Experimental Games

Danny Snelson

ENGL M129 | Prof. Daniel Scott Snelson
http://dss-edit.com | dsnelson @ humnet
Tues & Thurs | Rolfe 3108 | 4:00 – 5:50pm
Office Hours held in Kaplan 203 (IRL/Hubs)
Book here: danny snelson .youcanbook.me









For example, consider Dungeons & Dragons. This once-fringe role-playing game has remained a pervasive force in tabletop gaming since its publication in 1974. However, in recent years, its popularity has skyrocketed across a range of media through edited podcasts (like The Adventure Zone), streaming actual plays (like Critical Role), video games (like Baldur’s Gate), and TV series (like Stranger Things), among other genres from fan fiction and xerox zines to social media art and webcomics. In this lineage of transmedia storytelling, this course will consider experimental games “exempli gratia” (e.g., or, for example) in emergent genres. Potential examples will be collectively determined over the quarter in collaborative conversations. Each example will spur a range of critical and scholarly experiments into the form, format, genre, and framework of each game. No previous experience with games or expanded media necessary. 



Occasionally, games will need to be purchased on Steam or via the platform of your choice. Every effort will be made to make course content freely available or via university resources. This will be a topic of conversation as we formulate our syllabus.

All other texts, games, magazines, platforms, recordings, and videos will be freely available online.

As a general outline for the course, take note that these are broad strokes subject to change. This course is fully interactive, growing and responding to its users. Each week will build on previous weeks, class conversations, and the directions that our experimental study happens to follow. The content of the syllabus will be updated regularly as a result, though the requirements will remain fixed. The syllabus will only be completed after we finish the course, and all research (including your own) has been collected

Given the brevity of the quarter, unexcused absences will cut into your participation percentage. If you must miss a class, it is your responsibility to make arrangements with me both before and after the absence. Proposals for interaction commensurate with a two-hour session will be accepted. 

This course will develop critical and creative tactics for experimenting through, with, and for games. Through a series of experiments and collaborative productions, a substantial body of critical and creative work with games will be generated. Alongside creative scholarly production, students will learn new critical trends in game studies and the digital humanities. Particular attention will be paid to gender, race, class, and ability in game studies. Technical and poetic proficiency will work hand-in-hand to develop new perspectives on gaming culture and today’s digital (and post-digital) gaming platforms. 

Throughout this course, our central meeting place will be Discord. To the uninitiated, it’s a chat server that we’ll be using as our Course Management System. All news and information about the course will be conducted over Discord. An invitation and signup to the dedicated (private) server will occur on our first meeting. This is a platform for informal conversation, weekly experiments, and advance preparation for course meetings and play sessions. Responsive posts are encouraged.

This course will double as an online gaming research group that gathers, generates, and comments on gaming and writing. We will use a variety of platforms to create new readings of the works we study and to gather inspiration from fellow travelers. All work posted to the “wider internet” must be psuedonymous, operating under an invented avatar. This is simultaneously a creative decision and a means of guarding your privacy to enable experimentation across the internet. We’ll discuss this aspect of the course over the first week, and further revision to the process of posting and sharing may respond to course use patterns as they develop.

We will be *playing* in a variety of modes—part of the course will be to learn how to work in these platforms in a university setting. How does one have meaningful conversation while playing a game? What does a collaboration in Minecraft look like? What collective games might emerge via Google Docs? Throughout, we’ll interrogate the form and function of our technology alongside the games we discuss each week. 

As such, the course will require access to a computer and adequate internet access in order to fully participate in the range of activities we will explore. If you have any questions or concerns about your setup, please feel free to write or meet with me at any time. 

This course aims to facilitate access to research and exploration across a variety of platforms. Please don’t hesitate to draw attention to any point of access that might be improved: from the volume of the conversation, the size of text, the digital access to the texts, and so forth. All possible accommodations will be made. Additionally, or for more information, you may contact the CAE at (310) 825-1501, or access the CAE website at www.cae.ucla.edu.

Increasingly, cloud gaming is making even the most computationally intensive games readily available to any user with a screen. Our super-fast ethernet connection at UCLA definitely helps. However, all you will need to participate is a screen (phone, tablet, or console) with access to the internet. We’ll discuss options and costs together in the course and in the Discord as they emerge. Where possible, we’ll aim for free access to games and/or game-related materials.  

Course Actions Due Date % of Grade
Course Participation & Play. (See descriptions above.) This is a collaboration-based course. We only get to meet on a handful of occasions this quarter—your input before, after, and during each session is paramount to the course's function & collective success.
Experiments. This course will require weekly experiments with our selected games. Your timely engagement with the weekly experiment will enable the ongoing conversation of the course. Please note that these are *experiments* in the fullest sense—you are expected to play, fail, discover, and surprise yourself. Grades will be non-qualitative given timely assignment fulfillment.
Ongoing, due Wednesday evenings
Discord Server Interactions. Playful, constructive, collaborative, civil, expanding, informal conversation should characterize the "virtual classroom" that is Discord. This includes: gathering & sharing resources; responding to peers' works & sharing your own creative process; idle chatter; pet pictures; etc.

