second and second and third hour. In general we'll play / work with a game during the first hour. Then, after a break we'll discuss an article, both in terms of its precise contents and in its relationship with video games in general and the game we have just been playing / working on, in particular. Then, after a break, we'll break down into small groups for collaborative work. Each collaborative session will result in a written document (worksheet, sketch, outline, report, journal entries, etc) upon which each member will contribute.

And we will develop a precise way of talking about, writing about, and integrating the soundtrack, music, and sound effects into the visual domain of video games.

Office of Disability Accommodation (ODA)

The University of North Texas makes reasonable academic accommodation for students with disabilities. Students seeking reasonable accommodation must first register with the Office of Disability Accommodation (ODA) to verify their eligibility. If a disability is verified, the ODA will provide you with a reasonable accommodation letter to be delivered to faculty to begin a private discussion regarding your specific needs in a course. You may request reasonable accommodations at any time, however, ODA notices of reasonable accommodation should be provided as early as possible in the semester to avoid any delay in implementation. Note that students must obtain a new letter of reasonable accommodation for every semester and must meet with each faculty member prior to implementation in each class. Students are strongly encouraged to deliver letters of reasonable accommodation during faculty office hours or by appointment. Faculty members have the authority to ask students to discuss such letters during their designated office hours to protect the privacy of the student. For additional information see the Office of Disability Accommodation website at http://www.unt.edu/oda. You may also contact them by phone at 940.565.4323.


  • term / research paper = 100%


I assume you are students of the University of North Texas in good academic standing. I assume that you are interested not only in playing, but in probing in great detail as many aspects as possible of the gaming experience, including reading challenging academic criticism. I also assume that you are willing to work hard on your writing, as a vehicle for putting your experiences into concrete form that you can share with others. You may have majors in the humanities, the fine arts, business, engineering, the sciences, whatever. You may be native speakers of English; you may have a native language other than English. You may be of traditional age or you may be of a non-traditional age.


You must all bring your own laptop computer to each class. You must buy and install on your machines all of the video games we will discuss. Please bring your own earphones to each class, a notebook with pen / pencil, and an empty flashdrive.

  • 05.15.2017

    Introduction to the Course:

    1) Introduction to the Course: academic study, fun, and thought; image and music (film + video games); levels of consciousness (the linguistic bottleneck and its implications)

    2) VGD (The Video Game Debate) "A Brief History of Video Games"

    3) Limbo

  • 05.16.2017

    1) Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle: pdf The pleasure principle: the psyche will seek a reduction of displeasure; Freud asked himself what was the psychic logic of world-war I veterans who had recurrent nightmares? The answer--the death drive--a fantasy of returning to a state before a traumatic event to protect the psyche. Freud distinguishes fear, anxiety, and shock. In fear, we know the object (i'm afraid of that guy with a gun); in anxiety, we don't know the object precisely (i'm anxious about the widespread availability of guns); in moments of shock we are unprepared (i'm shocked waking up at night to a gun being fired outside my window). Freud writes of the fort-da game as inaugurating us into language in miniature. We master absence with a game; we create something in which we are active; the passive to active transformation gives us a foothold in the problem of how to manage the absence of what we need.

    2) white noise (static, all frequencies at equal dynamic level) sounds artificial, technical, man-made | pink noise (octaves emphasized) sounds natural (like rain, fire) An article on various kinds of noise

    3) Limbo towards the paper

  • 05.17.2017

    1) VGD "The Rise (and Refinement) of Moral Panic"

    2) analysis of audio object of beginning of Limbo G minor chord on the foreground (basics of Gestalt psychology); second inversion instabliity; other added pitch-classes (in the distance): C natural, F natural. Very pink noise in the background.

    3) Limbo

  • 05.18.2017

    1) Kaja Silverman, "Suture" from The Subject of Semiotics The shot in cinema captures an object of the viewer's desire; the reverse shows us what the shot lacked; it shows us what we don't know--the power of the Absent One--the fantasy of power whom we imagine to have held the power to show and conceal all. The cut both connects us and disconnects us from the narrative of cinema; what is the equivalent (if there is one) in videogames to the cinematic cut?

    2) sound, affect (immediate, unmediated impact), emotion (delayed, linguistic processing of affect)

    3) Limbo

    Paper Assignment

  • 05.22.2017

    For your final paper write on the topic of your choice:

