Teaching Game Design, Part VII

What do the students say about the course? What do they expect to get out of it? What do they find fun/boring/difficult?

I’m surprised at how difficult it’s been for me to pull together my thoughts on this topic. I know, more or less, what students say about my class. I do formal and informal student evaluations, have casual conversations with students both before and after they study with me, and I’ve even put together a group of former students who’ve agreed to serve as teaching references. But I keep getting side-tracked into thinking (and trying to write) about how to understand student reactions more generally.

I try to encourage my students to think critically about my class, and particularly about whether it meets their learning goals. I’ve never seen them go as far as Brandon Layton, who grades his classes at Full Sail, but I do believe that if I’m going to have high expectations of my students, they should also have high expectations of me. However, I sometimes worry that this attitude contributes to the transformation of students into consumers of education. How do you draw the line between being an engaged and responsive professor, and being a glorified entertainer?

My instinct has always been that it’s related to the idea of having high expectations – and the research seems to back me up. We already knew that high faculty expectations contributes to the success of women and minority students, at least in the context of a supportive learning environment*. Now new research shows that high faculty expectations, as measured both through assignment rigor and student perception, tie directly to gains in critical thinking for all students.

Fortunately for me, “high expectations” is one of the things that comes up most frequently when students talk about my class. (So I guess I’m doing something right!) Students are quite aware that my class requires an enormous amount of time and effort, and that they will be held to a high standard of thought and production. However, they generally see the work as an exciting challenge rather than a burden – “hard fun,” if you will.

I benefit from teaching an elective course in an engaging field, of course. But based on student feedback over multiple years, there are two specific things I do that seem to support the “hard fun” approach. First, students feel that projects are authentic and meaningful. The assignments are small enough for novice designers to manage, but large enough for them to develop real skills. Getting feedback in class from their peers, out of class from playtest groups, and in writing from me is also a significant motivator. Second, I try to inspire my students with a sense of identity and vision. I talk about the challenges in the field, point out unsolved problems, and refer to them as designers from day one. Together, these things seem to convey to students that their assignments are non-arbitrary, and that they are opportunities rather than obligations. Hence, fun!

The comments I treasure most are the ones that show me how I’ve changed lives. One student told me she’d joined the class because she heard it was a fun elective, and left knowing that games would be her life’s work. (She is now writing her dissertation on a game-related topic!) Another said she’d never worked so hard in her life, and that she’d be taking a new attitude toward future assignments. A third told me that in other classes she’d learned about constructivist educational theories, but that mine was the only class she’d encountered that put them into practice; although she didn’t want to continue studying games, she’d be using my classroom as a model for her own teaching.

(It’s not an accident, by the way, that all these examples are from female students. I am incredibly proud that my classes are over 50% female and over 40% international and/or minority students, in an industry where the numbers are not good on either front.)

That’s not to say that there aren’t things students dislike. I get complaints every year that we don’t do enough theory, for example; it’s a completely fair critique, but it’s a conscious trade-off given how little time I get with my students. I make a calculated bet that students will have more formal opportunities to study theory outside my classroom than to make games. They also come in with a lot more experience at reading than they do at (critical) play, so I feel more confident that they can do it on their own. If I were teaching this year, I’d be adding optional readings to the syllabus to satisfy these students – but they’d have to find the additional time to do the work, because I wouldn’t trade off any of their opportunities to design.

Students also struggle with group work. Weirdly, mentions of group work in the formal and informal evaluations are almost universally positive, but in casual conversation I hear a lot about the challenges students faced. (I also sometimes get called in to mediate problematic groups during the semester!) I try to help students work productively in teams by providing suggestions about how to split up the work of the assignment, identifying problems that teams might face, and meeting with each team at least once a month. This is still a big unsolved, though; I know that group design work is critical, but I’m definitely still figuring out strategies to help students do it in a more consistently productive way.

In my advanced class, I run every other class session as a design workshop; groups present problems they’re having and the whole class tries to help them fix them. If the group has no specific issues to bring up, we analyze their game from a particular perspective (interface design, learning theory, player motivation, etc.). Students seem to have a love-hate relationship with these sessions. They’re the thing that’s most often mentioned as a big positive AND as a big negative for my advanced class. I think the biggest thing I can do on this front is to help presenting groups keep their presentations short and focused, so that the class spends most of the time workshopping instead of listening. This probably means modeling good presentation techniques, and giving more specific guidelines for each design workshop. I’d also try having groups alternate, giving a full session to each group, instead of having multiple groups per week.

Overall, though, students love the courses. Even though I’m not teaching right now, I have students seek me out for advice because they’ve heard about my classes. It’s an incredible compliment as a teacher. I did a lot of research on pedagogy when designing my classes, and I work hard every year to improve them; it’s great to see my hard work paying off, both for my students and for me!

* See Claude Steele’s work. I came across it in What The Best College Teachers Do, which provides a useful summary.

Leave a Reply

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