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!

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