Archive for Teaching

State of the Instructional Art

Since I wrote about Dread, I’ve found myself noticing instructional design choices in role-playing games – and realizing that there’s a lot of great work happening in this space right now.

Boxed sets! The French edition of Dungeon World blew me away, and I don’t just say that because they’re talking about “Jessica Hammer Principles” in the context of great design. They’ve taken a role-playing game and broken it out into separate, thoughtfully-designed components. A beautifully designed dungeon map comes in the box. Powers are on color-coded cards. The set includes pre-punched figurines, so groups don’t have to scrounge up minis. And nametags! They have nametags! Plus, the game looks like a game, which opens doors to whole new types of players.

You still have a few more days to support them on Ulule. My French is terribly rusty, but I backed anyhow; design this good deserves to be funded. I’ll be using the game as an example of how to reduce players’ cognitive load, both when learning a new game and when playing.

Playbooks! Playbooks do a great job of reducing game friction: put the information a player needs on their character sheet, right in front of them! The character sheet doubles as a character creation workbook and a play aid.

I’ve seen a number of games with playbooks recently, but I’m particularly impressed with how Monsterhearts handles them. Why? A free and printable download of all the character skins. Free makes entrance easier for new players; it costs them nothing to look at the characters they might play and fantasize about which one best suits them. Printable makes life easier for game organizers. Choosing what pages to print from a larger PDF file is a small barrier, but for people who don’t love organizing games, small barriers add up.

Teaching tools! Our Last Best Hope is doing one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen in instructional design for RPGs. They’re creating demo videos for specific sections of play, keyed to QR codes printed in the book itself. If you aren’t sure how to run a section of the game, you can just scan the code and go straight to a video explaining it in more detail. This isn’t quite the “book that automatically switches between teaching, reference, and vicarious entertainment mode” that Robin Laws posits, but it’s a pretty darn slick way to help people get a deeper understanding of the rules without bulking out the book with lots of unnecessary material.

It’s also a potentially disruptive innovation for widening the RPG audience. For many people, learning from a book isn’t much fun. That’s part of why game organizers are so critical for making play happen; in most of the groups I’ve observed, knowledge of how the game works is a primarily oral tradition. Giving people the choice of text or video might make a lot more people willing to learn how to play.

And I bet there’s more! Is your game doing something interesting with instructional design? Point me at it in comments, or drop me a line!

Install This Extension!

My brilliant friend Danielle made a thing! A really cool, mind-blowing, brain-breaking thing!

Jailbreak the Patriarchy is a Chrome extension that swaps the gender of the Internet. Man becomes woman, girl becomes guy, he becomes she and her becomes his.

Here’s why this matters: because most of the time, we can’t see just how strongly gender affects our day-to-day experience. We have expected narratives for women to fit into, and schemas for what male behavior looks like. When those are subverted, we feel a sense of strangeness – and noticing just how often things feel strange, when genders are swapped, is a pretty good start to noticing just how much your own life experience is shaped by some of the same things.

Conceptual change only happens when people are confronted with experiences their existing concept can’t explain away. I hope that for at  least a few people, Jailbreak the Patriarchy will provide experiences of that sort.

Happy Belated Ada Lovelace Day!

Thanks to the Jewish holidays, I’m way behind on just about everything – including celebrating Ada Lovelace day. So I’m declaring today Ada Lovelace Day (Observed), at least in my little corner of the world!

Last year I wrote about a mentor of mine, Dr. Helen Tager-Flusberg. This year I wanted to honor a former student who is now a peer, collaborator and friend. Her name is Azadeh Jamalian, and she is one of my science heroes.

Azi’s research interests relate to technology, usability, learning and play. She uses psychology and learning theory to analyze the design of technological artifacts, as well as to create them. She once told me that she wants to revolutionize the use of gesture with mobile devices. If anyone can do it, it’s her! She’s already studying gesture and mobile devices with some of the top people in the field, and they’re damn lucky to have her.

Of course, I don’t just admire Azi because she works in areas near mine. There are three things about her scientific life that particularly impress me, and that I hope to emulate for myself.

