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!

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