Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Games of 2016

In 2015, my brother decided to track all of the board games he played. In one year, he had 829 plays with 48 different people, including 524 with his wife. He played 124 unique games. He ended the year with an h-index of 16; that is, there were 16 games that he played at least 16 times. He shared these numbers with me right around New Years Day 2016, and it made me wonder, what games do I play, and with whom? And, if I tracked my plays, what would it tell me about how games fit into my life?

During 2016, I tracked nearly all of my tabletop game experiences. The only exceptions I made were for cases where it was really work and not play, such as playing students' games or workshopping games at the NASAGA conference.

Let me start with the overview statistics for 2016:
  • I engaged in 441 plays of 85 distinct games
  • I played with 87 different people
  • My h-index is 12
The games I played twelve or more times are:

GamePlays
Crokinole27
Carcassonne18
Samurai Spirit16
Animal Upon Animal15
Camel Up14
Dumpster Diver14
Temple of Elemental Evil14
Labyrinth13
Runebound (3rd Edition)13
Dungeon Fighter12
Flash Duel12
Reiner Knizia's Amazing Flea Circus12

The people I played the most games with were my oldest son (269), my wife (211), my second son (154), and my third son (114). The next most highest, at 22, is one of my students who attended all the Spring 2016 Game Studio game nights and who took my game design course this past semester.

The reason why Crokinole is so high is that earlier this year, my father decided to start making boards for the family. He made a prototype for my brother—the gaming enthusiast mentioned in the introduction—and then proceeded to make them for any of my siblings who wanted them. My family rented a house in the Canaan Valley in West Virginia this past summer, and my dad brought a board with him. We played a lot that week, and I played some with my family once we got our own board.
My Crokinole board—my dad's handicraft
A lot of the games in my top list are family-friendly games. Carcassonne is a perennial favorite. Not only is it a great gateway game, it plays well with my younger children by simply using fewer tiles and expansions. Many of the other games on the list are ones that I played regularly with my sons: Samurai Spirit was a birthday gift to my oldest son last year that saw a lot of play, and Animal Upon Animal, Camel Up, Labyrinth, and Flea Circus are all accessible from my third son on up. My oldest son can handle pretty much anything you throw at him, and he's my partner for games like Runebound, Myth (11 plays), and Mage Knight. The latter is one of my favorites, but it takes so long to play that it didn't hit the table very much in 2016. I didn't think I had played Samurai Spirit that many times, but it is a fun puzzle of a cooperative game, and I have introduced it to several people as something of a curiosity.

Between Runebound, Temple of Elemental Evil, Myth, and even Labyrinth, you can see that we spent many happy games with miniatures I painted. On the other hand, games like Imperial Assault, Legend of Drizzt, and Wrath of Ashardalon didn't hit the table at all. I'm hoping my second son will soon be able to handle some of the D&D Adventure System games; the reason Flash Duel is so high is that it was a good one for him to practice his reading comprehension skills, and I'm sure he'll be able to handle more complex card management before too long. Also, like many people, I'm eagerly awaiting the release of the cooperative-mode app for Imperial Assault so I can bring that back to the table without needing to be the Imperial player again.

The only games I played this year that I considered RPGs were Fall of Magic and Phoenix: Dawn Command. We only played Fall of Magic once, and although I am eager to try it again, it was surprisingly tiring: you really have to commit to active listening and creativity to tell a good story together. Both of these games provided wonderful gaming experiences, fulfilling in a very different way than board games, and I'm hoping that 2017 might bring an increase in this area.

I am amused by my reaching an h-index of 12 in one year. Google Scholar computes my scholarly h-index as 11, meaning that I have eleven articles that have at least eleven references to them in other articles. It has taken me fourteen years to get my scholarly h-index to 11, and I already overcame that with games!

I am happy that such a strong majority of my plays have been with family—I love playing with them. We are a homeschooling family, and so I am also happy to see how games give them the opportunity to practice important skills. I have often hosted game nights for my immersive learning teams, and that's been a good way for me to play some other games with non-children during the Spring semester; I expect to continue this in Spring. This coming year, I should also try to host more regular game nights for my adult friends; it's something I really enjoy, but it's also something that's easy to put off. There is a local board game group that I could also be more involved with, but during the semester it's hard for me to rationalize going out to their meetings when I feel I should be spending time with my family. Thinking about it, it makes me even more grateful for my family, whose company I enjoy—even if my son just beat me in our final Runebound game of the year. One more turn and I would have beat that lousy spider...

