RPG Syllabus

Fallout 180

Fallout3__poster Some ardent defenders of the Fallout series - let's call them Fallout traditionalists - have a beef with Fallout 3 and the RPG they fear it will be: non-isometric, non-turn-based, sans dialogue trees, simplified (i.e. dumbed down) SPECIAL system, and a distinct lack of the offbeat, self-referential Fallout vibe. Such a game, say the traditionalists, may be perfectly suitable for gamers who prefer 3-D action RPGs like Oblivion. But it's just not Fallout. So don't call it Fallout.

My students have been playing Fallout 1 and 2 for a couple of weeks, preparing for the release of Fallout 3. They are an unexpected mix of gamers: a small handful of RPG veterans, a large majority of relatively casual gamers (mostly sports games and shooters), and a few with almost no experience playing video games at all. Quite a challenge for a teacher who expected to be met by a small legion of hardcore D&Ders with a possible cosplayer or LARPer thrown in. Fortunately, they're all terrific guys willing to try anything I throw at them.

So when I handed them Fallout (half played the original, half the sequel) with no instructions or special preparation, they struggled. A lot. They had the original manuals, but almost nobody read them. After exiting the vault, they had no idea where to go or what to do. Their movements were limited for no apparent reason; "action points" made no sense; and they died within minutes nearly everywhere they went.

A few early posts from our online forum:

Idk if anyone else has this problem but I am having a hard time getting anything done... I started as Max Stone hopin to kill some things and level up... but there isn't much 2 kill... the redscorpians are owning me...  Any way to move like a little bit quicker?

I kept walking back and forth between 15 and 13 and get stopped by travelers... they took me to a town where I forgot to save and got dominated and lost all my experience and time...

i have enough to fire a gun and kill a scorpion, but then i'm only 1 action point short to use a weapon and i get screwed because i can't fight back...how do i gain more action points and why do they randomly go away when i'm fighting?

I'm terrible about reading manuals and whatnot, so it took me forever to find out how to rest because the pipboy doesn't work originally and I didn't try it again until I clicked it by accident. So far, I appreciated being left to my own devices, but because the game is so old, with the graphics it has and whatnot, it sometimes is hard to recognize what needs to be done. Like it's only after you play a game like this that you realize how much easier having glowing objects of interest is.

Our first Fallout conversation was a disaster. Few students had posted on the forum as I had asked them to, and it was obvious that almost no one had devoted much time to playing. They basically tried the game, got frustrated, threw up their hands, and walked away. Our midterm break began the following day, so I told them I expected them to continue playing over the break, be resourceful, roll up their sleeves, and figure it out. "Somewhere in there," I assured them, "is the best RPG you will play this semester. If you dig harder to find it, I promise you will thank me." A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but I meant it.

All of these students have seen the trailers for Fallout 3. When I told them we would play the game immediately after release, they burst into spontaneous fits of delight. I should mention that I made this announcement at the conclusion of our Planetfall discussion, a text adventure they gamely tried to enjoy because I told them they should - but which they mostly detested. In this setting, Fallout 3 was received like mana from RPG heaven. Subsequently, Fallout 1 and 2 were seen as trials to be endured while awaiting the modern gameplay savior of 3.

Then, during the break, something broke. I began to notice increased activity in the discussion forum, which soon turned into a small flurry of posts. A sampling:

What is interesting about the random encounters in the game is that not all of them are hostile encounters. The kind of encounter that is very rare in games is the neutral encounter where you encounter people fighting. You can help either side but even then sometimes they will just turn around and attack you when they beat whoever they were fighting. My favorite way to deal with these encounters is to wait till a few of them die, and then it's looting corpses time. It’s amazing what kind of nice loot you can find on them. It’s also where I got my first gun.

Think about it, they have almost myths of what we know about these people and things. They don't know everything and have to rely on what they do know.  I'm really interested in seeing how much information is lost because of the isolation caused by the vaults.

That's an interesting idea. What effect would the isolation of the vaults have on the society? And what would changed based on the nuclear apocalypse? It would be like taking all the data in the world and deleting random parts. It would cause mass chaos, especially once the original humans (from pre-nuking) die out. Or, alternatively, there could be a safe-haven somewhere. From a developing standpoint, how could that effect the game? Could it?

I just found out that the greeter at the Den tells you to be vewy vewy quiet he is hunting rabbits, and i just stopped and laughed for about fifteen mins.