    • 1) Close-Reading of a) a game or b) a group of games
      • Formulate a precise thesis containing your idea in a nutshell; a good thesis either implicitly or explicitly appeals to the audience, purpose, and voice of your paper. The audience is the imaginary person for whom you are writing; the purpose is the goal of your writing; the voice is the nature of your language as it is appropriate to your audience and purpose. Underneath your name at the top of your paper indicate: audience = (x); purpose = (y); voice = (z).
      • Unfold your thesis in a series of ternary structures (idea + illustration + comment). This need not be rigid; I am suggesting that your language needs to weave in and out of illustrations (screen shots, sketches, examples, images, etc).
    • 2) Research Paper on a topic relating to any aspect of video games
      • Formulate a precise thesis containing the issues you wish to research; a good thesis either implicitly or explicitly appeals to the audience, purpose, and voice of your paper. The audience is the imaginary person for whom you are writing; the purpose is the goal of your writing; the voice is the nature of your language as it is appropriate to your audience and purpose. Underneath your name at the top of your paper indicate: audience = (x); purpose = (y); voice = (z).
      • Use the Harvard documentation forms as illustrated here: sample Harvard documentation: pdf
      • Explore your topic using a ternary structure (idea + illustration + comment). This need not be rigid; I am suggesting that your language needs to weave in and out of illustrations (screen shots, sketches, examples, images, citations from sources, etc).
      • come to a conclusion concerning your topic of research at the conclusion of your paper
    • 3) Free-Associative Free Writing exploring any aspect of your reactions to video games
      • The purpose of free-associative writing is expression; the audience = yourself; the voice = open and free
      • There is no thesis in automatic or free-associative writing. However, there needs to be a rigid structure to serve as a container for your associations. This structure needs to be either explained in a note at the beginning of your writing or implicitly obvious (for example: writing 50 words on each of the letters of the alphabet)
      • There has to be some dynamic of intensity in free-associative writing (culmination in particularly vivid language, or an attempt to temper very intense emotions or to draw emotions out of dry observations)
      • endings are particularly difficult in free-association; you have to do something to motivate a stopping point.
    • 4) an essay
      • This is a first-person, persuasive form in which you are trying to convince an audience of a position with respect to video games
      • Underneath your name at the top of your paper indicate: audience = (x); purpose = (y); voice = (z).
      • Open by stating a proposition; for example. I propose that video games that involve gratuitous violence against women be criminalized as we criminalize representations of child pornography. Then argue for the proposition in your essay.
      • Essays are your opinions, your thoughts, your values; they tend to be effective if you imagine the points of view of people who would disagree with you and respect, address, and refute them to the best of your ability.
      • Avoid common fallacies of persuasion: false binary, red herring, hasty generalization, ad hominem

    1) VGD "Are Electronic Games Health Hazard or Health Promoters?"

    2) acousmatic sound = sound for which you cannot see the source; music and / as semiotics; sign = signifier (sr) + signified (sd); the signified is not an object but a conception of an object or idea in the mind of a person (Saussure). Musical signifiers: major (happy) / minor (sad); fast (comic) / slow (tragic) (oversimplifications of course, but a good place to start).

    3) Inside

  • 05.23.2017

    1) Jacques Lacan, "The Mirror Stage": pdf The mutually-exclusive binaries of the Imaginary Order (mirror stage); how this gets mediated through language-acquisition (fort-da); misrecognition; mirror aspects of sensory binaries: sound, touch, sight, smell, and taste.

    2) the acoustic mirror | emotions | pink noise | white noise | A-440 pure frequency: mp3 Choose an emotion and make an audio object describing that emotion using only the tools above!

    3) Inside

  • 05.24.2016

    1) Didier Anzieu, excerpt from The Skin Ego: pdf The sonorous envelope is the fantasty of oneness with the mother (sound and also smell and touch); the acoustic mirror is the phase of development "out" of the sonorous envelope into a state of the ego--self and other. This mirror is made possible by four cries (hunger (primary), anger, pain, and frustration). The crucial fifth cry (for attention) inaugurates us into using vocalizations for communication and language acquisition.

    2) Excerpt from Jeremy Bentham's writings on the prison: pdf Bentham is the theorist and designer of the modern prison. He wrote in England in the 18th Century. He advocated as part of his Englightenment state of mind a kind of punishment that disciplined prisoners under the central gaze of authority (rather than subjecting it to torture and public execution) | Excerpt from Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: pdf For Foucault, Bentham's vision provides a prototype of modern surveillance and control. For him the Other gazes at us all the time and we internalize the potential of its gaze as an introjection of patriarchal power. For Foucault (and many others), the panopticon relies on the look / gaze ginary. The look is an exchange of recognitions in the binary of the Imaginary (the way we usually see people and are seen by people in situations that are not especially charged). The gaze is an internalized look of the big Other. Is there such a gaze in the games we've been playing?

    3) Inside

  • 05.25.2016

    1) VGD "The Influence of Digital Games on Aggression" | Article on Neurology and Psychopathology: link

    2) Make a sound object in Audacity that resembles as closely as you can, the soundtrack with which Limbo opens. Use D natural: mp3 and G natural: mp3 and pink noise: mp3

    3) Inside

    First Draft of Paper Due For this draft, include one example of each element of the assignment (at minimum): your name with audience, purpose, and voice indicated at the top; title of your paper; thesis statement; unfolding of the elements of the thesis in logical order with transitions as necessary; at least one example of a ternary module for each thesis element (language + example + commenting, critical language that becomes a link to a new idea); examples / illustrations / quotes indicated with a tag ("see Example 1,)" for example, and then a tag on the example itself, (such as "Example 1: a sketch of the narrative arc of Limbo," for example); Harvard documentation style for all citations (if necessary); the following formatting: page numbers, text double-spaced, 12 point font. That's it! :)

    First Draft of Paper Back (by 6 p.m.)

