david bard-schwarz
  • 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.

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).

We will integrate studies in music and sound into the visual domain throughout the course. The musical dimension of the course is designed for non-majors. Our examination of music and sound will involve an elementary level of pitch-based description in addition to studies of data visualization of sound--particularly through the software Sonic Visualizer.

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%


For both undergraduates, taking MUGC 4890: 501 and graduate students taking MUGC 5890: 501, 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:

    sound and music and noise as acoustic signifiers in visual media

    Star Trek, the Next Generation. Season 4, "Night Terrors"; Blade Runner (director's cut); The Matrix (first one), and The Cell.

  • 05.16.2017


    Pitch collections in pitch-based soundtracks

    Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle | Robert Scholes, Language, Narrative, and Anti-narrative: pdf

    Collaborative Workshop #1

  • 05.17.2017


    composition for the game; composition for the concert hall adapted for the game

    Grahame String Weinbren, Mastery: Computer Games, Intuitive Interfaces and Interactive Multimedia

    Kaja Silverman, "Suture" from The Subject of Semiotics

    Collaborative Workshop #2

  • 05.18.2017


    Jacques Lacan, "The Mirror Stage": pdf

    Collaborative Workshop #3

  • 05.22.2017

    Braid (from experience to reflection)

    more on the mirror stage: YOUTUBE clip of Žižek on mirror (mis)recognition . This clip illustrates the ending of Chaplin's movie City Lights. In the movie, Chaplin falls in love with a blind young woman working in a flower shop. He scrapes together the money so she can have an operation to see again. He does this; she has the operation; and she can see. Chaplin visits her at the shop and at first she doesn't recognize him as her benefactor because she was blind. When she hears his voice, she "knows" that her benefactor was Chaplin--the beggar. The scene Žižek discusses is right at the end of the movie when we (and Chaplin) wonder what her reaction will be once her (mis)recognition becomes recognition.

    Today, during the first hour, we'll turn from playing and experiencing games to thinking about the experience critically (reflectively). Here are some guidelines into thinking simply what you experienced last Thursday, playing Braid:

    • SUTURE
    • the nature of your identification with Tim and the others: positive, negative, constant, changing SILVERMAN
    • presence of the big Other? LACAN
    • problem solving strategies: breaking out of functional fixity, hill climbing / the foothill problem, inference, action sequences, trying contradictions, try working backwards, re-thinking relations, constraint satisfaction, analytic / holistic thinking, metacognition, belief in the attainability of a goal DEWEY
    • final goal(s), soft intermediate goals SCHOLES
    • nature of the interaction: mastery (easy, difficult) WEINBREN
    • death drive fantasy of return to place before trauma to master it anew? FREUD
    • moment of (mis)recognition recognition (so to speak) LACAN
    • foreground | background
    • natural / artificial
    • utopia, distopia, realistic, fantastic, dreamlike: to what effect?
    • constant | changing
    • SOUND
    • noise: natural, artificial: to what effect? does it change?
    • music: natural (human), artificial: to what effect? does it change?
    • evidence of sneaking: highly-charged sounds, music that emerge from the nearly or completely inaudible background noise of a film (or video, or song, etc).
    • Acousmatic sound is sound one hears without seeing their originating cause - a invisible sound source. Radio, phonograph and telephone, all which transmit sounds without showing their emitter are acousmatic media Offscreen sound in film is sound that is acousmatic, relative to what is shown in the shot. In a film an acousmatic situation can develop along two different scenarios: either a sound is visualised first, and subsequently acousmatized, or it is a acousmatic to start with, and is visualized only afterward. The first cause associates a sound with a precise image from the outset. This Image can the reappear in the audience mind each time the sound is heard off screen The second case, common to moody mystery films, keeps the soundīs cause a secret before revealing all. (De-acousmatization) Opposite of Acousmatic sound is Visualized sound - a sound accompanied by the sight of its source or cause. In film a onscreen sound whose source appears in the image, and belongs to the reality represented therein

    Pay particular attention to change: where, when, and to what effect does change occur in a game?

    Puzzle Solving

    (Individual) Writing #4

  • 05.23.2017


    Ruth Leys, The Turn to Affect: pdf

    (Individual) Writing #5

  • 05.24.2016


    Roland Barthes, "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative" from Music, Image, Text

    noise filtered / unfiltered and sonic identification in visual media

    (Individual) Writing Workshop #6

  • 05.25.2016


    Tzvetan Todorov, "2 Principles of Narrative": pdf

    diegetic and non-diegetic sound in visual media

    Experimental Writing Workshop: Free Association

    Paper #1 due at 10:00 a.m. today!

