Archive for Teaching

Teaching Game Design, Part III

At what level is the course (or courses) taught? What are the overall learning goals of the course? What will your students become, when they are finished with their education? Are you confident that the course is relevant for their future profession?

I’ve mostly taught game design at the graduate level, for a combination of masters and doctoral students. I’ve occasionally taught undergraduates, but since my primary experience is with graduate students, that’s what I’ll be discussing here.

About 60% of my students tend to be from CCTE, our host department, or from Cognitive Studies, which CCTE has a close institutional relationship with.  The rest come from a wide variety of departments – Curriculum & Teaching, Arts Education, Organizational Psychology and more. I even get a few people cross-registering from the main campus. The courses count toward a breadth requirement for many of these programs, but aren’t required by any of them. This is great, because it means all my students have chosen to be in my classroom; they’re generally a highly motivated bunch, and aren’t scared away by the workload or my high expectations. On the other hand, it means I have a wide variety of student motivations to deal with. Some of them want to be game designers, some want to be critical media theorists, some want to use games in their classrooms, and some just want to have fun. Plus I’m dealing with both masters students, who are thinking about their immediate job prospects, and doctoral students, who are (or should be!) much more concerned with establishing a professional academic presence and defining their research field.

Managing this wide variety of student goals is one of the hardest things I do. I try to actively work with students on this issue from day one; part of the introduction process is asking my students what roles they see themselves in and what their goals for the class are. We explicitly talk about the most valuable elements of the class for people who see themselves taking on each role. Because so much of the class work is done in groups, students can focus on the course elements that are most valuable to their self-defined goals. The last class of my basic course is called “Next Steps” – addressing what each group of students should be doing to move their professional goals forward. At that point, I’ve had all semester to get to know my students, so I can recommend specific courses, give advice on portfolio-building, and put them in touch with alumni who’ve made similar choices.

I try to provide extra mentoring for early-stage doctoral students, particularly in my advanced class. I recently came across this article on how important it is to think about your academic career from the moment you decide that you’d like to have one. The expectations in the social sciences are slightly different, but the principle is the same. I design my entire advanced course around giving students the opportunity to define, build, research and assess an independent project. For the masters students, these are skills they can draw on in the workplace; for doctoral students, it’s like a tiny dissertation in a semester.

I talked a bit about the learning goals of my course in my last post. I want my students to be able to play games critically, and to design interesting games. I also want them to understand current thinking about learning, cognition and behavior change, and to understand how to integrate those theories into their analysis and design. I chose these goals because these goals are applicable to many different groups of students – but you’ll notice that they don’t completely satisfy anyone’s needs, either. (Maybe the just-for-fun group?) I expect my students to use my class constructively, as part of a larger strategy to achieve their self-defined goals. I’ll provide advice and support, but ultimately it’s the student’s job to take advantage of the resources around them to get where they want to go.

Here’s one example of how this works. In my advanced class, students are expected to produce a playable digital prototype of their game. Many of my students have little-to-no coding experience, and even those with some programming background aren’t necessarily equipped to take the lead on a significant project. I tell them that doesn’t change my expectations. Like it or not, they have to figure out how they’ll make a digital game. I offer them a range of options based on their learning goals. They can recruit a classmate who can take the coding lead, work with computer science students at Columbia or elsewhere, use a simplified prototyping tool, or learn to code Real Fast Now. I’ve had groups take all of these options – including one student who taught himself Flash for my class and now teaches programming classes. Cool, huh?

Students also have the alternative of producing a non-digital prototype, writing a research proposal for what they could learn using the game, and conducting a small-scale pilot test. The number of groups that choose this alternative varies from year to year, but it’s usually doctoral students who want the practice conducting research studies. My biggest success on this front was in 2009, when the class produced prototypes and proposals for a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Games Research grant. One group of students decided they would continue honing their proposal after the class ended, recruited a faculty PI, submitted the grant and eventually got funded! That’s the heart of what I want my students to do: to take the tools I give them and go far beyond what I can possibly offer.

