The labs of MIT were the cradle of one of the first videogames in history, Spacewar!, around 1962 (give or take a year earlier or later depending on the sources). The following decade, Zork, one of the first text adventures, was also created by a group of students of the MIT Dynamic Modelling Group. In subsequent years, MIT students and alumni have gone on to make great and influential games; Rock Band is the latest example, with nearly a third of Harmonix being made up of MIT alumni—including CEO Alex Rigopulos and CTO Eran Egozy. CMS graduate Gordon Fellows ’05 and former GAMBIT UROP Mark Grimm (Management ’07) are both working as production assistants there as well.
In spite of the prominent role of these alumni in videogame production and the historical relevance of MIT in videogame history, the institution does not have an officially recognized videogame-oriented curriculum. Here at Comparative Media Studies, we are working hard to change this, giving students an opportunity to make games and analyze them critically as part of their coursework (rather than only in their spare time). In doing so, we are trying to address the needs of many students who are interested in the field and come to our program, which teaches the only explicitly videogame-related courses in the Institute.
This initiative consists of a cluster of courses that are grouped into a series of videogame-related tracks, each relating to a specific aspect of videogame studies. These aspects range from videogame theory and criticism to game design, production, programming, visual design and audio design, as well as the development of interactive applications for education. Apart from courses specifically offered by CMS, the recommended curriculum incorporates relevant courses from various departments around MIT. This course list should prove useful not only to CMS students, but also to undergraduates from other majors who may be interested in videogames.
The study of videogames, whether theoretical or applied, must be highly inter-disciplinary. This plays to the strengths of our interdisciplinary major, which already draws upon courses from ten sections of the Institute. Many of the electives recommended in the various tracks are courses in other departments, from Music and Theatre Arts to Mechanical Engineering. Therefore, the course selections also will serve students in other departments who may not want to focus on videogames but may wish to explore the courses in their major or minor that relate to the field.
The new videogame curriculum joins pre-existing academic activities in CMS. First, there are two videogame-related research programs currently underway. The Education Arcade research project, now in its fourth year, develops videogames to encourage and support learning. In the newly-established Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, we work on applying academic research questions to address problems and concerns in videogame development that the videogames industry cannot afford to address, building bridges between institutions of higher education in Singapore and MIT in the process. CMS also offers courses focusing on the analysis and creation of digital games to go along with the work being done in the research labs. Last term, Alice Robison taught Introduction to Videogame Theory and Analysis (CMS.600/CMS.998) for the second year running, and this Spring a new Game Design (CMS.608/CMS.864) course will be offered by Philip Tan, Jesper Juul, Clara Fernández-Vara and Doris Rusch.
Also new this Spring is Nick Montfort’s The Word Made Digital (CMS.609J / CMS.846 / 21W.764J), which will examine text, language and writing in a wide spectrum of creative digital media, including videogames. These subjects complement two existing ones, Computer Games and Simulations for Education and Exploration (11.127J / CMS.590J / 11.252J / CMS.863J) and Character Design and World Making (CMS.601 / CMS.999), which will be taught again this term by Eric Klopfer and Frank Espinosa, respectively. All of these courses incorporate project-based learning, a component of the “applied humanities” approach distinctive to CMS.
CMS plans to identify several recommended course clusters—in film and television, creative industries, journalism, and the like—applicable to other careers attractive to our majors. The creation of the videogame cluster also serves as a way to collaborate and strengthen the relationships between CMS and other departments at MIT, both within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and outside of it.