    Write a paper (between 10 and 15 pages in length), printed out on 8/12 X 11 paper with page numbers, single sided and double spaced on the Video Game Dear Esther.

    Your audience: the personnel manager of the software development company that designed Dear Esther. He / she wants to see a sample of your writing and your ability to understand video games critically; there's a job opening in his / her company in publicity, and while he / she assumes you will not necessarily speak to the public in a highly academic fashion, he / she does want to know how deeply you understand what the experience of playing video games is, and can be. Your purpose: to show him / her how clearly you can express the various facets of playing Dear Esther. Your voice: that's up to you.

    You need not have a single, central thesis, but your paper must be clearly organized. The easiest form is left-to-right discourse that matches and tracks the left-to-right experience of playing the game.

    Provide two forms of illustrations or evidence to support what you think: 1) citations (short, long, paraphrase) from the readings (there must be at least a few of these), and 2) screen shots of precise moments of the game to illustrate what you are saying.

    Follow the basic ternary structure of discourse: 1) idea (in language), 2) illustration or quote (from a source (readings or the game itself)), 3) comment (language).

    Follow these writing quidelines. NB: you can omit #1 and modify your examples; this is handout that was written for graduate writing in music courses!

    Sample Documentation: short quote, long quote, paraphrase: pdf

    Choose between a metonymic or metaphoric structure to your paper. In metonymy, the progress of your paper mirrors the progress of the game. In metaphor, you write topically about x, y, and z. In order to avoid having the paper read like a shopping list (a chunk on x, a chunk on y, a chunk on z), do one of two things: 1) have a thesis that suggests a logic to talking about x, then y, then z, or 2) have transitions take you from one chunk to another. End x with a sentence that begins in x and ends in y; end y with a sentence that begins in y and ends in z.

    Paper Topic #2 (due on the last day of class, hard copy at 10:00, double-spaced, single sided, with page numbers. The first paper was academic, rigorous, documented. The second paper can also be of those qualities, but I'd like to encourage outside-the-box, experimental writing. You may write a short paper (with gorgeous, clear sentences without lame "to be verbs", passive constructions, filler, etc) and some clear structure / design. Here are some options:

    1) write a letter to one of the characters in one of the games we've played.

    2) write a paper in which you imagine adding an element to the game: an alternate ending, another character, completely different music, etc

    3) write an essay about a personal response to one or more of the games we've discussed

    4) do automatic writing on one or more of the games we've discussed. as in: free associate in writing on each letter of the alphabet for a fixed period of time without stopping. or take "LIMBO" and write a chunk on L, then I, then M, then B, then O.

    5) write about which game you would like to enter if the game were "real" and you could enter into it.

    Whichever you choose, make sure your finished paper does read with some degree of substantiality to it. Around 5 pages, double-spaced minimum. If your idea runs dry after a paragraph or two, pick something else.

  • 05.29.2017

    No Class: Memorial Day

  • 05.30.2017


    Ruth Leys, Trauma (introduction): pdf

    Bonnie Ruberg, No Fun: The Queer Potential of Video Games: pdf

    Pleasure Centers in the Brain: website

    Individual Writing Conferences on Second Paper

  • 05.31.2017

    Monument Valley

    Logical Time (Lacan): pdf

    Reading Drafts of Paper #2

  • 06.01.2017


    Stephen E. Jones: 'Second Life,' Video Games, and the Social Text": pdf


    Paper #2 due

  • 06.02.2107

    Supplementary Readings


    Ernest H. Lindley, "A Study of Puzzles with Special Reference to the Psychology of Mental Adaptation": pdf

    Hilde Hein "Play as Aesthetic Concept": pdf

    Isidore Okpewho, "Re-thinking Epic": pdf

    Joan, Tamburrini "Play and Intellectual Development": pdf

    George Seward, "Play as Art": pdf

    Stuart Jones, Space-Dis-Place: How Sound and Interactivity Can Re-Figure our Apprehension of Space

    Maria Tatar, "Why Fairy Tales Matter:" pdf

    Joseph Nagy, Review of Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment.