Creating and Traversing Virtual Spaces


  • Students will review strategies and purposes for critiquing artwork, and critique several digital games as works of art.
  • Students will be introduced to a variety of “platform“ games by a diverse historical and contemporary creators from the commercial and independent spheres, and discuss how the artists used mechanics and level design to allow audiences to move meaningfully through created spaces.
  • Students will look at works of art by artists who create, reinvent, or navigate real-world spaces, and draw connections between their practice and the practice of game designers.
  • Students will create a “platform” game which allows the player to navigate an imaginative space in an interesting way.

Teacher Materials

Currentlab – Game Curriculum by Ryan Patton, Luke Meeken & Meredith Cosier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at

Exemplar Art and Commercial Games Used in This Unit

An effort has been made to include on-line playable versions of each of these games on this site, which will hopefully not be blocked by school internet systems, and which will function equally well on Windows, Mac or Linux systems.

Donkey Kong – Shigeru Miyamoto (1981)

Play Donkey Kong online on the CurrentLab website

Donkey Kong was the debut of Mario, and the introduction of platform jumping to navigate space in games. It also included the hammer, an early power-up.

Pitfall – David Crane (1982)

Play Pitfall online on the console library

Pitfall was nonlinear platforming game with nonscrolling screens connected in maze-like way, affording multiple paths through the game. It also featured a variety of diverse hazards which had to be navigated around, as well as a variety of treasures to find.

Lode Runner – Douglas E. Smith (1983)

Play Lode Runner online on the CurrentLab website

Lode Runner was one of first games to have a level editor – Smith reportedly paid neighborhood children to create extra levels for the game! The game featured unique mechanics for a ‘platform’ game, involving no jumping or attacking, but destroying terrain.

Super Mario Bros. – Shigeru Miyamoto (1985)

(“Super Mario Crossover” by Jay Pavlina and Zach Robinson 2010-2013)
Play Super Mario Crossover online on the CurrentLab website

Super Mario Bros. is the most influential platform game in history, and it set the standard for years to come by including scrolling screens, powerups, diverse level types and many secrets. The content of the game is also an interesting consequence of transpacific mingling of ideas ‘Mario’ (formerly ‘Jumpman’) is named after the landlord of Nintendo’s American warehouses and the mushroom and flower power-ups are inspired by Lewis Carrol’s Alice books, while Mario’s turtle nemeses, the ‘Koopas’ are derived from the a traditional Japanese water spirit/demon called the ‘Kappa.’ The version of the game linked here, Mario Crossover, demonstrates how “remix” culture has reached games, and how the same game is transformed radically by having a different set of available verbs/actions (e.g. playing as Link, Samus, etc.).

Portal – Kim Swift (Flash version by Ido Tal and Hen Mazolski) (2007)

Play Portal (Flash Version) online on the CurrentLab website

Portal was one of most influential and successful games of 21st century thus far. It took the traditional first-person-shooter interface and radically transformed it by replacing shooting with a different action/verb: creating ‘portals’ in space. The Flash version linked here illustrates how fan creators engage with established game properties, and can show students how the concepts from a contemporary 3-D game might be mapped onto a simpler 2-D game they can make in Game Maker.

N: Way of the Ninja – Mare Sheppard & Raigan Burns (2008)

Play N online on the CurrentLab website

N was a prominent puzzle platformer which began as an online game and eventually moved to other platforms like the Nintendo DS. N takes simple platform controls (including some liberating additions, like wall-sticking) and makes them challenging through complex level design.

VVVVVV – Terry Cavanagh (2010)

Play VVVVVV online on the CurrentLab website

VVVVVV was a prominent indie/puzzle platformer, with very unusual controls. The player character in VVVVVV cannot attack or jump, but the ‘jump’ button inverts player’s gravity, opening up new types of platform challenges.

Redder – Anna Anthropy (2010)

Play Redder online on the CurrentLab website

This is an independent platform game that emphasizes exploration and discovery over combat. Anthropy equips the player character with only basic movement controls and invests most of her creative energy creating a large, complex, and interesting world that the player is compelled to explore.

Videos and Other Media Resources Used in this Unit

The Event of a Thread – Ann Hamilton (2012)

Download a copy of the video from the CurrentLab site (if YouTube streaming is blocked at your school

How did the the things Hamilton put in the space shape the way people used the space or moved in it? (e.g. the bags on the floor playing sound, the swings, the desks) How was her planning process similar to David Crane’s? Was she surprised by some of the things people did in the space? Do you think a game designer might be surprised by some of the things a player does in the game space? Have you ever done something in a game that you don’t think the game expected you to do?

White – Karen Lange and Studio 400 (2012)

Download a copy of the video from the CurrentLab site (if Vimeo streaming is blocked at your school)

Watch the video of Karen Lange and Studio 400 setting up the installation.

N’s ‘wall climb’ adds a degree of vertical movement not possible in most platformer games. What possibilities did this installation open up in the room it was installed in? Did they use a variety of materials? Yet did they create a variety of spaces?