In short, whether or not my course is relevant for my students is up to the students themselves. I’ve had students use what they’ve learned to get industry jobs, found startups, write dissertations, improve their teaching, and even found a charter school. I’ve also had students walk away from the class with some fun experiences under their belt and nothing more – and I consider those students successes, too, if that’s what they were looking for. All I can do is provide opportunities for students to get where they’re going, and I’m always excited to see where they choose to go.

Teaching Game Design, Part II

Describe your course and the game analysis exercises briefly, in your own words.

I created the game design course sequence for the Communication, Computing and Technology in Education program at Teachers College Columbia University. I developed the first version of the course as a one-semester special topics seminar back in 2006; it’s now two semesters, has official course numbers, and has spawned additional game-related courses at our institution. That’s pretty neat.  Of course, I’m on a dissertation fellowship right now and I probably won’t teach these courses at Columbia again*, but I imagine I’ll be teaching similar courses once I’m faculty.

My game course sequence has two main goals: to teach students how to read (play) and write (produce) games, and to help them incorporate rigorous theories of learning and behavior change into their design. I see too many educational games that are poorly designed, poorly theorized, or both. I wanted to produce students who were capable of marrying good games with good learning – which, for the record, I think is at least twice as hard as doing either one alone.

The basic course covered game analysis, learning theory, and non-digital design work; the advanced course focused on independent research and hands-on game development. I handled game analysis differently in each course, so I’ll discuss them separately.

Basic Course

The course was structured around the concepts of Rules, Play, Culture – okay, so that’s not a shocker coming from a gameLab alum. For each section of the course, I reviewed relevant design principles and theories. I also integrated learning models that were appropriate for each section, from behaviorism to identity theory. Finally, the assignments for each section asked the students to create a non-digital game, focusing on the appropriate design elements and learning theories for that section of the course.

When it came to game analyses, I had two different goals: to get students playing broadly and deeply, and to help them think critically about games. The solution I eventually settled on was to require five game analyses in each section of the course. It meant students would have three opportunities during the semester to get feedback on their game analyses, and I could ask them to analyze different aspects of the games they played for each assignment.

In order to help students play essential games, but also get a broad base of play experiences, I prepared a list of seventy games that students could pick from. The games were placed into categories like “Visual Aesthetics” or “Resource Management.” Every analysis in the same assignment had to come from a different game category, and had to be a game that the writer had not played before. Students also had to include one digital and one non-digital game in each batch. This produced students who had at least some familiarity with a wide variety of different games, which I could use as reference points in class for deeper analysis or to illustrate our discussions.

Teaching students how to write a good game analysis proved more difficult than getting students to play many different games.  At first, I got a lot of analyses that described the game in great detail but failed to analyze it, or that were unable to identify a single sub-system and its effects. To solve this problem, I focused on modeling good analysis to help students learn. I provided a sample game analysis at the beginning of the course, and showed students what I considered successful about it. I broke it down into three very specific steps. First, the student was expected to identify and briefly describe one game element. Second, they were expected to discuss the effects of that game element, referring to specific design choices to support their case. Finally, they were expected to write about what they had learned from this analysis for their own design work. If they did those three things, I would consider their analysis successful; they didn’t have to get fancy.

In order to provide detailed feedback on game analyses, students were expected to produce their analyses in groups. (This also helped lower the barrier for students to analyze multi-player games!) Because my time investment scaled per group, not per person, I was able to write a 1-3 page response paper for each group. I critiqued their performance on each of the three elements they were expected to include in their analysis: identifying a game element, critically analyzing it, and learning from it as designers. This level of feedback let me show students where they were going off the rails, and give them an idea of how to do better analysis of the same game in the future.

With group work it is, of course, hard to deduce individual effects. Some groups clearly had one person write all their analyses, while other groups divided up the analytical work. However, based on class discussions, I believe that most students made significant progress in game analysis. This method certainly worked better than other things I’d tried in the past, such as having each student maintain a play blog.