A Happy New Year to you, dear reader! Let's make 2017 another memorable year in gaming!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A reflection on Phoenix: Dawn Command

This past semester, I ran two sessions of Phoenix: Dawn Command, a recently-released tabletop RPG from Twogether Studios (Keith Baker and Dan Garrison). It was the product of a successful Kickstarter, but I didn't hear about until well after it was funded, when I subscribed to Keith Baker's blog. I found myself enthralled with the idea of death as character advancement—glorious death as a boon rather than the ending it is in most games. Another defining mechanic of PDC is that it uses cards rather than dice for action resolution, and this also piqued my interest. When I mentioned these ideas to my game design class, the students were eager to try this for themselves. I bought the game through the Twogether Studios online store and had it in hand a few days later.

The Materials

The free 12-page Player's Handbook is pleasant to read, giving a vivid image of a fascinating foreign world; indeed, reading this was instrumental in my decision to purchase the game. It is also a great resource for game organizers that this is a free download, since I could have all my players read this ahead of time to ensure they had some initiation into the world. Twogether Studios also provides four iconic characters, which we used for our games. These character sheets are brilliant: the mechanical decisions of school and card selection are already made, but the player still gets to customize their character's story through four simple multiple-choice selections. All the choices are compelling, and this format ensures that the character design meets the unique flavor of the PDC world.

The PDC box includes a 450+-page rulebook, a few token sheets, and a lot of large-format cards. The rulebook is softcover and printed on high-quality glossy paper. The writing and worldcrafting are excellent: if the Player's Handbook is a teaser, it's a great preview of the full experience. The world of the Phoenixes places them as the last stand against The Dread, a collection of supernatural, evil forces that are overtaking the empire.

The Sessions

/* I describe two sessions in some detail here, and so there are some spoilers. I have tried not to expose secrets about the story, but I do describe the arc and rhythm of the scenario. Skip this section if you want to remain pure and play the game yourself. */

The first session was attended by four players, including three from my class and one friend to round out the party. They took a few moments in the prelude to introduce themselves and to ask a few questions of the primary quest-giver, and then they proceeded into the adventure proper.

In the first battle, the Bitter began by becoming enraged, and then was exposed, meaning he had no defense against attacks. He also was carrying one wound. In the enemy's next action, I turned to have it attack the Bitter—a natural decision, since the Bitter was attacking it—then realized this would have killed him before he even had his second hero cycle. That's really too brutal, so the creature inexplicably attacked the Durant instead. [Update: I shared this post with Keith Baker, who kindly pointed out a rules confusion here. I misunderstood the damage cap on the enemy, so it really couldn't have killed the Bitter on one attack; there would have been at least one chance to realize that this tactic was dangerous and that he should change tack.]

In the climactic scene, three of the characters died heroic deaths: the Bitter exerted himself to inflict serious damage on an opponent, even though he knew it would leave him open to being killed. The Shrouded overcame her fears and sacrificed herself to save the land from being overcome with a deadly curse. The Devoted absorbed all the wounds from the Durant, sacrificing himself so the Durant could continue. Indeed, the Durant was the only one to walk away from the scene. Critically, both the Bitter and the Shrouded became attendant spirits of the Durant, and they burned the last of their sparks so that the Durant could succeed—the Durant surely would have failed otherwise! This was a brilliant ending to the scenario, with three of the Phoenixes dying heroic deaths, and the Durant making the long walk home alone.

How a character advances in PDC depends on how they interpret their own deaths, colored by the six Phoenix Schools (Durant, Bitter, etc.). Even though we were not going through character advancement, I asked the players to make a choice here and describe it to the table. This was a great ending to the session, as it gave each player a last chance to explain how their character fits into their imagination and the game world.

The second session went quite differently. The group had only three players who were all students of mine; a fourth non-student was planning to attend but backed out due to an impending deadline. This group ran straight into the first combat after their introductions, and unlike in the first session, they did not take any opportunity to learn about their environment or surroundings. I had a sense that they were playing the game more like a video game than a tabletop RPG, running from scene to scene without any real consideration that the setting itself may hold information or clues. They also made it to the final scene, but even there, no one really knew what they were doing or why.

