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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *