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.

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