The second group had no Devoted, which means they had no means for healing themselves. All three made it to the final scene, in part because I was more cognizant of the combat system's brutality after nearly killing the Bitter in the first scene of the first session. I was more intentional about spreading the damage around the party, even if the purpose behind it strained the imagination.

The second session's final scene ended with a thud. The Bitter fell in combat, but this death did not gain the party anything substantial. The Shrouded successfully sneaked his way past the enemies to position himself to sacrifice himself to stop the curse, but remember that at this point, the party didn't really know the stakes. He second-guessed himself and, instead of stopping the curse, made a sneak attack against the enemies—an attack that was entirely fruitless and drew their attention, and so they killed him and the Durant in the next action.

The epilogue in which the players described how they interpreted their deaths stood in startling contrast to the first session's. Their descriptions were relatively pedestrian. One of them chose to interpret his death in what I considered a strange way, not at all in keeping with what actually happened. He explained that there was a particular school he wanted to advance in, so he was coming up with a weak narrative connection in order to achieve it—even though this group would never get together and actually advance their characters and continue their adventures.

Differences

As a gamesmaster ("Marshal" in PDC) and a scholar, I wanted to understand why these two sessions were so different. My own role was much smoother in the second session: in the first one, I had to spend a lot of time cross-referencing both systems and narrative elements. The second session, I was much more comfortable with the rules, the scenario, and the dynamics.

We had all invested quite a bit of time into PDC—I much more so than anyone else!—and so we took some class meeting time the following Monday to debrief. I had each group describe their adventure to the class, in the same order in which they played. In the discussion, the students were able to confirm with me one of my suspicions: the majority of players in the first session are regular tabletop players, whereas none were in the second session. This contrast showed up in how they played and also how they reflected on the experience. For example, one of the players in the first session had originally been trying to keep all of her information private, because she plays in a D&D group that is fraught with internal party conflict. (Why someone would want to play a game this way, I don't know, but different idioms for different folks I suppose.) For her, it was a revelation to see how a tabletop RPG could be so thoroughly cooperative that not only did everyone share a goal, but they could all speak openly about their cards, plans, and tactics. It is telling that she was the Shrouded from the first session! She picked the character because of its connection to death, spirits, and secrets, and in the end, she sacrificed herself for the good of the party. This is an amazing transformation of perspective in one three-hour game.

However, it's not the case that the second group didn't enjoy themselves, but their reflections were much more elementary. They enjoyed being together as a band of heroes facing the darkness, trying their best even if they failed. That is, they were reflecting on the fundamentals of any non-dysfunctional tabletop RPG. I am glad they had that experience, although I still couldn't help but be a little disappointed, since I think they missed the beauty and nuance of this system in particular.

I also want to briefly mention that in PDC, there is a "torch" card that lists environmental elements, and players can use these to gain small bonuses. During this session, the players made creative and clever use of the environmental elements to enhance the story. Indeed, they enjoyed this aspect of the game so much, they used the elements more for the collective narrative than for the systemic bonuses! The second group was much more perfunctory and pragmatic about these environmental elements, using them much moreso than how the other group incorporated them.

Conclusions and Closing Thoughts

As I mentioned above, the materials and story around Phoenix: Dawn Command are marvelous. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Marshal's Guide and feeling like I was part of the world crafted by the designers. It could go alongside The Clay that Woke on my shelf of "RPG rulebooks that are beautiful to read by themselves," but I'm glad it went into the category with Feng Shui 2 that adds "and I actually got to play."

While two sessions do not provide scientifically sound measurement, I do have a sense that this is not a game for novices. A friend of mine teaches Dungeons & Dragons in her games-inspired seminar on interactive fiction. That's an approach I've never used in part because I'm kind of cold on D&D as a means for storytelling, since so much of the system is really about fighting and treasure: a good group adds the rest, but it's also perfectly legitimate to run a game in the hack-n-slash fashion. However, I wonder if I should do something like this in the future for students who have had little or no exposure to tabletop RPGs, to show them the bare essentials in a very mainstream way... well, mainstream for this hobby anyway.

