COMM 469 -- Winter 2016
Prof. Sandvig, University of Michigan


This Web page is the course syllabus. Jump to specific sections of this page:

About the Class; Instructor; Course Description; Course Credit; Class Structure; Overall Requirements; Obtaining the Readings and Games; Grading; Schedule; Foundational Bibliography; and Class Policies.


  • Submit your final project by visiting our Canvas site, clicking "Assignments" / "Final Project Design" / "Submit Assignment".
  • The final exam day was misprinted on the syllabus--both Wednesday and Friday 4/20 and 4/22 were listed. So that no one is disadvantaged by this mistake, the final may be turned in on the later date (4/22)
  • All handouts given out during the semester are available in the "handouts" folder of the "files" tab in Canvas.
  • As promised, here is a link to the "Greatest Hits" student presentations of 2010. Note that these were required to be slightly shorter than this year's presentations.
  • Final presentation order posted on the schedule. See the presentation days.


About the Class


Prof. Christian Sandvig
Office: 5385 North Quad
My mailbox is in the Communication Studies 5th floor mailbox room (5334 North Quad)
Office Hours: 11:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. Wednesdays and by appointment

Course Description

This course considers the social science of play and interactive media technology. The three central questions addressed will be: "What is play?," "How does technology mediate play?," and "What are the consequences of this mediation?" We will investigate competing social scientific and philosophical theories of play, the structure of games, and the societal consequences of mediated play for both children and adults. The term will be organized around competing theoretical understandings of play (e.g., development, fate/chance, power, identity, fantasy, self-fulfillment, nonsense), and will be illustrated with examples from computer games.

Course Credit

Class Structure

This is a project-based course. Throughout the semester we will work toward producing a conceptual design project for a playful technology. Each student will produce their own project. As this is a conceptual design project, technical skills are not required. Deadlines for turning in portions of the design project will be used instead of exams.

The course consists of two meetings each week that are a combination of lecture and discussion. The class meetings supplement but do not duplicate the readings; readings supplement but do not duplicate the class meetings. Some of the course content is available only from class meetings and students are responsible for attending them. Starting in week 2, each week class members will submit their brief answer to a weekly question (e.g., this might be an answer to a question about a reading or a play experience). Questions are available by Friday and are always due the following Wednesday before class begins.

To help organize your notes for the design projects, students will also use a reading diary to take notes on readings as the course progresses. The diary may be in a format of the student's choice. Students will need to bring the diary to class for announced checkpoints during the semester.

Overall Requirements

  1. Careful listening to, close reading of, and critical reflection upon course lectures, discussions, and assigned games/readings. Finish the day's assigned game and readings before arriving in class. You will take notes on your readings in a reading diary in a format of your choice.
  2. Thoughtful, informed participation during class meetings, in-class exercises, and online.
  3. Every week, playing the game for that week and answering a short weekly question that responds to a prompt set by the instructor.
  4. Completion of a conceptual design project for a new playful technology that is informed by the concepts from the course. (This takes the place of a midterm and a final.) This project will require creativity, critical analysis of related technologies, synthesis and explanation of salient course readings and concepts, and self-directed research outside of class. Results from the final design project must be presented in an engaging in-class final oral presentation. Projects must include clear written supplementary materials.

Obtaining the Readings and Games

There are TWO required books. I do not list them in the campus bookstores as our class is so small. If you buy them new from they can be returned for a full refund within 30 days, and if you sign up for "Amazon Student" two-day shipping is free. Both of these books are also widely available for purchase on the Web. They are available as discounted used books, as textbook rentals, and at our university library.

  1. Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [purchase via amazon] [find rentals and used copies at bigwords]
  2. Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (eds.) (2005). The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge: MIT Press. (hardcover only) [purchase via] [find rentals and used copies at]

Additional online readings are available in electronic form either free on the Web or using using password-protected links to PDFs hosted on Canvas. These password-protected links lead to the reading in Canvas directly from this page.

This course requires students to play specific games outside of class. These games are typically independent, obscure, or historical. Some of these games are free and others are reasonably priced. If you do not wish to buy the games, I have worked with the university library to make available a place to play them at no charge.

The university library's Computer and Video Game Archive at the Duderstadt Center is an additional resource that we will employ as the semester progresses.


Your final grade for this course will be determined as follows.

participation: 10%
weekly question: 20%
reading diary: 15%
design project: 55%
  ...pitch: 5%
  ...prospectus: 15%
  ...oral presentation: 15% design: 20%

Participation includes both the quality & quantity of contribution in class. This includes attendance.

Letter grades will be calculated using the following scale.

      Grading Scale
  A 93%+     C 73-76%
  A- 90-92%   C- 70-72%
  B+ 87-89%   D+ 67-69%
  B 83-86%   D 63-66%
  B- 80-82%   D- 60-62%
  C+ 77-79%   E 59% or below

In order to allow grade weighting in Canvas, letter grades need to be entered as numbers. The number entered will be the middle of the range for that grade, rounding up if necessary (see the list above). For instance, a C+ would be entered as 78.