  • 05.29.2017

    No Class: Memorial Day

  • 05.30.2017

    1) One-on-one writing workshop: bring the most recent version of your final paper to class and i'll work with you individually for the first hour today. Here's the schedule 10:00 to 10:15 = Rage; 10:15 to 10:30 = Andrew; 10:30 to 10:45 Keith; 10:45 to 11:00 = Emmalee; you can arrive for class in time for your session.

    2) I'd like for you to spend the second hour working more with the Audacity assignment from 05.23.2017. Choose an emotion and make an audio object representing that emotion using the materials provided. Please either refine the one you did last time and / or pick another. Do as many as you can during the hour. Please export them as mp3 files with your name + emotion.mp3, so, for example: andrew.dread.mp3

    here are samples of your sound objects

    3) Fez: as we play this game, please take a marker and write your responses to the following on the board:

    • what is the music / sound like in the game?
    • is the music / sound parallel or contrasting to the visuals?
    • how are you sutured into the game?
    • does the game take place in Imaginary or Symbolic space? both? neither?
    • how does the game "cut" us from the game (in terms of identification and separation?)
  • 05.31.2017

    1) Weinbren, Mastery: Computer Games, Intuitive Interfaces and Interactive Multimedia: pdf mastery and Freud's fort / da. mastery and symbolic play from Freud to Lacan to Derrida (deferral of the signified). Lacan revisited: the Imaginary (black / white), Symbolic (greys) and the Real--the pulp thingness of experience that supports the imaginary and symbolic reality in which we live. ontology (being) / epistemology (knowing).

    2) Audacity an acoustic exquisite corpse (noise); an exquisite corpse: jpg is a game of taking portions of images of different parts of the bodies of different people and making a strange composite image of them. The acoustic equivalent of an exquisite corpse will play with the relations between foreground and background sound. See if you can create this sensation of an acoustic exquisite corpse to go with the image, linked above. Use the Dies Irae: mp3 This exquisite corpse will involve notes of a melody, one after another, transformed.

    Rage Beattie, Dies Irae Exquisite Corpse: mp3

    Andrew Garcia, Dies Irae Exquisite Corpse: mp3

    Keith Armstrong, Dies Irae Exquisite Corpse: mp3

    3) Monument Valley As you play this game, please write on the board all the key ways in which this game is like or unlike the other games we have played this term. The soundtrack moves back and forth a major second. You can either hear the lower note as tonic (with the upper note sounding like a major 2) or you can hear the upper note as tonic (with the lower note sounding like a flat 7). In either case, since the emphasis is on neither note in the game, you hear a perfectly liberated acoustic mirror in which the binary object / reflection (or self / other) is neutralized.

  • 06.01.2017

    1) Todorov, The Two Principles of Narrative: pdf

    2) Audacity an exquisite corpse (music). For this assignment, create a linear exquisite corpse out of two melodies (taking pieces of each one in a series): Beethoven Ode to Joy (muppets): mp3 | Oh Susannah: mp3

    • Andrew Garcia's Exquisite Corpse of Ode to Joy + Oh Susannah: mp3
    • Rage Beattie's Exquisite Corpse of Ode to Joy + Oh Susannah: mp3
    • Keith Armstrong's Exquisite Corpse of Ode to Joy + Oh Susannah: mp3
    • 3) Braid What (if anything) is unique about this game? Compare all of its attributes (sound, image, narrative, suture, etc) with other games we've played.

      Final Draft of Paper Due

      Make sure that your thesis avoids a "shopping list" quality. For example if your thesis says "In this paper I'm going to examine Kroger's marketing of wine, cheese, and bread," you might begin your discussion with wine, proceed to cheese, and then to bread. This is a typical "shopping list" paper. Shopping list papers have transitions like "also" or "another thing I'm looking into."

      A better thesis than the one above might sound like this: "In the following paper I'm going to examine how Kroger appeals to budget-conscious people in addition to more affluent customers through a single principle--how rapid eye movement makes the physical placement of wine, cheese, and bread convenient to all customers." See? I've avoided simply doing one thing, then another, then another, by subordinating those elements to a single principle. It isn't always easy, but it will make your work much more fun to read.

      If you are comparing two things (such as video + audio) there are two options: 1) a block technique--first discuss video, then audio, or 2) interlocking--discuss one shot from the point of view of video, then audio, then another shot from the point of view of video, then audio, etc. And do make sure you have examples that are introduced (as in "See Example 1" and Example 1: a sketch of the intro to Limbo and then the example. Make sure to have both visual + audio examples to make as thorough a treatment of your thesis as possible. And make sure that the List of Works Cited looks exactly like the one online (under 05.22.2107).

      Hand in papers as pdf documents with links, as appropriate to audio + video links. I find it very effective to click on a link that takes me to a YOUTUBE video clip so I can hear and see in high resolution what you're saying.