First, she is an incredibly fast learner. When she decides to get up to speed in an area, she chews through research papers like they’re candy! She doesn’t just gain superficial knowledge, either. She immediately begins to integrate what she learns with the questions she already has in mind, with a keen eye for both gaps in the literature and new possibilities for scholarship.

Second, she asks really good questions. That was the very first thing I noticed about her, when she took my introductory game design class back in the fall of 2008. She was one of the people who could ask a question that showed an understanding of the material, but also that I did not have an answer to. Sometimes no answer existed – but when one did, I found myself hunting down ideas from multiple disciplines to get her subtle, sophisticated questions answered.

Finally, she is one of those people who just gets things done. This is a very dangerous quality in a graduate student, as it’s a recipe for getting lots of faculty members to want lots of non-dissertation-related things from you! But it’s an enormously important quality in a scientist. Before I started graduate school, I had no idea how much of research was based on organization, discipline, competence and logistics. She somehow manages to juggle multiple research projects, make forward progress on all of them, and have it look easy.

I count myself fortunate that I get to work with Azi on a regular basis. We brainstorm well together, we argue well, and we always come out of a conversation with a better understanding of our field than when we went in.

In short: thank you, Azi. My father used to say, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and most of all from my students.” When I think of that saying, I think of you.

Good Questions at the Seder Table

Six years ago, my partner and I decided to host our first Passover Seder. Although we spent the official Seder nights with my family this year, this past Friday we hosted seventeen of our dearest friends for an unofficial but extremely Seder-like event. We studied and argued and sang and ate and drank wine late into the night – this year was a new record, finishing at nearly 4am! And we only ended because our bodies failed us, not because our hearts or our minds did.

Our Seders are, so I’m told, fairly unusual. We try to combine attentiveness to tradition with a sort of radical openness, both intellectual and emotional. (Our friend Amy summed it up when she said, “You’d best come to this Seder with an open mind and an open heart.”) We use the traditional text as our basis for discussion, but we’ve also read Ursula K. Le Guin, argued about semiotics, and studied Mishna at the Seder table. We ask everyone who joins us to take the Seder seriously as a Jewish ritual, but we include atheists and agnostics, Christians and Buddhists, and of course Jews of all stripes. There is room for anyone who is willing to ask a good question.

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about what makes a good question. In my post advising high school students about game research, I tried to introduce students to the idea of disciplinary thinking – that people with different disciplinary approaches will think different questions are good ones. I saw this happening in practice just the other day! I’m part of an interdisciplinary fellowship program, and at our seminar last week a colleague presented her work on how taxation and transparency affect political engagement. I thought it was a really well-designed study that effectively isolated the specific variables she was looking at – but the questions she was getting from, say, the historians and sociologists in the room were really not about the study at all. They were asking these wonderfully rich questions about the local political situation, and concepts of ownership, and how information flows, which were clearly rooted in the types of questions their own disciplines support. Sometimes I think half the work of the program is just getting us to understand the kinds of questions other scholars spend their lives grappling with!

But, of course, not all questions are disciplinary. When it comes to life questions, I’m inspired by this wonderful essay about why “Do you believe in God” is a bad question. Rabbi Mitelman essentially says that to ask a good question, you must let go of any preconceived notions you have about the answer. That’s a powerful technique to use in conversation – and, for that matter, at a Seder. At this year’s Seder, someone asked why we say the Hallel, a series of psalms in praise of God. What does it mean to praise God? What if one doesn’t identify as a Jew? What if one doesn’t believe in God? How metaphorical is our relationship to the text? What can we learn from it no matter who we are? These are not questions with answers, but they are questions that can lead to reflection and, one hopes, eventually wisdom.

Of course, disciplinary questions and “lifeworld” questions aren’t entirely separate ones. I find they intersect most often when I teach. Early in every semester, I tell my students, “When I ask a question in this class, I don’t always know the answer – and those are the best questions, because it means you can find something out.” The questions are always rooted in the (multiple) disciplines I use to engage with games, but the answers are genuinely unknown. It feels incredibly risky, whether you’re asking about game design or God, but it’s the only way to know the world as something more than what you think it is. As my friend Rob once put it, “The world is more interesting than any one person in it.”  And I really, really like the world that way.