Except for the final exam period, these dates may be adjusted to reflect our progress (or lack of it). This means that you should check the class Web site regularly for updates. On this schedule, the abbreviation "S-S" refers to the Sutton-Smith textbook and the abbreviation "S-Z" refers to the Salen & Zimmerman textbook.


6 Jan (W): Introduction: Playful Technologies

Please carefully read this syllabus.

PART I: Theories of Play

11 Jan (M): Play in Animals

Read S-S Ch. 2, Rhetorics of Animal Progress.
OPTIONAL: Read Lorenz chapter On Feline Play.

13 Jan (W): Play as Development

Weekly gameplay experience and question due -- one hour before class begins. (Gameplay and weekly questions start in week 3)
Read S-S Ch. 3, Rhetorics of Child Play.
OPTIONAL: Read Miller Ends, Means, and Galumphing.

18 Jan (M): NO CLASS

Regular classes suspended for The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium

20 Jan (W): Play as Fate/Chance

Weekly gameplay experience and question due -- one hour before class begins.
Read S-S Ch. 4, Rhetorics of Fate

25 Jan (M): Play as Power

Read Read Hearn Ch. 1 of A Critical Theory of Play.
OPTIONAL: Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, Imperial City: Grand Theft Auto

27 Jan (W): Play as Identity

Weekly gameplay experience and question due -- one hour before class begins.
Read S-S Ch. 6, Rhetorics of Identity
OPTIONAL: Read Veblen Ch. 1 of The theory of the leisure class.

1 Feb (M): Play as Imagination

Read S-S Ch. 8, Rhetorics of the Imaginary.

3 Feb (W): Play as Self/Freedom

Weekly gameplay experience and question due -- one hour before class begins.
Read S-S Ch. 10, Rhetorics of Self.
First reading diary check-in. Bring your reading diary to class.

8 Feb (M): Play as Frivolity / Nonsense

Read S-S Ch. 11, Rhetorics of Frivolity.
Read Suits chapter from S-Z, Construction of a Definition.

10 Feb (W): Play as Simulation

Weekly gameplay experience and question due -- one hour before class begins.
Read Salen & Zimmerman, "Games as the Play of Simulation"
OPTIONAL: Read Geertz chapter Deep Play.

15 Feb (M): The Classification of Games

Read Caillois chapter from S-Z.


PART II: Designs, Settings & Consequences

17 Feb (W): Why do games matter now?

Weekly gameplay experience and question due -- one hour before class begins.
Read Hughes chapter from S-Z, Why are Rooie Rules Nice?
Read Chick chapter from S-Z, Shoot Club: The Doom 3 Review.

22 Feb (M): Do players have rights? Do games need governance? (griefing, racism, sociopaths online)

Read always_black chapter from S-Z, "Bow, Ni**er."
Read Koster chapter from S-Z, Declaring the Rights of Players.
Read Dibbell, A Rape in Cyberspace.
OPTIONAL: Read Sandvig article "The Internet at Play" (free online)
Second reading diary check-in. Bring your reading diary to class.

24 Feb (W): What are 'girl games' vs. 'boy games'? (gender)

Weekly gameplay experience and question due -- one hour before class begins.
Read the first Jenkins chapter from S-Z (starting on p. 330), Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces.
OPTIONAL: Read Stephenson Ch. 4 Play Theory.

29 Feb (M) and 2 Mar (W): NO CLASS

Spring Break

7 Mar (M): How can we analyze specific games? (critique)

Read Mochan chapter from S-Z, How to be a Cheap Ass.
Read Rouse III chapter from S-Z, Game Analysis: Centipede.

9 Mar (W): Designing Games (design, interaction)

Weekly gameplay experience and question due -- one hour before class begins.
Read Church chapter from S-Z, Formal Abstract Design Tools.
Read Poundstone from S-Z, Game Theory.
OPTIONAL: Read Malone article Toward a Theory of Intrinsically Motivating Instruction.

14 Mar (M): Adolescence and Play (childhood and socialization)

Read Sniderman chapter from S-Z, Unwritten Rules.
Read Crowe & Bradford article Hanging Out in Runescape.

16 Mar (W): What are players after? (motivation, community)

There is no weekly gameplay experience and question due this week.
Your Design Project Pitch is due during class.
Read Bartle chapter from S-Z, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs.
OPTIONAL: Read Stephenson Ch. 15 Play Theory of Mass Communication Broadly Considered.

21 Mar (M): How can play have a story? (narrative)

Read Mateas & Stern chapters from S-Z, Interaction and Narrative.

23 Mar (W): How does the industry work? (political economy)

Weekly gameplay experience and question due -- one hour before class begins.
Read DeKoven chapter from S-Z, Changing the Game.
Read Garfield chapter from S-Z, The Design of Magic: The Gathering.
Read Birdwell chapter from S-Z, The Cabal: Valve's Design Process for Creating Half-Life.
OPTIONAL: Read the section of the Gadamer chapter Play as the Clue to Ontological Explanation in the online course reader.

