Course Information

Course Williams College Art & CS 107 Spring 2012
Instructor Prof. Morgan McGuire (office hours)
TA Erica Moszkowski and Philippe Demontigny (TA hours)
Time 8:30 - 9:45 am Tuesday and Thursday, and 1:00 - 4:00 pm Thursday
Location Varies between Rose Gallery (WCMA), Mac Lab (TCL 217), and Classroom (TCL 206); see schedule
Texts Required: Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology $61 (new) $29 (used) Amazon; $69 Water St. Books
Recommended: XCOM: Enemy Unknown;
Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds

A game is an aperture on strategic thought and interaction. The ideas behind board games, puzzles, and video games find applications in economics, business, biology, psychology, and politics. Games are also art. They literally contain graphic, sculptural, and industrial design. They are beautiful mathematical constructs. Games are an interactive medium that communicates that which is inaccessible through passive forms. Underlying disciplines as diverse as biology and art are deep, shared ideas: of a space containing design, decision, and constraints; of computation and process; and of the ultimate limits on reason and efficiency. This course reveals a surprising name for those deep ideas: computer science. This multidisciplinary course explores games and their serious applications through design exercises and game playing. Evaluation will be based on attendance, participation, analysis assignments, and a significant final project. For the project, you will work in a group to design a new game using both traditional art media and software like Photoshop, following the principles discussed in class. Along the way you will develop an intuitive grasp of computer science concepts including heuristics, minimax, and emergence.

Games are a medium that, through interaction, can express ideas hard to access in other media, such as film, books, painting. There are three parts to this course: some technical skills from studio art ("Content"); some technical skills from computer science ("Technology"); and the unifying art of game design ("Mechanics"), where we craft experiences by posing interesting choices for the player. As an introductory, interdisciplinary course, the goal is for students to gain appreciation and understanding, but not any particular mastery of each of the domains.

Format Seminar and studio. Lab fee.
Prerequisites None.


This course is taught in an experimental, project-driven fashion. You'll complete a series of activities both inside and outside of class designed to lead you to insights about art, computation, and process in the context of board and video games. I'll present mini-lectures and demonstrations throughout these to guide the way, and will work closely with you on projects as a mentor, along with the two student teaching assistants and guest speakers. You'll choose what you learn in the course by selecting (from curated lists) the topics for your assignments, the games that you want to study, and what you want to read. You'll also choose who you work with on many projects.

Instead of progressing in a linear fashion, we'll iterate on a set of themes. Each time that we revisit one of these, we'll seek deeper insight and rigor and look for the same ideas in different contexts. These themes include abstraction, decisions, and elegance. We proceed by creating, with all of the tools at hand. These include the computer-controlled manufacturing tools of 3D printer, laser cutter, and milling machine; craft materials; digital content creation tools; the written word; mathematics; and computer source code. We'll also study techniques for analyzing games, because critique is essential to advancing skill.

"You can learn a lot from mistakes, but only if you actually make them yourself."

Vaccarino, Dominion, Card Game,
Rio Grande Games, 2009

I want you to be comfortable learning new things, in new ways. So process is a major theme of this course. We're going to learn how to learn, and how to work. Games are interdisciplinary projects. From studying them, you'll gain new techniques for approaching challenges that can be applied to any topic, not just games.

Now, some things won't be new for you: maybe you studied art in high-school or are graduating with an Economics degree this semester. When we hit a topic that you have some experience in, your responsibility is to mentor your peers. I'll evaluate your work for those topics based in part on how you helped to teach others.

Class and assignment time vary throughout the semester. See the schedule so that you can plan ahead. You can expect to spend about 10 hours per week on average on the class: 5 in class sessions and another 5 on assignments, game playing, and reading. If you're regularly exceeding 12 hours per week, don't just put in more time. Come talk to me about your approach and expectations. You may be shooting higher than I intended or missing some critical piece of information.


Games are consumer entertainment products as well as cultural artifacts. You're going to play a lot of games in this course and I hope that you enjoy some of them. As a scholar of games, approach them as you would any other art form. Be critical and objective even when you're having a good time. Engage material that you don't find entertaining. Respect the creators and their work.

You will probably find some of the material in this class emotionally challenging. We'll encounter issues of sexuality, violence, race, religion, politics, and economics. People are passionate about these topics, so the best art engages them. It is natural to respond first to these topics emotionally--doing so only means that you're a sensitive human being and that the material is "working" as art to some level. But in discussing challenging work, try to separate your subjective reaction from your analysis, even as your reaction informs your understanding. Respect your peers and consider how you phrase your comments. When introducing such themes into your own creations, consider their impact on different kinds of audiences. Seek artistic merit proportional to the culutral significance of major themes--eschew cheap sensationalism.