Game Research Advice, High School Edition

I recently spoke to a group of secondary school students about game design. They had some great questions about games, but they were also really interested in my game research career. (Who knew?) I didn’t have time to answer all their questions about my job during their talk, so I thought I’d write up a few thoughts to share with them – and, Faithful Reader, with you.

So, you want to have my job someday?

First of all, good for you. My job is a lot of fun! But it’s probably a good idea to know a bit about what I actually do all day.

Like I said in the talk, my job combines game design, research and teaching. Right now I am a game researcher, and I’m going to be a professor soon.

My work generally starts with research. I read textbooks and scholarly papers, looking for interesting questions. These questions might be questions that I think I can answer by designing a game, or they might be questions about how games and play work. I try to read as many different kinds of things as I can, because it helps me come up with cooler questions. For example, I read about game design, psychology, biology, computer science, history and sociology … and that’s just in the last month!

Once I find an interesting question, I turn to design. First comes research design. I have to figure out how to answer the question I’ve picked – what information I’ll need to collect, what games I want to use, who I want to get to participate, and why I think anyone should believe me when I say I’ve got an answer. I didn’t think I would enjoy this part of my job, but it’s actually one of my favorites.

Sometimes my research design means I have to create my own game. I’m a programmer, designer and writer, so I can do a lot of the work myself. However, I also work with an artist and sound designer to help me with the parts I’m not much good at! I do a lot of testing, which sometimes just means watching people play. If I’m going to use a game in my research, I need to know that it’s fun, but also that it actually helps me answer the questions I want it to answer.

Next I go back to research. I get people to play my game, or take the tests I’ve created, or watch them play a game of their choice, and I collect data. Sometimes my data is just numbers – for example, how many people got a particular question right? – and sometimes it’s more complicated, like a video of somebody playing. My job is to turn this information into something meaningful. It means I have to know enough statistics to analyze the numerical data, and that I have to have enough patience to watch a LOT of video and make notes, among other things. Some people specialize in just one kind of data, but I like the freedom to ask lots of different kinds of questions.

Finally, I have to write about the whole experience. I have to take the reader through my whole thought process – from why I thought the question was a good one, to what I did to try to answer it, to what I found out.

You’ll notice I’m doing a lot of reading, writing and research – not just designing games. If you just want to design games all day, my job is probably not for you. But if you want to learn about new things, ask cool questions, and design games to help answer them – this job could be perfect!

There are two other important parts of my job.

I spend a lot of time playing games, because I have to know what’s happening in the field. I especially need to understand what interesting new games are being created, and to figure out how to become a better game designer by playing them. You can’t be a good writer without reading a lot of books, and you can’t be a good game designer without playing lots of games!

I also teach game design, which is one of my favorite things to do. (I think I like it even more than playing games!) Being a good teacher is really hard, and I’m always trying to get better at it. It means figuring out what my students need to learn, and creating assignments that will help them practice making games. It means leading class discussions that include both student ideas and my own. It means figuring out how to give feedback that actually helps my students become better designers and isn’t just a grade. Fortunately I have had some great teachers myself, who have helped me learn how to do all those things!

The biggest challenge of my job is balancing all these different kinds of work. For example, sometimes I have to do work that I’m not in the mood for – and yes, it’s possible not to be in the mood to play games! It also means I have to find people to help me with the things I’m not good at. Sometimes I can get better, but sometimes it makes more sense for me to collaborate with somebody who’s good at different things. For example, I’ll never be an artist, but I know some good ones!

So, are you still interested in doing what I do? If so, you’re probably wondering how you get this kind of job. You can’t start this job until after college, but there are things you can start doing now to be prepared for an awesome job like mine!

First, get curious. The most important thing you can do to be a games researcher is to have really interesting questions to ask. This means reading as much as you can in a lot of different areas, and playing a lot of games, including ones you don’t like, because that will give you lots of different ideas and experiences to put together. You also need to figure out what makes a question interesting. There isn’t just one right answer, so you have to ask lots of different people about what makes a good question and to think carefully about what they tell you.