28 Mar (M): What kinds of gameplay conventions are there? How do players know what to do? (learning)

Read Bjork & Holopainen chapter from S-Z, Games and Design Patterns.
Read LeBlanc chapter from S-Z, Tools for Creating Dramatic Game Dynamics.

30 Mar (W): How should game rules be designed? (rules)

Weekly gameplay experience and question due -- one hour before class begins.
Read Costikyan chapter from S-Z, I Have No Words and I Must Design.
Read Farmer & Morningstar chapter from S-Z, The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat.

4 Apr (M): How does law control play (I)? (content rating)

Read Sega's Most "Shameful" "Sick" and "Disgusting" Video Game. Kotaku Total Recall.
Read How to Fix the Game Ratings System. Electronic Gaming Monthly 227 (Reprinted in
Read Australia: Treating Gaming Adults Like Children. GameFront.

6 Apr (W): How does law control play (II)? (intellectual property)

Note: There are no further gameplay experiences / weekly questions due -- use the time to work on your final projects.
Read Beard article Clones, Bones, and Twilight Zones Part I and II only.
OPTIONAL: Read Lenoir article "All But War is Simulation" (free online)

11 Apr (M): The past and future of video games (history / genre)

Read Bissell, Tom (2011). Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. New York: Vintage. (Chapter 1 excerpts)
Design Project Prospectus due -- one hour before class begins.
Post your project to Canvas discussion board (as an attachment) with a timestamp before the due date.


PART III: Our Contribution

13 Apr (W): In-class presentations (I).

Presentation order: Rachel (T.), Amanda, Daniel, Maeve, Gabrielle, J.J. (P.), J.J. (S.).

18 Apr: In-class presentations (II).

Presentation order: Carter, Samantha, Delaney, Madeline, Maura, Ashley, Rachel (D.), Rachel (T.)

20 Apr (F) 22 Apr (F): DESIGN PROJECT DUE by 4:00 p.m. (counts as FINAL EXAM)

Third Reading Diary check-in. (Send this via e-mail attachment or deliver to instructor mailbox in 5334 NQ.)
Final Design Due. Upload your final design to Canvas with a timestamp before the deadline.
Submit by visiting our Canvas site, clicking "Assignments" / "Final Project Design" / "Submit Assignment".
This must contain twelve items from the project elements menu.
This must reference the required readings from the project readings checklist.
Fieldwork must follow the fieldwork guidelines.
(Turn in signed copies of the class consent form as necessary -- send via e-mail attachment or deliver to instructor mailbox in 5334 NQ.)
Note that there is no in-person final exam for this course.

Foundational Bibliography

This bibliography will be referred to in class and may be used in your final projects and other assignments. This bibliography was selected to showcase classic and enduring ideas that underpin this topic, not recent writing.

(Sorted and referred to by author.)

  1. Callois, R. (1958/2001). Man, Play and Games (M. Barash, Trans.). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi M., & Bennett, S. (1971). An Exploratory Model of Play. American Anthropologist, 73(1), 45-58.
  3. Gadamer, H. G. (1998). Play as the Clue to Ontological Explanation (D. G. Marshall, Trans.). In H.-G. Gadamer (Ed.), Truth and Method (2nd ed., pp. 101-134). New York: Continuum.
  4. Geertz, C. (1973). Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. In C. Geertz (Ed.), The Interpretation of Cultures (pp. 412-453). New York: Basic Books.
  5. Giddens, A. (1964). Notes on the Concepts of Play and Leisure. The Sociological Review, 12(1), 73-89.
  6. Goffman, E. (1961). Fun in Games. In E. Goffman (Ed.), Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction (pp. 15-81). Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
  7. Hearn, F. (1976-1977). Toward a Critical Theory of Play. Telos, 30, 145-160.
  8. Huizinga, J. (1950). Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon, pp. 1-27 FROM: Huizinga, J. (1950). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.
  9. Lorenz, K. (1954). Man Meets Dog. London: Methuen. See, e.g., Ch. 16: "On Feline Play" (pp. 150-156).
  10. Malone, T. W. (1981). Toward a Theory of Intrinsically Motivating Instruction. Cognitive Science, 4, 333-369.
  11. Miller, S. (1973). Ends, Means, and Galumphing: Some Leitmotifs of Play. American Anthropologist, 75(1), 87-98.
  12. Piaget, J. (1962). Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood (C. Gattegno & F. M. Hodgson, Trans.). New York: Norton.
  13. Stephenson, W. (1988). The Play Theory of Mass Communication (rev. ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books. See esp Ch. 4 ("Play Theory")
  14. Veblen, T. (1899/1994). The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Penguin Twentieth Century Classics. Read the complete book online via Project Gutenberg. See esp. Ch. 1: Introductory. (This book is so famous you can buy a handy pocket-sized reprint of the first chapter for about $8 so you can carry it around with you everywhere.)

Class Policies