Suddenly, they got Fallout. They grokked the mechanics and embraced the non-linear gameplay. They made peace with uncertainty. But more importantly, they built a relationship with the character and the offbeat but perilous world. As Iroquois Pliskin points out in an essay I shared with my students: 

And so this feeling of vulnerability that Fallout inspires is apt, because it does what good games do: it uses mechanics and gameplay rules to create a sense of character. All the aimlessness and danger make you feel dislocated, out of your element, and this is exactly how your protagonist must feel after emerging from a life of tight-knit isolation from the outside world. You feel like you share an experience with your character, this experience of being thrust into a world you barely understand, one that is unpredictable and promising at once; and sharing an experience is the beginning of a relationship.

But this takes time. Fallout doesn't greet you with a getting-to-know-you opening level or a hand-holding tutorial. My students were willing - granted, at my insistence - to keep plugging away, and they were richly rewarded for their efforts. It's nice to be right. I may have even gained back the credibility I lost with Planetfall (which is a great game no matter what they say!)

And so we met again this morning. After a long and productive conversation I asked them how they were feeling about Fallout 3. "They're totally gonna screw up that game," said one student. "They're gonna say shoot this guy in the eyeball, like they're giving you all these choices, but you know they're gonna make it run and gun. You're gonna be running around blowing stuff up, and all the shooter players are gonna love it. But it won't be Fallout. I promise you. It won't be Fallout." "It looks pretty amazing," observed another, "and it should be fun. But yeah, it probably won't be Fallout."

Among the zealous converts, Fallout traditions die hard.

RPG Syllabus - the data

Fallout_01 I'm creating a syllabus for a college course on the history of role-playing games. You can find out more about this project here.

Several weeks ago I asked you to suggest RPG titles you considered essential for a seminar course devoted to the history of the genre. I quickly received a slew of useful suggestions; then, after Kotaku and several other sites picked up my story, a second wave arrived. I've also received many helpful email messages from gamers far and wide. I can't thank you enough for your interest and willingness to help a person you've never met construct the best experience he can for his students. I'm terribly grateful.

I thought you might enjoy seeing some summary data, so I've compiled the results of all your suggestions and tallied them below. Over the next few days I will generate a draft of the syllabus with the preliminary list of games I plan to assign. A few quick thoughts:

  1. Games like X-Com and Zelda: Ocarina of Time clearly stretch the definition of "RPG." Many respondents argued these titles illustrate how great games have effectively incorporated RPG elements into other genres like strategy or adventure games. This makes sense to me. Given the short time I have available to me (one semester), I will try to illustrate these influences as best I can without veering too far off the RPG track.
  2. Obviously, time restrictions present a special challenge because many RPGs require dozens of hours to complete. I deal with this by assigning asynchronous work. Various games are assigned to small groups of students at different times, and throughout the semester students present their games to the class in an analytical format.
  3. Several of you suggested using save files as a way of abridging certain games. I like this idea, especially for games I want to expose my students to without assigning them.
  4. I don't feel bound by a linear historical progression. Jumping from Wizardry to Etrian Odyssey, for example, could be a great way to study the lineage of certain RPG design motifs.
  5. While it's very interesting for me to consider how many people recommend game X over game Y, ultimately this project isn't an RPG popularity contest, and I must choose a collection of games that best serve my pedagogical goals.

Here's the list. It represents responses I received from 156 people. To keep the list manageable, I've included only titles suggested by two or more people.


