Getting Started: What Do You Need?

Before you start researching, you want to spend some time with the assignment to see what exactly you are being asked to do. All projects are different, and you should understand the scope of your assignment so you don’t end up doing more work than you need to do (unless you want to!).

Here are some examples of real assignment prompts that ask you to work with primary and secondary source material. Read through the prompts and the annotations to see how you are being asked to work with sources.

Prompt 1:

Students will write a case study about one of the games below (5-7 pages).

No external research is required, although it will be beneficial to think about your analysis using one of the tactical skills (examining race, power, privilege) we cover during the semester. You should be able to answer the following questions about your game: So what? and Why does this matter? Think about design, user experience, game theory, imparted message, and their intersecting relationships.

Third World Farmer

Prompt courtesy of Alexandrina Agloro

This prompt asks you to use a video game as a primary source and to analyze that source using some of the theoretical readings you have done in class. The phrase “no external research is required” means you don’t need to seek out additional source material–but you will use the secondary sources provided by the instructor to help you do your own interpretative work on the game (primary source) that you choose. The prompt also offers some basic questions (Why does this matter?) to guide your analysis.

Prompt 2:

Compare two texts, videos, films, or media of your choice that include a discussion of race. These texts may both be about mixed race, or two separate texts on different races (i.e. one book on whiteness and one film on Mexican culture). Compare and contrast your texts in whatever way you like.

Prompt courtesy of Alexandrina Agloro

This prompt requires you to pick two primary source texts that share a specific quality (a discussion of race) and compare them. First, you will need to figure out how to locate primary sources that have this quality, then you will need to assess the sources you find to make a pair whose comparison is particularly interesting to you. In order to ensure that you find primary sources that work well together, you’ll probably need to start by finding more than two.

Prompt 3:

Pick one of the plays we’ve read this semester and analyze how the play you’ve chosen explores a particular topic (such as gender roles, class/status, power relationships, humor, etc.). Your essay should include your original analysis of lines from the play. It should also engage with two or three scholarly works related to that topic in the play you chose. What have scholars said about the moments you discuss or the theme you explore? Do you agree or disagree with their assessments? Why/how? How does their analysis help you get to a new place with your thinking about this topic? How does your argument about the topic differ from and/or move beyond theirs?

Prompt courtesy of Cordelia Zukerman

This prompt requires you to pick a primary source (a play from the class readings) and to analyze that source in relation to secondary sources that you find yourself. In order to do this, you will first need to decide what primary source and topic you want to think about, and then locate secondary sources that also explore similar ideas. You will probably want to find more than the required number of secondary sources in order to assess which ones are most useful for you.

The above prompts each give you some information, but they require you to develop your own distinctive research question based on the general framework of the prompt. They ask you to move from a broad topic (i.e. video games) to something more specific (i.e. the way that race is used to portray power in a particular video game), and to ask your own question based on that topic. All good research starts with a question you can’t answer without doing the research. In order to figure out your “research question,” start by trying to answer the following three questions:

  1. What you are writing about—your topic: I am studying…
  2. What you don’t know about it—your question: because I want to find out…
  3. Why you want your reader to know about it—your rationale: in order to help your reader understand better…

Quotation from The Craft of Research, second ed.


These are tough questions, and you probably won’t be able to answer them all when you start your project. Let’s work through one example (based on Prompt 1) together:

I’m studying the portrayal of power in the “Third World Farmer” video game.

With some research, in this case, playing the game itself, you’d figure out that the game has a unique way of conferring power to certain characters based on racial characteristics. This strikes you as surprising, but you don’t understand how it works yet.

I want to know how the power of various characters in the game is related to the way their race is conveyed.

In comparing your analysis of the game to theories of power and case studies of video games from the class, you realize that this portrayal of power is really different from the majority of contemporary video games, which makes this particular game really interesting.

Because I want readers to better understand how a contemporary video game is challenging racial stereotypes.

You probably don’t know this part (the “so what?” or “why this topic is important”) until you’ve done most of your research and started writing the paper.


As you can tell, the research question is something that develops as you write and research. Your questions will change, often becoming more specific, as you read and write. This is a good thing!

Now that you have an idea of your question, you’re going to need to start thinking about what kinds of sources will help you with the answer.