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.

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