Game Title # of recs


Chrono Trigger 35


Earthbound 31


Final Fantasy VII 31


World of Warcraft 26


Ultima IV 24


Elder Scrolls: Oblivion 22


Planescape: Torment 22


Fallout 21


Knights of the Old Republic 21


Diablo II 19


Secret of Mana 19


Elder Scrolls: Morrowind 17


Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 17


Mass Effect 16


Zork 16


Dragon Warrior 15


Final Fantasy IV 15


King's Quest 14


Deus Ex 14


Rogue 13


Baldur's Gate 12


X-Com 12


Neverwinter Nights 11


Persona 3 11


Betrayal at Krondor 10


Fallout 2 10


Final Fantasy Tactics 10


Final Fantasy XII 9


Phantasy Star 9


Ultima VII 9


Wasteland 9


Everquest 8


Nethack 8


Ogre Battle 8


Skies of Arcadia 8


Tactics Ogre 8


A Bard's Tale 7


Diablo 7


Gold Box series 7


Sid Meier's Pirates! 7


Super Mario RPG 7


Wizardry 7


Colossal Cave Adventure 6


Fire Emblem 6


Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire 6


Space Quest 6


Ultima Online 6


Xenogears 6


A Mind Forever Voyaging 5


Final Fantasy VI 5


Grand Theft Auto IV 5


Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy 5


Pokemon Red and Blue 5


Quest for Glory 5


Suikoden II 5


Baldur's Gate II 4


Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden 4


Dark Cloud 4


Disgaea 4


Etrian Odyssey 4


Harvest Moon 4


Syndicate 4


System Shock 4


Lunar: The Silver Star 4


Dragon Quest III 3


Ultima Underworld I 3


Lunar 2: Eternal Blue 3


Adventure 3


Actraiser 2


Dragon Quest V 2


Dragon Quest VIII 2


Grandia II 2


Paper Mario Thousand Year Door 2


Super Columbine Massacre RPG 2


System Shock 2 2


Golden Sun 2


Vagrant Story 2


Lost Odyssey 2


Mario and Luigi Superstar Saga 2

More soon!

RPG syllabus - books and journals

I'm creating a syllabus for a college course on the history of role-playing games. You can find out more about this project here.

As I narrow down the big list of games to a final cut (which will definitely include the coming-soon-to-Virtual Console Earthbound!!), I've been working on a bibliography of resources devoted to RPGs. The list below is a collection of books and journal articles that could be helpful to a student interested in a serious study of role-playing games. I'll also rely on this list for specific reading assignments as the semester progresses.

You'll find some esoteric stuff here, but every title is germane to the subject in one way or another. I've also included books like Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, portions of which I plan to assign as foundational texts.

So far the bibliography only includes traditional materials (books and academic journals). I'm working on supplementing the list with online and popular media resources devoted to RPGs. This part of the process is a lot of fun, but separating the wheat from the chaff is quite a hefty task. Sites like Gamasutra and Hardcore Gaming 101 are terrific resources and provide a wealth of valuable info and analysis. Unfortunately many other sites...well, let's just say peer review isn't always a priority. ;-)

Here's the list. If I've omitted a title you think should be included, please let me know. If you have a favorite website or online essay devoted to RPGs (history, analysis, special focus on a single game or developer, etc.), please feel free to drop me a comment. I'll be sure to add it to the list I'm working on, which will be posted here in a few days.

Did I mention Earthbound is coming to the VC? :-O


Aarseth, Espen. 2004. Quest games as post-narrative discourse. In Narrative across media: The languages of storytelling., ed. Marie-Laure Ryan, 361-376. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska Press.

Bartle, Richard A. 2004. Designing virtual worlds. Indianapolis, Ind: New Riders Pub.

Barton, Matt. 2008. Dungeons and desktops : The history of computer role-playing games. Wellesley, Mass: A K Peters.

Bogost, Ian. 2006. Unit operations : An approach to videogame criticism. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The hero with a thousand faces. 3rd ed. Projected Date: 0807 ed. Novato, Calif: New World Library.

Carr, Diane. 2006. Computer games : Text, narrative, and play. Cambridge ; Malden, MA: Polity.

Castronova, Edward. 2005. Synthetic worlds : The business and culture of online games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cook, Monte, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams. 2003. Dungeons & dragons player's handbook : Core rulebook I v.3.5. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.

Corneliussen, Hilde, and Jill Walker Rettberg. 2008. Digital culture, play, and identity : A world of warcraft reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Crawford, Chris. 2005. Chris Crawford on interactive storytelling. Berkeley, Calif.: New Riders Games.

Ellevold, Barbara L., and William R. Cupach. 2004. Virtual culture and fantasy : An examination of identity management in the sims online.

Fine, Gary Alan. 1983. Shared fantasy : Role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gee, James Paul. 2003. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. 1st ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Howard, Jeff. 2008. Quests : Design, theory, and history in games and narratives. Wellesley, Mass: A.K. Peters.

King, Brad, and John Borland. 2003. Dungeons and dreamers : The rise of computer game culture : From geek to chic. Emeryville, Calif: McGraw-Hill/Osborne.

Mackay, Daniel. 2001. The fantasy role-playing game : A new performing art. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co.