Second, take notes. If you read a lot, and play a lot of games, and think about what you read and play, there’s no way you’ll remember all the cool things you come up with! I have dozens of old notebooks full of ideas. Most of them will never see the light of day, which is totally fine. The goal is to capture as many ideas as possible, good and bad, so that you have more ideas to choose from when you’re figuring out what you want to do.

Finally, make games. You are learning how to read and write and even ask interesting questions in school, but you’ll have many fewer opportunities to get good at making games. That means practicing on your own time. I always tell my students that they should start by making non-digital games, because you can make them faster, and that means you can make more of them. You should also make sure to test the games you make, because you want to make sure your games keep getting better. If you make the same game over and over, you’re not really learning anything. You can ask friends, family and teachers to play your games to start out. Once you’re a bit older, you can look into joining a student game design club (lots of colleges have them!) or joining the student group of the International Game Developers Association.

When it’s time to start thinking about college, you’ll want to make sure of two things. First, you should choose a program that will help you get skills you need but don’t have yet. For example, I learned to program in college and it’s been really helpful for me to build my own games! But second, you should choose a program that doesn’t JUST teach you skills – you want to make sure you get to keep asking interesting questions. You might end up doing a course that doesn’t have “games” in the name, which is more than fine. As long as it does the two things I’ve mentioned, it’s a good step toward getting my job. Your college advisor can help you figure out which program is right for you.

I wish you all the best of luck as game designers!

Teaching Game Design, Part VII

What do the students say about the course? What do they expect to get out of it? What do they find fun/boring/difficult?

I’m surprised at how difficult it’s been for me to pull together my thoughts on this topic. I know, more or less, what students say about my class. I do formal and informal student evaluations, have casual conversations with students both before and after they study with me, and I’ve even put together a group of former students who’ve agreed to serve as teaching references. But I keep getting side-tracked into thinking (and trying to write) about how to understand student reactions more generally.

I try to encourage my students to think critically about my class, and particularly about whether it meets their learning goals. I’ve never seen them go as far as Brandon Layton, who grades his classes at Full Sail, but I do believe that if I’m going to have high expectations of my students, they should also have high expectations of me. However, I sometimes worry that this attitude contributes to the transformation of students into consumers of education. How do you draw the line between being an engaged and responsive professor, and being a glorified entertainer?

My instinct has always been that it’s related to the idea of having high expectations – and the research seems to back me up. We already knew that high faculty expectations contributes to the success of women and minority students, at least in the context of a supportive learning environment*. Now new research shows that high faculty expectations, as measured both through assignment rigor and student perception, tie directly to gains in critical thinking for all students.

Fortunately for me, “high expectations” is one of the things that comes up most frequently when students talk about my class. (So I guess I’m doing something right!) Students are quite aware that my class requires an enormous amount of time and effort, and that they will be held to a high standard of thought and production. However, they generally see the work as an exciting challenge rather than a burden – “hard fun,” if you will.

I benefit from teaching an elective course in an engaging field, of course. But based on student feedback over multiple years, there are two specific things I do that seem to support the “hard fun” approach. First, students feel that projects are authentic and meaningful. The assignments are small enough for novice designers to manage, but large enough for them to develop real skills. Getting feedback in class from their peers, out of class from playtest groups, and in writing from me is also a significant motivator. Second, I try to inspire my students with a sense of identity and vision. I talk about the challenges in the field, point out unsolved problems, and refer to them as designers from day one. Together, these things seem to convey to students that their assignments are non-arbitrary, and that they are opportunities rather than obligations. Hence, fun!

The comments I treasure most are the ones that show me how I’ve changed lives. One student told me she’d joined the class because she heard it was a fun elective, and left knowing that games would be her life’s work. (She is now writing her dissertation on a game-related topic!) Another said she’d never worked so hard in her life, and that she’d be taking a new attitude toward future assignments. A third told me that in other classes she’d learned about constructivist educational theories, but that mine was the only class she’d encountered that put them into practice; although she didn’t want to continue studying games, she’d be using my classroom as a model for her own teaching.

(It’s not an accident, by the way, that all these examples are from female students. I am incredibly proud that my classes are over 50% female and over 40% international and/or minority students, in an industry where the numbers are not good on either front.)

That’s not to say that there aren’t things students dislike. I get complaints every year that we don’t do enough theory, for example; it’s a completely fair critique, but it’s a conscious trade-off given how little time I get with my students. I make a calculated bet that students will have more formal opportunities to study theory outside my classroom than to make games. They also come in with a lot more experience at reading than they do at (critical) play, so I feel more confident that they can do it on their own. If I were teaching this year, I’d be adding optional readings to the syllabus to satisfy these students – but they’d have to find the additional time to do the work, because I wouldn’t trade off any of their opportunities to design.

Students also struggle with group work. Weirdly, mentions of group work in the formal and informal evaluations are almost universally positive, but in casual conversation I hear a lot about the challenges students faced. (I also sometimes get called in to mediate problematic groups during the semester!) I try to help students work productively in teams by providing suggestions about how to split up the work of the assignment, identifying problems that teams might face, and meeting with each team at least once a month. This is still a big unsolved, though; I know that group design work is critical, but I’m definitely still figuring out strategies to help students do it in a more consistently productive way.

In my advanced class, I run every other class session as a design workshop; groups present problems they’re having and the whole class tries to help them fix them. If the group has no specific issues to bring up, we analyze their game from a particular perspective (interface design, learning theory, player motivation, etc.). Students seem to have a love-hate relationship with these sessions. They’re the thing that’s most often mentioned as a big positive AND as a big negative for my advanced class. I think the biggest thing I can do on this front is to help presenting groups keep their presentations short and focused, so that the class spends most of the time workshopping instead of listening. This probably means modeling good presentation techniques, and giving more specific guidelines for each design workshop. I’d also try having groups alternate, giving a full session to each group, instead of having multiple groups per week.

Overall, though, students love the courses. Even though I’m not teaching right now, I have students seek me out for advice because they’ve heard about my classes. It’s an incredible compliment as a teacher. I did a lot of research on pedagogy when designing my classes, and I work hard every year to improve them; it’s great to see my hard work paying off, both for my students and for me!

* See Claude Steele’s work. I came across it in What The Best College Teachers Do, which provides a useful summary.

Teaching Game Design, Part VI

What is hard for the students to learn? What makes it hard? Is there a ’threshold’ effect in your course, so that once they learned something specific, everything else gets much easier?

On the first day of my introductory game design course, I tell my students that it’s the hardest course they will take in graduate school*. That’s partly because of workload, and partly because the course concepts can be challenging, but it’s also because I reject the Hidden Contract. I refuse to pseudoteach, but it means that I expect better from my students than pseudolearning. My courses are student-driven, creative and highly participatory, and it sometimes takes time for my students to bring a different set of learning skills to bear.

The biggest conceptual challenge for my students is the notion of freedom in play. This includes a number of sub-concepts, like understanding the wide variety of possible player experiences within a single game system. Every year I have students who struggle with the idea that players might not play their game just like they did, or who fall into the trap of “designing from should.” (As in: you SHOULD play this game, and you SHOULD play it this way.)  I can tell the students who are struggling with this concept because they create “creepy treehouse” games, in the wonderful terminology of Melanie McBride.

I think this challenge is hardest for students who focus on educational games, particularly the ones who are the most invested in making games for the classroom. I try to break student fixation on “creepy treehouse” play in a number of ways, from explicit discussion to in-class modeling to mandatory play-testing to making them watch my favorite video. However, one of the most helpful exercises I do with these students is to have them identify elements of classroom culture and discuss how game design challenges or supports each of those elements. Then I ask them to consider how the game they’ve designed relates to each of these elements. Usually I get an “Aha!” by the third or fourth example of privileging classroom behavior over playfulness in their game.

Once students surmount this challenge, I see an enormous improvement in the quality of the games they produce. Their games become far more playful and far more risky, far more novel and far more sensitive to the nuances of the environment in which play takes place. Their papers also become more sophisticated, as they write about how their games connect to the theoretical material in the course in a clearer and more original way.

