St. Michael’s Profs Use Creativity to Remotely Engage Students
As a scholar of video games in popular culture, St. Michael’s Assistant Professor Dr. Felan Parker is deeply familiar with entertainment platforms used to livestream video games for an audience, a genre of media that has only grown more popular among Parker’s students since the pandemic forced their lives online.
Parker puts his expertise to use by using the streaming platform Twitch to teach, offering critical and academic commentary on his own playthroughs during his courses and virtual events. Doing so enables him to provide direct insight into issues of form, themes, tropes, and even the economics of production in the context of the games themselves.
“I think being a media scholar is a double-edged sword in this situation,” says Parker. “On the one hand, I have practical knowledge of digital media and conceptual understanding of how to use them effectively, but on the other hand I am acutely aware of the challenges and potential problems with digital platforms,” he says. Making sure students understand how platforms leverage user data for targeted advertising, for example, has been important to Parker during the transition to remote teaching.
Each week for classes such as his First-Year Foundations course How to Study Video Games, Parker uses Twitch to play a different game live on stream with running commentary about how it relates to the topic, and students will chime in using the text chat function.
“Rather than being passive observers, I’m taking advantage of the interactivity of the platform to encourage students to be ‘backseat players,’” Parker says. The active involvement of his students during in-class streams ranges from their own observations about the game and connections to other class materials to crowdsourced decisions that Parker uses to drive ahead the game’s action.
The Twitch engagements provide a foundation for further discussion, and Parker uses the stream in part to model “a critical and analytical mode” for students to practise when they interact with games. Twitch also factors into the course content because it’s become an essential promotional tool for game developers as well as a major presence in gaming’s cultural ecosystem. In his research, Parker explores the way the streaming platform has become essential for independent game developers to market their wares, and in class he uses it to showcase games his students may not have seen or been able to access before.
One example is Blasphemous, a game Parker played on Twitch to kick off Streaming SMC, a new series in which he invites fellow St. Michael’s professors to join him to discuss games relevant to their expertise. As Parker’s St. Michael’s colleague Dr. Stephen Tardif offered commentary linking the game’s pseudo-Catholic aesthetics and narrative to real-world sources, Comper Professor of Medieval Studies Dr. Alison More entered the chat to provide historical insight into subjects ranging from 13th-century understandings of purgatory to medieval penitential movements.
The way games and other popular media help to shape and inform modern culture is one of the interests that drives Parker’s research. This year, he joined scholars from several other universities to collaborate on a SSHRC grant–funded project, Swarming SDCC, which looks at the complicated relationship between media industry producers and fans. The two groups have very different relationships to both entertainment franchises and the ComicCon events that showcase them, as Parker and his collaborators argued in an article for The Conversation. Eventually, Parker says his hope is to bring his students into the project as researchers “to participate in the actual on-site ethnography.
“I always strive to give students the tools to bring a critical perspective to bear on the digital media and technology that structures their everyday lives,” says Parker. “This feels particularly pressing in this moment, since for better or for worse we are more immersed in digital media than ever.”
Consult Fall 2020 for current updates on St. Michael’s plans for the fall semester.
Dr. Felan Parker is an Assistant Professor in the Book & Media Studies program specializing in digital media, video games, and media industries. His current research explores the production, distribution, and reception of independent or “indie” games.
The profile picture you see is Dr. Parker’s self-representation in the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Given the requirements of social distancing, it’s not surprising that people are turning to art and media of all kinds for much-needed escape. Video games are no exception: the industry is experiencing a not-insignificant sales bump, and game scholars and health experts are highlighting games as a way to stay connected and ease loneliness.
When we think about video games and escapism, most likely what comes to mind are action-oriented games of spectacle and hyper-masculine violence, and indeed those kinds of games loom large in the industry and culture of games. When I teach my first-year and fourth-year game studies seminars, part of the goal is to challenge this narrow mainstream conception of games as a cultural form. In that spirit, here are some reflections on three games in which I’ve found comfort and escape.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the latest entry in Nintendo’s popular franchise, was serendipitously released just as social distancing measures came into effect. New Horizons has resonated widely thanks to its gentle, colourful simulation of small town life (with anthropomorphic animal neighbours), its local and online multiplayer mode, and its “invest and express” customizability. I’ve been playing with my partner and six-year-old, and dressing up our cute little avatars and homes, sending in-game messages and gifts, and running around collaborating on projects together has been a joy. Part of what makes Animal Crossing so compelling is that it never ends, reliably changing in real time with the seasons; an ideal virtual getaway for an uncertain world (albeit premised on a peculiar utopian fantasy of resource extraction and consumerism).
A Short Hike, by Toronto game developer Adam Robinson-Yu, is a delightful pocket-sized world that takes significant inspiration from Animal Crossing but can be played in just an hour or two. The player takes the role of a young bird-person searching for cell phone reception in a provincial park. Along the way, there are numerous quirky characters to chat with, errands to run, and secrets to discover. The game shines in its ability to cultivate curiosity and encourage exploration, reinforced by the relaxing musical score and wonderfully pixelated natural environment. The hiking and climbing is complemented by a flying/gliding system, and I found the feeling of soaring across the landscape below deeply satisfying in this period of confinement, in particular during the game’s unexpectedly poignant climax.
The free browser-based tobogganing game Sanki is one of the purest distillations of that same feeling of speed and movement I’ve found in video games. Polish indie developer Krystian Majewski strips away all extrinsic goals and story until all that’s left is the hill, the snow, and the sled. The game is tiny, but has tremendous clarity of purpose in its muted palette of ultra-minimalist pixels and limited controls, perfectly capturing the serene sense of velocity I strongly associate with childhood winters in the Gatineau hills. The music is a bit giddy, so I turn it off and imagine the stillness interrupted only by gasping laughter. Each Sanki run is over in seconds, but I keep coming back to it for just one more.
Although quite different in form, content, and mode of production, each of these games offers an accessible, easy-to-play escape into gentle, comforting imaginary worlds. This is not to dismiss more fantastical and spectacular forms of escapism, but in this strange, liminal moment in time there’s something special about video games that playfully defy cultural expectations and embrace the simple pleasures of nature, movement, and everyday life.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons can be purchased digitally or physically for Nintendo Switch.
A Short Hike can be purchased digitally for Windows, Mac or Linux.
Sanki is playable for free in an ordinary web browser.
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