Moorcock, Michael. 2004. Wizardry & wild romance : A study of epic fantasy. Rev. and expanded ed. ed. Austin, TX: MonkeyBrain.

Montfort, Nick. 2004. Twisty little passages : An approach to interactive fiction. Cambridge, Mass: London : MIT.

Murray, Janet Horowitz. 1997. Hamlet on the holodeck : The future of narrative in cyberspace. New York: Free Press.

Nephew, Michelle Andromeda Brown. 2003. Playing with power : The authorial consequences of roleplaying games.

Peterson, Dale. 1983. Genesis II, creation and recreation with computers. Reston, Va: Reston Pub. Co.

Punday, Daniel. 2005. Creative accounting: Role-playing games, possible-world theory, and the agency of imagination. In Poetics today. Vol. 26, 113-139. Duke University Press.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2006. Avatars of story. Electronic mediations ;; v. 17. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. 2003. Rules of play : Game design fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Schick, Lawrence. 1991. Heroic worlds : A history and guide to role-playing games. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.

Schut, Kevin Paul. 2004. Fantasy play-worlds : A study of culture, communication and technology as they intersect in computer fantasy roleplaying games.

Taylor, T. L. 2006. Play between worlds : Exploring online game culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Tolkien, J. R. R. 2005. The lord of the rings. 50th anniversary edition ed. London: HarperCollins.

Underwood, Michael Robert. 2007. What's in a game? : Aesthetics, genre and subculture in role-playing games.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Pat Harrigan. 2007. Second person : Role-playing and story in games and playable media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

———. 2004. First person : New media as story, performance, and game. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Williams, J. Patrick, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler. 2006. Gaming as culture : Essays on reality, identity and experience in fantasy games. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co.

Wolf, Mark J. P. 2007. The video game explosion : A history from pong to playstation and beyond. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

Wolf, Mark J. P., and Bernard Perron. 2003. The video game theory reader. New York ; London: Routledge. 

Journal articles

Allison, Sara E., Lisa Von Wahide, Tamra Shockley, and Glen O. Gabbard. 2006. The development of the self in the era of the internet and role-playing fantasy games. American Journal of Psychiatry 163, (3) (03): 381-5.

Cole, Helena, and Mark D. Griffiths. 2007. Social interactions in massively multiplayer online role-playing gamers. CyberPsychology & Behavior 10, (4) (08): 575-83.

Dickey, Michele. 2007. Game design and learning: A conjectural analysis of how massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) foster intrinsic motivation. Educational Technology Research & Development 55, (3) (06): 253-73.

Gravois, John. 2007. Knights of the faculty lounge. Chronicle of Higher Education 53, (44) (07/06): A8-A10.

Hsu, Shang Hwa, Ching-Han Kao, and Muh-Cherng Wu. 2007. Factors influencing player preferences for heroic roles in role-playing games. CyberPsychology & Behavior 10, (2) (04): 293-5.

Kociatkiewicz, Jerzy. 2000. Dreams of time, times of dreams: Stories of creation from roleplaying game sessions. Studies in Cultures, Organizations & Societies 6, (1) (03): 71-86.

Moore, Robert, Nicolas Ducheneaut, and Eric Nickell. 2007. Doing virtually nothing: Awareness and accountability in massively multiplayer online worlds. Computer Supported Cooperative Work: The Journal of Collaborative Computing 16, (3) (05): 265-305.

Smyth, Joshua M. 2007. Beyond self-selection in video game play: An experimental examination of the consequences of massively multiplayer online role-playing game play. CyberPsychology & Behavior 10, (5) (10): 717-21.

Waskul, Dennis, and Matt Lust. 2004. Role-playing and playing roles: The person, player, and persona in fantasy role-playing. Symbolic Interaction 27, (3) (Summer): 333-56

Updated 5/27/08 

The genius of the enthusiast

Scholar19 I reported a few days ago on my progress sorting through all the responses I had received from readers about my RPG syllabus. Since then, Maggie Greene at Kotaku kindly linked to my series, and I have been inundated with comments and emails from dozens of respondents offering valuable recommendations and constructive suggestions for the course.

I can't begin to tell you how grateful I am for this overwhelming response - I've certainly never had so much fun preparing a course. But aside from that, I feel as if I've stumbled upon something that's forced me to take a hard look at a set of long-held assumptions. 