Advanced Course

In the advanced course, students were expected to be largely self-directed as they worked on their own game projects. The goal was to give students some hands-on experience with development, and to get students prepared to develop their own ideas about how to integrate research with game development. Students worked on projects with real-world impact (a health games research grant, museum-based games for the New York Hall of Science), and most class time was focused on their game projects.

I generally began the course with a full-session, in-depth analysis exercise. Students played two games – Insaniquarium and At Risk – and discussed the games’ design choices in groups. Among other things, I used this exercise to illustrate the wide variety of decisions that go into making a completed game, from mechanics to UI to graphics and audio. Students were encouraged to talk about how they would revise the games to achieve specific impact goals, and why they believed their changes would be effective.

Students were also expected to assemble a library of ‘inspirations’ for their game design projects. This could include media of any kind, but the core of the library was games that influenced their thinking in terms of design, aesthetics, the production of meaning, business models and more. Each time students presented, the class had the chance to suggest reference games for them to play and learn from. These discussions proved most helpful when the group arrived with a specific question, such as “How do I handle this kind of user interface?” or “What game has level designs relevant to mine?” When it came to more general questions, players often didn’t play the games suggested by me or by their peers. In retrospect, I think this is because the course was an enormous amount of work – 30-50 pages of writing, plus original research, plus creating a playable game prototype. Most students just didn’t have enough time to explore without an immediate purpose.

The next time I teach the advanced game design course, I may emphasize analysis more than I have in the past. The main reason I minimized analysis during course hours was because I only had my students for two hours a week. If I get more face-to-face hours with my students, I’ll be thinking carefully about what analysis can offer students who are deep in the throes of production, and how to get them to lift their heads out of the development mines to engage in it!

* On the bright side, Dr. Joey Lee has not only taken over the course sequence, but has also done some really neat things that have inspired me for the next time I teach! Right now I’m particularly admiring how he documents and archives student game work; I wish I’d been more focused on making students’ experiences visible to each other.

Teaching Game Design, Part I

A few weeks ago, the inimitable Annika Waern started a discussion online about teaching game analysis. I’ve been thinking about her questions in terms of teaching game design, and course design more broadly. I haven’t written much about my teaching, even though it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on, so I’ll be answering her questions at some length on this site.

Here are the questions I’ll be answering, probably one per post.

  1. Describe your course and the game analysis exercises briefly, in your own words.
  2. The context & community of practice: At what level is the course (or courses) taught? What are the overall learning goals of the course? What will your students become, when they are finished with their education? Are you confident that the course is relevant for their future profession?
  3. Literature or other sources: What do the students read (or watch) to learn theory or methods of analysis?
  4. Games. 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)?
  5. Difficulties and threshold knowledge: 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?
  6. What do the students say about the course? What do they expect to get out of it? What do they find fun/boring/difficult?
  7. Practical tips and tricks! What are the best methods you’ve found to overcome the difficulties? If you have some practical exercises you are particularly fond of and willing to share, please provide a link or attach some material to the response.

I’ll tag all my posts with tgd so you can find the whole series, if you’re interested.

Impostor-Shaped Hole

Over on Laurian Vega’s blog, she shares a story about a student who undervalues her own work because of Impostor Syndrome. She writes the student a letter in which she gives her support, recognizes her accomplishments, and suggests practical remedies for her situation. All these things are great! Laurian is clearly a compassionate and thoughtful teacher with useful advice to offer.

There’s just one problem: this response can easily be incorporated into the internally consistent narrative of feeling like a fraud. The student can easily conclude that they’ve just managed to fool this particular teacher as well. Now the stakes for keeping up the facade are even higher! What was meant as a loving and supportive gesture instead adds to the weight of self-deprecation and fear. Saying things like “You alone are going to hold yourself back from a great career” only makes things worse. Now you’re not just an impostor, your feelings of being an impostor are going to make you fail no matter how hard you try! The only thing worse than anxiety is meta-anxiety …

I say all this with some confidence, because I have had conversations of precisely this sort. Yes, friends, I have spent much of my life feeling like an impostor – and it really, really sucks. On the other hand, my experience led me to do research on everything from attribution styles to feedback types, and the way I’ve dealt with this problem in my own life helps me help my own students more effectively.