This inspires a brief digression. Over a year ago, I got some friends together to play one session of D&D 5th Edition from the Starter Set. We didn't get all the way through the first scenario, and the reason may be very simple. I was playing with relative tabletop novices, who were new to the idea of being able to do anything in a fantasy world. In the meantime, I played the world as being real, the monsters forming believable tactics around what they saw and knew—not just sitting in their rooms waiting to be killed. Thinking about that now, maybe this was another example of dissonance between my desire for realistic narrative and new players' desire for vanilla heroism?

Bringing that digression back into the fold, my final thoughts are about my involvement with the tabletop RPG hobby. I used to play all the time in my youth, starting with Marvel Super Heroes and Dungeons & Dragons, moving into games like Shadowrun and then building and running my own games, with custom rules and worlds—which is a very natural progression for a gamesmaster, in case those outside the hobby are wondering. Now, I occasionally read books like The Clay That Woke and The Burning Wheel and fantasize about getting a group of friends together for regular games. I do host the odd board game night—usually with short notice and correspondingly small turnout, but I very much enjoy it. RPGs take more investment though: even a short campaign requires significant commitment, and I would want to play with like-minded players, people who also want to enjoy a compelling story in a system with interesting rules. But, that's a lot of work, especially for the person running the game, and we have jobs, kids, spouses, responsibilities. It's hard for me to consider how to reconcile these interests, and even how to separate interest from nostalgia. A good game session can be very very good; a bad game session is not worth the effort!

Phoenix: Dawn Command is definitely on my list of games I would love to run with a small group of interesting friends. I would like to see how the story plays out, how deaths are interpreted, how power and challenge escalate in a rather dark and brutal world. Writing about PDC ended up with me writing about myself, but isn't that where tabletop RPGs are really at their best?

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Painting Anniversary, with Mice back on the table

A few days ago, I realized this Christmas would be my third anniversary of returning to the hobby of painting miniatures. That's important in part because my second son is just about three years younger than my first son, and so #1 was around #2's age when I painted Mice and Mystics and played through the campaign with my wife. I mentioned this to #1, and #2 overheard, and he became very eager to try the game himself.

Two days ago, we brought it out and played the introductory mission. One thing that struck me about the game is that, although there is arguably too much text leading into that first mission, the prose is all exceedingly well written. The language is clear and the structure is poetic. The quality of writing partly resonated with me because it is so much better than the writing in TIME Stories, which is sold and hyped around the premise of being a great story. Both are essentially linear, unlike something like Above and Below or Tales of the Arabian Nights, but Mice and Mystics never disappoints—except where the editors didn't fix "lead" being used instead of "led".

TIME Stories. "Deemed you apt"? Ugh. 
Mice and Mystics holds no surprises for me, since I remember the story, the enemies, the cards, and the boards, but it was still fun to share it with #2 son, for whom it was all fresh and exciting. The miniatures are OK. If I were to paint them again, I would do a great many things differently, but I look fondly on those little roaches: my first attempt with drybrushing, somewhat inelegant and yet transformative.

I have painted some 200 miniatures since, my technique improving through reflective practice and a lot of reading and YouTube videos. I took a little break from painting recently as I sometimes do, this time to play the Witcher 3 DLC (and speaking of good writing, it was excellent). On my painting table now are the monsters from the Descent 2nd Edition base set, which I picked up second-hand over a year ago. The sculpts are not inspiring: it shows that they predate the miniature-based boardgame renaissance. As with the minions in Myth, I've decided to do the common enemies in a rather quick style—ironically, applying some of the very simple techniques I learned painting Mice and Mystics three years ago. I intend to spend a little more time on the heroes, and I look forward to trying the app-driven cooperative campaign.

Merry Christmas! God bless us, everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

What We Learned in CS222, Fall 2016 edition

As regular readers know, I use a final exam format in CS222 that requires students to brainstorm about what they learned during the course. Then, the students vote on the items that were the most influential or important to them; those that get the most votes become the content for one of the final exam essays, in which a student must write about their experience learning one of the top selected items.