Aside from the utility of many eyeballs generating many responses, I think there are lessons to be learned for educators on the value and promise of sharing ideas, identifying resources, and generally brainstorming with a broad community of people with vast knowledge and personal experience.

For most of my career as a teacher, a clear and nearly impenetrable divide has existed between those of us designated "scholars" and those of us known as "enthusiasts." While I can understand how and why this separation functions and persists in highly specialized fields like molecular microbiology, other disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, for example, may have erected more arbitrary barriers separating  scholars and experts from enthusiasts and devotees.

In the case of the course I'm working on - a history of role-playing games - the community devoted to the subject currently outpaces the traditional scholarship developing around it. Certain scholars like Jeff Howard (Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives) and Matt Barton (Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games) have written rich, analytical, and well-annotated books on the subject, and I will use both in my course.

But I would shortchange my students if I insisted on assigning only academy-approved published texts and journal articles. The number of valuable online resources devoted to role-playing games is immense, and many of these (such as Hardcore Gaming 101) contain in-depth features and analyses of important games virtually ignored elsewhere. Of course, not every article found online is rigorously researched or well-written...but I would venture to say the same might be said of many published texts as well.

The so-called academy has traditionally resisted recognizing online articles and essays as "scholarly" mainly due to the lack of a peer-review structure and the fact that most online writers have not been properly certified with a university terminal degree. This needs to change. As an educator who holds a terminal degree in my field, I can say without qualification that if I restricted my resources to only those traditionally approved by the academy, I would find myself woefully unprepared to offer the course I'm preparing to teach.

I look forward to continuing to explore the wealth of online knowledge and information related to role-playing games, and I feel certain my students will benefit from this process. I certainly have. Once again, many thanks for all your help. I'm moving on to other subjects for the blog now, and I'll return later with a preliminary syllabus and reading list as soon as I can plow through all the stuff you keep throwing at me. ;-)

RPG syllabus update


I'm creating a syllabus for a college course on the history of role-playing games. You can find out more about this project here and here.

Just a quick post to update you on the status of the RPG syllabus. I'm sorting through all your comments and recommendations in an effort to cut the big list down to a manageable number. Certain games like Chrono Trigger - chosen by nearly two-thirds of all respondents (and one of my favorites) - are certain to make the final syllabus. Other games like Rogue and Nethack (an either/or choice I think) are too dim in my memory to provoke an informed opinion, so I need to spend some time playing them.

And then there are a few games like Final Fantasy VII that...well, as I sheepishly confessed in a recent podcast, I've never actually played. Yeah, that's right. I've seen it, heard all about it, know who dies, etc. - but the fact is, I've never actually sat down and played that game. So to climb out from under my rock, I loaded the game into my PS2 last Friday...only to discover that I need a PS1 memory card for saves. Ugh. Forgot all about this ridiculous design oversight; can't locate one anywhere in the house. So I ordered a lime green memory card on eBay, which arrived yesterday, and last night I made it all the way to Aerith's house where I was politely asked by her mother to leave. So far so good, but it looks like a pretty stupid game to me. :P   KIDDING!

I'm also working separately on the course bibliography and reading list. It's fairly easy to gather print materials on the subject, but the sheer number of useful online resources devoted to RPGs is staggering. This will take some time. Several of you have suggested a few key sites with valuable essays on RPGs, and these have been quite helpful. Feel free to send others my way if you like. Separating the wheat from the chaff looks like a daunting task at this point.

Once again, I want to thank all of you for your kindness and generosity in helping me with this project. As soon as I get a little farther down the road, I'll report back with a preliminary version of the syllabus. Many thanks, and more soon.

RPG syllabus - the big list

Box_128241 I'm creating a syllabus for a college course on the history of role-playing games. You can find out more about this project here, here, and here.

After a brief and bumpy Resident Evil 5 detour, I'm back with an update on my RPG syllabus. Having compiled all your suggestions, I now have a list of 66 games to consider. That's right, sixty-six. Well, I did ask for help, didn't I? ;-)

While it might be fun to teach a 6-semester course on the history of electronic RPGs, in reality I have one semester to get the job done. So it's time to make a cut.