What’s interesting is that this struggle is that it appears regularly in student assignments, but rarely in class discussions. Students can engage with the readings and hold their own in class discussion, but still retain some very flawed notions about how play works. Once they have to make their own games, though, their misconceptions and difficulties come right to the front!

So that’s the conceptual piece – but as I noted above, some students also struggle with the style of the course, particularly the level of initiative and engagement I expect. It takes time for students to get used to the idea that they should be in charge of their own learning, and particularly to the notion that they have to take risks in order to do interesting work. I encourage an attitude of “fail gloriously” in my classroom, but many students struggle with the notion that any kind of  failure is ever acceptable. That’s Hidden Contract thinking, of course, but many of my students have spent most of their educational lives playing by those very rules!

I try to show my students that I put my money where my mouth is, when it comes to taking risks. I explain that doing risky things will help them learn, and that they can fail in productive and interesting ways by noticing, analyzing and iterating on failure. A third of their grade for each project is also given for “process” – which, essentially, measures all the things that they tried but that didn’t show up in the final project. I give process points for removing game elements that aren’t working, critically analyzing player feedback and responding to it, iterating and play-testing multiple times, trying outlandish things with a good rationale, and otherwise showing that you can take risks and learn from them. Once students realize that a risky, unsuccessful game can do just as well as a safe, successful one – but with the potential for outsize rewards if they pull it off! – they start trying more novel game mechanics, more playful behaviors, more interesting audiences and all kinds of other innovations.

These problems are, unsurprisingly, specific to my student population. I teach at one of the top graduate schools in the country, which means that my students are by definition extremely successful at traditional academic models. As you can see from the challenges they experience, this shows up both in their game designs and in their experience with the course itself. What amazes me about my students, year after year, is how quickly they get good at thinking playfully and making games – and how willing they are to make me a partner in their journey to doing so.

* This dissuades almost no one, but it does set important expectations for the level of effort and engagement required.

Teaching Game Design, Part V

What games do you use? What criteria do you use to choose games to analyse? To what extent do you let the students choose games? Genres – do you limit the course to particular types of games (e.g. do you use any games that are not computer games)?

For my introductory course, I put together a list of 70+ games that students can choose to analyze. The list includes both digital and non-digital games, single-player and multi-player games, commercially successful games and indie efforts. It’s light on mobile and social options because I haven’t taught this course since 2009, but I’ll definitely fix that next time I update the list. I’ll probably also add some of the better games for change / games for health efforts, even though I encourage my students to focus on understanding good game design before they try to do anything tricky with it.

The first criterion for a game getting on the list is whether I’ve played it. I feel it’s very important for me to be fluent enough to help my students understand and analyze the games they’re engaging with, especially if they raise issues that might come up in class discussion. Even if I haven’t finished a particular game, I will put it on the list if I know what it’s doing in terms of design and can help guide my students through the analysis process.

The second criterion is that the game must be innovative or excellent or both. Yes, there’s a lot to be learned from critiquing bad games, but I have so little time with my students that I can’t countenance giving them anything that’s less than awesome.

The third criterion is that the game should either be available in our game research lab, free to play online, or both. Since I used to be in charge of game ordering for the lab, this was never a problem! But before I realized that this was an issue, I found that students gravitated toward the games with the lowest barriers to play. Once I started ensuring that all the games were equally available in the lab, I got a much more diverse set of game analyses from the students.

Only then do we get down to the horse-trading details of what goes on the list and what gets dropped. I try to think about curating the list as a whole, creating balance between different types of play, different scales of time commitment, different narratives and social relationships and visual styles. Students will play 15 of the 70 games on the list, and I want to up the odds that their particular 15-game spread will be a useful long-term part of their game education.

If students want to analyze a game that isn’t on the list, they have to run it by me before they write their analysis. They have to make a brief case to me for why it’s a game worth analyzing, and I have to be able to play the game before grades come due. Assuming both those things go smoothly – and in the past, they always have – they can go ahead with whatever game they’ve picked. I’ve actually encountered some neat games this way, like Zak & Wiki, and put the best of them onto the list for future classes to analyze.