I write down everything the students say on sticky wall pads, and volunteers help me spread these out across the room. With a 30-minute time limit, Section 1 came up with 162 items, and Section 2, 139. It's a bit tiring on the arm, but aside from deteriorating penmanship over time, it's not so bad. For voting, I give them stickers, and they mark their top five (approximately, depending on how many they generate). Some students get really excited about the stickers, and I think everyone enjoys the physicality of the process: getting up, walking around the room, placing stickers. A colleague who taught a third section borrowed parts of my exam format, but he used a Google Doc to type up suggestions, and then students marked their votes in the document. There's a sense in which this is certainly more efficient, and though I've never tried it this way, I can't help but think that it loses something.

This semester, I had two sections of the course. Section 1 generated more items and was fairly consistent with the seriousness of items. This is in contrast to Section 2, where there were a lot more silly answers, and more people talking on top of each other. This reflects differences in the two courses generally: Section 2 had many more students who were eager to talk, at both appropriate and inappropriate times.

Without further ado, the top voted items from Section 1 were:

  • Clean Code (12)
  • GitHub (10)
  • CRC Cards (6)
  • Red-Green-Refactor (6)
Clean Code was a major theme for the course, Robert Martin's book being one of our required texts. They spend a lot of time with the ideas of Clean Code, from their individual assignments to their nine-week project. Individual ideas from Clean Code inevitably show up on the lists as well, but the holistic concept tends to get a lot of votes. 

I think it's important that students come around to seeing GitHub as a critical tool and not just a troublesome course requirement. In their final essays, many students wrote about how they were initially confused by git and GitHub, but after working with it, they could not see moving forward on any team project without some kind of version control. I think this is a win for the course design. I spend relatively little time showing them the details of version control, since so much of the need is contextual. I have been using git long enough that I can usually help teams back out of problems they create, or at least advise them on how best to take the nuclear option. Also, many students wrote about getting help from upperclassmen when they had repository troubles, which again speaks to a great success for the course: giving the students enough tools, understanding, and connection that they can build some networks of their own.

I assume by "Red-Green-Refactor", the students really meant "Test-Driven Development" and not just that one particular expression. As for CRC Cards, I was surprised to see them show up as a top item. I spend a little time showing them how to do early class modeling with CRC cards, and usually there's one team—or sometimes just one or two people—for whom this helps open their eyes to concepts of object-orientation. Here, six students said this was one of the most important things they did all semester. CRC Cards are a good example of an authentic activity that makes a great in-class exercise, and as I shift to including more pre-recorded video content, perhaps I should be on the look out for more exercises like this.

Along those lines, I will digress from the What We Learned to focus in on one student essay that helped me see something interesting this semester. Two weeks before the end of the semester, I had a spare meeting slot to fill. Reflecting on how students still (as is frequently the case) were having trouble following the steps of TDD, I decided to take a step back and do a workshop on problem analysis. I dug up two examples from their prerequisite courses: turning an image into greyscale and binary search. The students worked in cross-team groups to come up with a list of tasks that could be used to drive a solution via TDD. Shockingly, in the first five minutes, nobody even showed a trace of being on the right track; really, they wrote out how they solved the problem two semesters ago. I interrupted and reminded them (for surely, I had said this before) about how to use the given-when-then format to specify test, and I demonstrated with a tabular representation (which I had not done before). After this, a third of the groups headed in the right direction, and the rest eventually got there after I made them compare theirs to what others were doing. In the essay I mentioned above, a student pointed to this particular exercise as a turning point, where all the pieces aligned and she could see how to turn her struggling final project into a real example of understanding TDD. This makes me think that I need to either spend more time at the start of the semester on pure analysis outside of programming, or that I need to teach TDD more cyclically, with these kind of interventions spread throughout the semester as students are building maturity—now that I write that out, I am definitely leaning toward the latter, though the former would be much easier!


Back to "What We Learned," these were the top items for Section 2:

  • Clean Code (15)
  • Test-Driven Development (14)
  • GitHub (13)
  • Why we use object orientation (7)
  • Big Picture Thinking (5)
There are two very interesting pieces here. First, it wasn't just "object-orientation" that students voted for, but the reason for it. Maybe this is just a fluke of how a student articulated their personal lesson, and then everyone else voted for it as being close, but I do think there is something more substantial and philosophically grounded here. I have the students read an excerpt from Holub on Patterns that I consider an exemplary explanation of object-orientation. In their reaction essays, most students agree that the reading was transformative to them, helping "object-orientation" move from a buzzword thrown around in prerequisite courses to a coherent design concept.