I could approach this in a variety of ways, but the one that makes the most sense to me is to divide the games chronologically, so that's what I've done. A couple of notes:

  • Many of these games were released on multiple platforms. I have listed what I consider to be the main version, which was usually released first.
  • All games were released in North America. I did not include Japan-only titles.
  • I relied on a fairly wide definition of "RPG" in response to suggestions from many of you.
  • The bibliography and reading list will be posted later. I'm working on that separately.
Colossal Cave Adventure - PC 1976
Rogue - PC 1980
Zork - PC 1980
Wizardry - PC 1981
King's Quest - PC 1984
Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy - PC 1984
Ultima IV - PC 1985
A Bard's Tale - PC 1985
A Mind Forevor Voyaging - PC 1985
Space Quest - PC 1986
Shadowgate - Mac/PC 1987
Nethack - PC 1987
Sid Meier's Pirates! - C64/PC 1987
Wasteland - C64/PC 1988
Phantasy Star - Sega Master System 1988
Final Fantasy IV - SNES 1991
Dragon Quest III - NES 1991
Actraiser - SNES 1991
Ultima VII - PC 1992
Secret of Mana - SNES 1993
Betrayal at Krondor - PC 1993
Syndicate - PC/SNES 1993
X-Com - PC 1993
Earthbound - SNES 1995
Chrono Trigger - SNES 1995
Ogre Battle - SNES 1995
Secret of Evermore - SNES 1995
Super Mario RPG - SNES 1996
Quest for Glory - PC 1989
Dragon Warrior - NES 1989
Final Fantasy VII - PS1 1997
Ultima Online - PC 1997
Wild Arms - PS1 1997
Fallout - PC 1997
Harvest Moon - SNES 1997
Tactics Ogre - PS1 1998
Final Fantasy Tactics - PS1 1998
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - N64 1998
Baldur's Gate - PC 1998
Legend of Legaia - PS1 1999
Planescape: Torment - PC 1999
Everquest - PC 1999
Fallout 2 - PC 1999
Suikoden II - PS1 1999
Diablo 2 - PC 2000
Deus Ex - PC 2000
Grandia II - Dreamcast 2000
Skies of Arcadia - Dreamcast 2000
Breath of Fire IV - PS1 2000
Dark Cloud - PS2 2001
Neverwinter Nights - PC 2002
Elder Scrolls: Morrowind - PC 2002
Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire - GBA 2003
Knights of the Old Republic - Xbox 2003
Disgaea - PS2 2003
Fire Emblem - GBA 2003
World of Warcraft - PC 2004
Dragon Quest VIII - PS2 2005
Final Fantasy XII - PS2 2006
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion - PC 2006
Mass Effect - Xbox 360 2007
Persona 3 - PS2 2007
Lord of the Rings Online - PC 2007
Etrian Odyssey - DS 2007
Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden PC 2008
Shiren the Wanderer - DS 2008
Grand Theft Auto 4 - PS3 2008
Metal Gear Solid 3 - PS3 2008

Quite a list, eh? Now I'm asking for your help again, hoping you'll bring your experience and opinions to bear on the process of cutting this list down to a manageable number. If you're interested, here's what I'd like you to do:

  • Choose 3 or 4 titles from each group. Post a comment letting me know your choices.
  • Short on time? - choose 1 from each category.  Short on experience? - skip the years you missed.
  • Feel too hemmed in by these categories? - mix and match as you see fit, but try not to choose too many games from one category.

Ultimately, I must reduce this list to a final total of 15 games that provide an historical overview of the RPG genre of electronic games. Your responses will help move me closer to that goal. As before, I'm terribly grateful for your help, and I will continue to update here until the final draft of the syllabus is complete.

Update: You can see the results of all your responses in a more recent post here.

Ask and ye shall receive...big time!

Ultima5map Yesterday I asked you to recommend RPG titles you considered essential for a course devoted to the subject. Today - 30 comments and 11 email responses later - my head is spinning with ideas, and my course outline is overflowing with possibilities, far too many to cover in a single semester. These are the best problems I've had in quite some time! :-)

Thank you very much.

As I noted earlier, I've been teaching for many years, but it never occurred to me to construct a syllabus in this way. As an extension of this blog and a survey of community wisdom and experience, it makes perfect sense to proceed like this, especially given the limits of my own expertise. I've played many RPGs over the years, but I certainly can't claim first-hand experience with every significant title, and my memory of many games has dimmed. Your suggestions regarding the Ultima series were particularly helpful in this regard.

