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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!

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.