Before each session, you should at minimum share:

1) Mondays: post your reflections on the game(s) and reading(s) for each session. Wednesdays: alongside your experiment, post reflections on the process & related materials.

2) At least two responses to peers' works or commentary on both Monday & Wednesday.

3) Something else.
Ongoing, due before class meetings
Final Project. Open format, open platform, full creative license. Play with a system we haven't had a chance to explore or develop a previous experiment into a full-fledged work. Must synthesize and respond to course materials & conversations. Collaboration, invention, exploration all encouraged. Group finals are entirely encouraged. We will develop the scale & scope of final projects in conversation. At its core, you will use an experimental technique to respond to any game of your choice.

Week 0 — Introduction to EG


Collectively determine experimental grounds for our collective study & play.

Week 1 — Platform(er)s for Experiment


Super Mario Cultures: spend time with SMB or Mario-adjacent media of your choice: from NES origins to Switch releases, games to movies, fan mods to art hacks, guides, memes, vids, &everything between.


“Hundred Thousand Billion Fingers: Serial Histories of Super Mario Bros.” in Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames (Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux, 2017)


GRIS (Nomada Studio, 2018)

Bonus Games:

Braid (Jonathan Blow, 2009)

Cuphead (Studio MDHR, 2017)

Celeste (Maddy Thorson, 2018)

Katana Zero (Justin Stander, 2019)

Week 2 — Experimental Parables


The Stanley Parable (Wreden, Davey, and William Pugh, 2013) (Optional: +Ultra Deluxe, 2022)

Bonus (Optional):

The Beginner’s Guide (Wreden, 2015)

Thomas Was Alone (Bithell Games, 2012)

Superliminal (Pillow Castle, 2019)

Baba Is You (Arvi Teikari, 2019)


“Introduction” (p. 1-30) to Handmade Pixels: Independent Video Games and the Quest for Authenticity (Jesper Juul, 2019)



The Backrooms (explore games, posts, theories, vids) See, e.g. “How to ‘No-Clip’ Reality and Arrive in the Backrooms

Week 3 — Role Playing Experiments


Expanded Final Fantasy universe, games & media. Focus on one game in the franchise or one related work of film, animation, literature, or fandom.


“Pwn” in Respawn: Gamers, Hackers, and Technogenic Life (Colin Milburn, 2018). 


Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015)

Bonus (optional):

Yume Nikki (Kikiyama, 2004)

Hylics (Mason Lindroth, 2015) (+Hylics 2, 2020)

CrossCode (Radical Fish Games, 2018)

Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (Melos Han-Tani, Marina Kittaka, 2019)


Week 4 — Forensic Experimentation



Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, 2019)


“Disco Elysium as Gothic Fiction” (Julian Novitz, 2021) in Baltic Screen Media Review special issue on Disco Elysium

Introduction: The New Weird: “It’s Alive?” in The New Weird anthology ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
(VanderMeer, 2008)


Among Us (Innersloth, 2018)

Bonus (optional):

Paradise Killer (Kaizen Game Works, 2020)

Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, 2013-19)

Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital, 2019)

Neurocracy (Playthroughline, 2021)

Week 5 — Collecting Experiments


Expanded PokémonOpen format, open play: from Gen 1 to the present. 


“Mobile Frontiers: Pokémon after Pearl Harbor” in The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities (Tara Fickle, 2019).


Inscryption (Daniel Mullins Games, 2021)

Bonus (optional):

Cult of the Lamb (Massive Monster, 2022)

Slime Rancher 2 (Monomi Park, 2022)

Slay the Spire (MegaCrit, 2019) (See also: Downfall fan expansion)

Ooblets (Glumberland, 2020)

Week 6 — Experimental Archives


Control (Remedy Entertainment, 2019)


Collectibles in the Control Wiki (all featured in the game as documents or media objects)

SCP Foundation (2008-present) explore and discover entries 



What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2019)

Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013)

Bonus (optional):

Unpacking (Witch Beam, 2021)

Spiritfarer (Thunder Lotus Games, 2020)

Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, 2019)

Week 7 — Experimenting with eSports


Expanded League of Legends


SCV2N + Don’t Forget Our Esports Dream (Team Eleven, 2015/2018)


Tabletop RPG Session. 


Week 8 —  Building Experimentally


Minecraft (Mojang Studio, 2011)


Roblox (Roblox Corporation, 2006) 

Week 9 — State Experiments


Expanded Grand Theft Auto


Optional Play: 

Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013)

Mind Scanners (The Outer Zone, 2021)

Week 10 — E.G. Conclusion Simulator


CYO Simulator (e.g. Goat Simulator 3).


Final Project Demos & Playtesting 


Buddy Simulator 1984: A Wholesome Horror Game About Friendship (Not a Sailor Studios, 2020)



Final Projects Due 12.9.22