I’ve never sat down and distilled my approach into a letter, but here are the things I try to help my students understand.

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Design for Neighborliness

This morning, the boy sent me this post about what works for political campaigns.  I don’t know where the information is coming from, but if I can track down a more reliable source than MetaFilter, this sounds like a problem that game design techniques can help solve.

Here’s the problem, as laid out behind the link! The things that people want to do for national campaigns are not the things that are actually effective at getting votes. People want to do things that are well-structured, like stuff envelopes. Campaigns need people to do things that are ill-structured, like go have personal conversations with their neighbors.

I can imagine game techniques helping here in three ways.

First, games are great at structuring problems, even when things look very open-ended. I remember the first time I played Super Mario 64. At first I was bewildered. Where were my side-scrolling levels? What was I supposed to do next? Slowly, the game’s system of capabilities and rewards revealed themselves to me, until I started seeing the open-ended landscape of possibility as a place where I had power and could take directed action. (Doug Church has a great description of how this works.)

Second, playfulness can help people overcome social anxiety. Research shows this works in therapeutic settings (with kids,  for example), but what I’m thinking of is actually people’s remarkable willingness to do ridiculous things with strangers in a playful context. If you look at Come Out and Play, just for example, you can find people coming together playfully to do some truly odd stuff. Admittedly that’s easier to do when everyone agrees to play together, but experiences like Midnight Madness certainly had me approaching strangers for help and advice.

Finally, I wonder whether this approach could change how people feel about their ability to impact the political system. One of the things I study is how people understand complex systems, and the short answer is that most of us don’t. Even when we understand them abstractly, as soon as we stop using our logical minds, our cognitive shortcuts lead us into all kinds of misunderstandings. Game design techniques could try to turn those shortcuts to our advantage, instead of leaving people with a sense of hopelessness and despair about our political process. (And yes! Feelings matter!)

If I were teaching this semester, this is a problem I’d definitely set my students.  It has great research ties to social psychology, the sociology of community, group dynamics and more, as well as being a terrific design constraint. Given its possible extensions into social and mobile gaming, I might even make it a semester-long project and get my students to create prototypes. Maybe next time I’m teaching!

Thinking about Criticism

I just read “In Praise of Tough Criticism” over on the Chronicle.  I almost didn’t make it more than two paragraphs in, because of course the author chose to characterize the non-confrontational, compassionate, intellectually mushy, teaching-oriented academic as a woman.  But people in the comments pointed that out – see #9 and #10 particularly – so I’m not going to rant about it, I swear.

Once I finished being annoyed, though, the article made me reflect about my own persona as a critic.  I recognized myself in both Smith and Jones, which you wouldn’t think would be so easy or possible from the way Di Leo writes.  Either one puts social affirmation ahead of critical truth, or the other way around.  What I find myself doing, though, is taking on different critical personae in different situations, depending on my goals, who else is involved, and the consequences of my actions for all participants.

Consider this.  As a teacher, I make a point of never shutting a student down in class discussion, no matter how off-base their ideas.  Like the fictional Jones, I find that there’s something worthwhile in everything a student has to say, even if it’s only an insight into what they’re thinking or an intellectual provocation for the rest of the class.  On the other hand, my students get extensive written critical feedback about their class projects, including specific and concrete pointers to problematic elements in their work, in a positively Smithian fashion.  The difference, to me, is critiquing ideas versus critiquing products.  I want my students to develop their own ideas within an intellectually serious framework.  However, if they’re going to do work that builds on those ideas, I expect it to be rigorous and persuasive.  They can disagree with me on their core ideas, but that doesn’t change my standards for how well they need to follow through.

At the same time, when it comes to both scholarly activity and teaching, I often find myself taking a third path.  Rather than emphasize idea formation (Jones) or summative evaluation (Smith), I ask questions like “How can you make this better?”  Instead of being a critic outside the author’s intellectual process, I put myself into that process with them.  My job as a critic becomes asking them the hard questions, and building together on the answers they give.  Unlike Jones, pointing out the hard problems is the point of the activity; unlike Smith, doing it collaboratively creates an affiliative community of its own, where good relationships and good work are mutually supportive, not in tension with each other.

I’m most able to achieve this kind of critical engagement when I’m both an expert and a peer.  I’m really excited, for example, to meet with a former student of mine tomorrow and talk about her dissertation.  I expect to give her a hard time, joyfully, and to have my own ideas challenged joyfully in return.

I also don’t think it’s unrelated to the field I’m in.  You could call this critical model intellectual play-testing.  (Emphasis on both play and testing!)

So, what about you?  When are you a Smith or a Jones?  And are you ever a Hammer?

Electing the Smart Guy

Ill Doctrine, of all people, got me wondering: can we fix our cultural hostility to electing smart people to office by fixing the way we teach?  At the end of his video, he talks about how electing the smart guy trips people’s high-school sense of inadequacy.  But what if we designed our schools to make more students value intelligence, not just in themselves but in others?

Perhaps I’ll move this book farther up on my reading list and see where things go.  Oh!  And I’m sure Alfie Kohn has something useful on this topic.  Plus we know from Carol Dweck that people’s hypotheses about the nature of intelligence matter for how they learn; I bet it matters for how they think about others’ learning too.  I can’t recall offhand whether she’s taken any data on that, but given how generally awesome her work is, I wouldn’t be surprised if she just happened to have some.

If you wanted to look at this in a naturalistic context, you can quantify the degree to which a school emphasizes competition and compare attitudes across schools.  On the other hand, I wonder how you could start to measure a school’s intellectual culture?  I grew up in a school culture that valued intelligence – the smart kids were the cool kids! – but my partner had the opposite experience.  I bet that plays into things too.

I cannot get too distracted by this idea right now, but I’m totally putting this on my “learn more about later” list!

GDC 2010 Report: Women in Games Edition

I’m involved in the Games2Girls project, which introduces middle school girls to careers in game development.  It’s a great project, with implications for STEM learning and identity transformation and all that good stuff!  But the most immediate implication is that I spent much of GDC at Women in Games activities.

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Useful Presentation Tips

A friend sent me a link to this great post on giving presentations.  I’ve got some major presentations coming up – GDC in March, AERA in May, and NMC in June, just to name a few – so this was pretty timely!

As a presenter, I draw a lot from my experience teaching.  I rely on talking to my audience, not at them; I focus on delivering material that they couldn’t get by reading a book (or, say, my slides); I change the emphasis on what I’m saying in real-time based on audience reaction.  This means I avoid a lot of the problems he mentions, like reading directly from the paper or being thrown by something unexpected happening.

That said, I’ve never had a true technical explosion, like having to operate entirely without visuals.  I’ll definitely be printing out my notes in the future, rather than using my slides as reference points – just in case!

I’m also wondering how I can incorporate these lessons into my teaching practice and improve my classroom skills.  For example, I’m good at speaking to a pre-defined length in a presentation – but somehow my classes often go over the alloted time.  Is that because my students are generally willing (and excited!) to stay longer?  Because teaching a class is more interactive than giving a presentation?  Or just because there’s no real consequence for ending class ten minutes late, while ending a presentation ten minutes late is a disaster?

Stanley Strogatz Teaches Math!

On a completely different topic, I’m terribly excited about the Stanley Strogatz math-education series in the Times. I can’t wait to watch how he teaches math, and how he gives us a new way to think about numbers. I’m already thrilled at how he situates numbers in a half-real space that is the product both of our imaginations and of a self-consistent reality.

I imagine I’m going to learn something important about teaching a complex topic effectively from this series, so I’ll be watching it closely. You should too!