Several useful questions have arisen that I can address here. Some of my responses reflect comments I posted earlier:

  • I will definitely post the final complete version of the syllabus here. It will include a bibliography and an outline of assignments and readings. I will also post a preliminary draft for comments.

  • Wabash College, where I teach, does not offer courses online. Sorry. I am working on a project with other educators that may culminate in such course offerings, but I can't say much more about that now.

  • I do intend to spend time on D&D and its roots in literature and mythology. I will likely assign King and Borland's "Dungeons and Dreamers" and Barton's "Dungeons and Desktops" (thanks, Chris!) which do a nice job of covering the rise of D&D and computer game culture. We'll also read some Tolkien. When I mentioned that I wanted to get to the games as soon as possible, I meant that I didn't want to spend two weeks reading epic poetry and another week studying the D&D Player's Handbook before ever starting a game. That said, in the past I have invited veteran D&D players to class, and my students have observed them playing a session and engaged them in Q&A. If I provide some background and context in advance, this works very well.

  • I agree that students needn't finish every game, but I will require them to complete certain ones in order to comprehend the full experience intended by the designers. I think it will be important to choose at least one or two games that all of us will play in order to have some common experiences to discuss. What I've learned about this kind of teaching is that students are apt to exceed the boundaries of the assignments, often going farther or taking on additional games on their own. This rarely happens when I teach literature...which is a separate subject for vigorous discussion!

  • Providing save files that enable entry at various points is a good idea that never occurred to me. This could come in very handy for extremely long games like Morrowind, for example. Not that I would assign Morrowind. Or maybe I would. ;-)

Finally, several of you wondered about the parameters of a course on the history of role-playing games, and what exactly defines an RPG? Is the Legend of Zelda an RPG? What constituent elements will I use to define what's "in" and what's "out"?

Well, that's a very good question, and it's one that will underlie all the work we do in the course. At the risk of dodging the question, I will expect my students to develop their own definitions of what constitutes an RPG by thinking hard about what exists at the core of these games and the experiences they offer. I want to ensure a certain flexibility in the content of the course to allow a student to study, if he wishes to, the RPG elements in a sports game, for example, and how they relate to the role-playing aspects of more traditional RPGs. I have a fairly solid notion of what I think an RPG is, but I expect my students will challenge my preconceptions as vigorously as I will challenge theirs. Well, maybe not quite as much.

I'll return soon with a list of titles and some ideas on how to proceed. Again, many thanks for your ideas and your interest in this work.

The RPG syllabus

Chrono_trigger1_3 As many of you know, I'm on a sabbatical from teaching this year, but I've begun to feel the itch to return to the classroom, and I'm starting to think about my syllabi for this fall. One course in particular has occupied my thoughts of late, and it occurs to me that some of you might have some useful input to offer.

I'm planning a one-semester seminar course devoted to the history of role-playing games. The class will have a limited enrollment of 20 undergraduate students, and it will meet for a total of 15 weeks. I've created a syllabus for a similar course I've offered for a few years, but since I have the luxury of time, I've decided to throw it out and rebuild the syllabus from scratch.

Here are my content criteria for the course:

  1. Historical scope - I want to expose students to the historical arc of RPGs, reflecting their origins and evolution. I realize I could spend weeks on mimesis, Tolkien, PnP Dungeons and Dragons, etc., but I'm keen to get them playing and studying electronic games as soon as possible.

  2. Breadth - It's important that I provide students with a wide range of RPG games encompassing a variety of gameplay and design variations. The syllabus needn't be a "greatest hits" collection. A classic like Chrono Trigger may or may not make the list depending on how many other Square-developed SNES JRPG titles make the list. Having said that, I definitely think Chrono Trigger belongs on the list! :-)

  3. Impact - I want to assign games that have made a notable impact or illustrate important transitions in the evolution of the medium.

Obviously, time restrictions present a special challenge because many RPGs require dozens of hours to complete. I deal with this by assigning asynchronous work. Various games are assigned to small groups of students at different times, and throughout the semester students present their games to the class in an analytical format. In this way, students can share their experiences, and they often elect to play games presented by their peers even when they aren't required to.

So, which RPGs should make the syllabus? Give me a title or a list of titles. I'm hoping to benefit from your collective wisdom, and I'm grateful for your thoughts and suggestions. This is not a rhetorical exercise. I'm working on a real syllabus, and I'm earnestly seeking input.

Thanks in advance for your help.