In my advanced class, I’m not the only one assigning games. I help students come up with lists of reference points for their projects, many of which are games – but they also contribute games, and so do their peers who did not choose to take the advanced class. Unlike in the introductory course, I encourage students to seek out play experiences that will directly inform their design, even if it’s because the game in question does something badly. I do try to keep up with all the games my students play, but it’s typical for my advanced classes to play things before I do, and then “assign” me to play them so I can make my class discussion as useful as possible. It’s a pretty great arrangement; I love it when my students challenge me, and they always do!

Teaching Game Design, Part IV

What do the students read (or watch) to learn theory or methods of analysis?

My classes are a bit unusual on this front, because I have a dual obligation to my students. I have to teach them how to analyze and design games, but I also have to connect what they’re learning to theories of education, psychology, communication and more.

In some ways, teaching my students to analyze games is the easy part. Students’ experience with game play varies wildly, but almost none of them have done game analysis before. That means they’ve got no bad habits to unlearn, and I’m not boring half the class while I go over the basics with the other half. I give them lots of concrete examples to work from, both during class and as handouts. It also helps that my students are already thinking about how games can express ideas or points of view; in fact, if I have any problems, it’s usually with students who are overly literal about how games mean what they mean.

Most of the game design readings come from The Game Design Reader, since I prefer to work from (relatively) primary sources. I make it clear that these readings will give them the tools they need to understand how games function – but that they have to connect it to the other readings for the course, and to ideas that they may have encountered in their other classes. For the theoretical part of the class, I have them read one book (Gee’s What Video Games Have To Teach Us ….) and a whole bunch of scholarly articles on everything from constructivism to associative networks to social persuasion. My students’ non-game backgrounds vary wildly – some are cognitive scientists, some are communication students, some are educators, some are none of the above – so I try to keep the readings diverse and the emphasis on applying it to games.

I try to keep readings under 75 pages per week. This is partly because the class already has so much work, but it’s also partly because I want students to process what they’re learning deeply. I want them to connect their ideas to the games they’re playing and the games they’re making. I also want them to be able to follow up on things they think are neat and bring them back to the class. Almost every class session, I end up recommending books, academic papers, or games to play – ones that come out of our group discussion and address specific issues the students are having. I want my students to go out and figure out their own theoretical perspectives, ones that include things I wasn’t able to bring into the course or even things I’m not yet aware of. As long as they’re analyzing the games in a rigorous and theoretically grounded way, I call it a win.

Finally, I ask students to use their (mandatory) play-testing as a form of game analysis. What reactions did they get from the play-testers? What did they observe during play? What game design decisions might have caused what they saw? What could they change and re-test to see what happened? I run in-class play-test sessions in which I model helpful behaviors for observation – the hardest thing is usually for the designers to keep their mouths shut and not tell the players how to play! I also require students to document and analyze at least one out-of-class play-test session for each game design assignment. This helps enormously with getting students to think about specific game design decisions and their concrete impact on play. It’s also very helpful at getting students to see the difference between meaning that’s encoded in the rules of the game, meaning that’s produced during every game session, and meaning that’s produced during a particular play session.

On a personal note, my favorite “reading” is this video; I use it to help students understand player freedom and the diversity of choices that players can make even within a relatively constrained game!

Strange Systems

There’s a fantastic article by Simon Strange in this month’s issue of Game Developer Magazine. He talks about how to diagram game systems in terms of dynamic equilibria. What game systems impact what other systems? Which have a negative effect and which a positive effect? Which game systems are most tightly coupled to the larger design, and which can be tweaked until fairly late in development? It’s eminently practical, with a running example from Doom II that makes his concepts very clear.

What made me go “Ooh!” is that he seems to be essentially proposing an explicit form of systems thinking for game designers. As soon as I saw his diagrams, I thought of Stella and other tools for understanding dynamic systems. It makes me wonder whether this kind of exercise could be useful both for teaching game design and for teaching systems thinking. I’ll definitely be basing future game design assignments on this technique.

I also wish I’d had this tool earlier in the development process for my current projects. I’ll be drawing some system diagrams of my own game next week for sure!

Thanks, Simon!