Citations: A citation is a formal reference to a work that gives the reader enough information to locate the original work. As a scholar, it is important to cite all works referenced, whether books, web articles, games, or other forms of art. Prefer primary sources (e.g., a YouTube video of a game) to articles about your topic (e.g., a book's description of that game). For game citations, include the following information:

  • title
  • developer studio (analogous to an author)
  • publisher (analogous to a book publisher)
  • ESRB or other content rating (e.g., "E10")
  • date of release; often distinguished by region (analogous to publication date for a book)
  • platform (analogous to medium, for artwork. e.g., "Playstation 3")

Mobygames and Wikipedia are great sources for this information; if you have the game in front of you all of it is typically on the outside of the box. A sample citation is:

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Naughty Dog, Sony Computer Entertainment, Teen, Playstation 3, Oct. 13, 2009

You must of course not only cite but put quotation marks around any direct reuse of text (even if it is your own from another assignment), and must also make clear when you are paraphrasing someone else's words and cite their source.


Evaluation: Primary evaluation for the course will be qualitative. Let's talk both before and after assignments are due about your approach to the material. There are quantitative scores on most assignments, but you will best succeed (in both learning and maximizing your final grade) by focusing on the qualitative feedback and process.

Your final grade will be influenced approximately 45% by team assignments (including the final project), 35% by solo assignments, and 20% by in-class participation.

The College specifies that the class GPA should be at most 3.2 for a 100-level course. Roughly speaking, satisfying an assignment's reqirements will earn you a B, moments of insight and exceptional work can raise that to an A, and cursory or misdirected work will fall to a C. Attendance and assignments are mandatory. Students who complete all work and attend all classes are guaranteed at least a C- in the class. Repeated absence and failure to submit assignments on time are grounds for downgrading or failure in the course, regardless of numeric average.

Ask questions if you find the standards unclear for a specific assignment. I want evaluation of work and your standing in the course to be transparent. I expect that you will find this system more objective than that of an average Art course and more subjective than that of an average CS course.

Participation means engaging the material, your peers, and me in meaningful ways. Asking lots of questions about things that you don't understand is a great way to participate--so is answering other people's questions. It is important that we help each other to contribute in class. Sometimes, the best way to participate is to draw someone else out rather than speaking yourself. You are participating in a very mature way when you say, "John, you wrote about Red Dead Redemption last week--how does it compare to Grand Theft Auto?" instead of directly voicing your own view.

Trust that if you come to class regularly and make a good-faith effort on the work you'll definitely pass with at least a C+ (even if you have no aptitute!) and if you demonstrate that you've learned something as well you're probably in B territory.

Team Ico, Shadow of the Colossus,
Sony Computer Entertainment,
PS2 2005, PS3 2011

Late Work: Assignments are due at or before their deadlines. Late work will not be graded. This keeps you from overextending yourself and means that everyone in the class has the same amount of time. If you know that you'll be on a trip, then just start and turn in your work early. Assignments due at the beginning of class are really due then--it is too late to run to the library and print it. Don't worry if you have an emergency or bad week--that's why I ignore your lowest homework grade. If you have two emergencies, then please let me know what is going on and talk to the dean's office for support.

Team Work: For team work, I usually assign the same grade to all team members. Managing a team is a topic that we study, and part of your responsibility is making sure that your whole team crosses the finish line together. However, if I believe that one team member was delinquient beyond what the team can reasonably accomodate, I may assign different grades.

Process: Most of the time I'll evaluate how you approach your work rather than the absolute quality of the result. You'll score higher producing a "bad" result with the right process than a "good" result with the wrong one. A frustrating aspect of learning new methods is that often an amateur sees more success with an ad-hoc approach than a novice with principled approach. Don't succumb to temptation and just hack it--the principled approaches unlock the road to greater successes and generalize to broad domains.

Honor Code

M. Persson, Minecraft,
Mojang AB, PC and Web 2009

Students are bound by the Williams Honor Code, Williams Computing Policies, and CS Honor Code and Computer Policy. Artwork and text require appropriate attribution.

In addition, students encounter a large number of physical objects in the course, from Picasso paintings to Playstation 3 video games. They are expected to maintain the integrity of these collections for future courses by treating all of these objects with care and respect regardless of their perceived monetary value. For board games, it is particularly important to ensure that all of the pieces are present when they are returned to the library--they can become unplayable if even one piece or card is lost, and many are out of print and irreplacable.

About the Banner Image

The background of the banner image on this page is a screenshot from Prince of Persia, developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Windows in 2008 and OS X in 2009. This game is notable for the close gameplay and narrative interaction between the two protagonists and the "painterly" art style.

The thin banner on the other pages of this site is from Crysis 2 by Crytek to be published by Electronic Arts in 2011 for PC, Xbox360 and Playstation 3.