The other fascinating piece is that last one. When a student said "Big Picture Thinking" during the brainstorming session, I wrote it down, since as I told the students, brainstorming isn't a time for deep analysis and discussion but for honest and safe idea generation. Still, I didn't know what this student meant by that, not in any particular sense. Yet, here it is, one of the items with the most votes for the section. Several students chose this as a topic for their final essays, so I was able to gain some perspective on this. These students wrote about how the course helped them transition from a myopic view of programming as individual tasks to solving problems. In the prerequisite courses, they were told what to do, and they had to do it well to progress; in my course, they were given a playground of ideas and challenged to come up with something interesting to do with them. Many of these students wrote about how this experience helped them remember why they wanted to study Computer Science in the first place: so they could be creative, so they could solve people's problems, so they could be part of a community.

I think it was a good semester in CS222. I wrote several notes to myself during the semester about potential changes, and many of them still center around this "flipping" idea. As I have used more and more YouTube videos to complement or supplement class meetings—and the old ones don't go away!—it makes me realize that I don't have a very good sense of how students are using the videos as part of their process. I can see the view count, and so I know that not everyone is using them at all, even when it is "required." However, several students have also told me that the videos are invaluable. I would like to think some more about this, come up with some new plans especially for the first few weeks of the course, where I could rebalance the readings, viewings, and activities.

The other piece that still lingers in my mind as ripe for revision is one I've written about here before: the balance of assignments vs. a portfolio approach. Right now, I have the students complete three assignments, and they can revise them as often as they need in order to show mastery. Their solutions draw from a wide variety of programming experience, but this means that there is a lot of variance in student experiences with the assignment as well. That's somewhat problematic, as a major point behind individual assignments is to ensure individual students have common foundational knowledge, since the nine-week project gives lots of room for variation. I keep returning to the idea of portfolios: what if each student had to prepare a portfolio that included examples of their ability to, say, refactor a method with too many parameters, or apply the Single Responsibility Principle? I'm just not sure how I would manage it, in part because the course already requires quite a bit of grading time, which eats away at other responsibilities.

Next semester, I have three different courses. I am teaching one section of CS222, I have my Game Studio course, and I have a brand new course: CS691 Software Requirements and Design. With the winter break being so short, I am still not sure if I will do any structural revision to CS222 for the Spring. It's also winter break, and I should be spending quality time with my wife and sons. Come back in May, and I will write about what students learned in the Spring semester, regardless of whether I shake it up or not.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to leave a note in the comments.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Wrapping up the Fall 2016 Game Design Colloquium

The Fall 2016 semester is all wrapped up, yesterday being the last day of final exams. This was an interesting semester with my Honors Colloquium in Serious Game Design. Regular readers will recall that this colloquium is part of an immersive learning project—a partnership with Camp Prairie Creek to make educational games for kids about environmentalism, sustainability, and outdoorsmanship. As I wrote last summer, I used a fairly simple course structure, where the first five weeks provided an introduction to game design theory, and the remainder of the semester was spent in iterative prototyping. Every Monday, students presented either a revision of their prototype or one of our class achievements. I used most of our Wednesday meetings to introduce students to games and genres they may not have otherwise seen; this was my attempt at helping them build breadth while they acquired depth in their own designs. Some of the games I introduced for this purpose include Everyone is John, Once Upon a Time, Card TAMEN, The Underground Railroad, and Difference. (This last one I heard about when I attended the NASAGA Conference and met the designer. If you're interested in novel scoring mechanisms and unpredictable social contracts, you should check it out. It was designed to teach philosophy to elementary school students, which is awesome.) Several of us also played Phoenix: Dawn Command, which was amazing, but my blog post about it is still only half-written.

I am pleased that the games created by the students represented a wide variety of genres. There were short-form RPGs, abstract strategy games, cooperative games, rhetoric games, resource-management games, one purely digital game, and one hybrid digital/analog game. As one would expect from amateur designers, they were a bit rough round the edges, but I think what the students saw—and what I designed for them to see—was that authentic playtesting leads to powerful insights into whether designs are working or not.

Like 2014's offering, this colloquium focused on educational games for children, but that's a lot of pieces to balance. Game design is already incredibly difficult, something around which there is a lot of philosophy but little theory. Educational game design is even harder if one is trying to avoid the "chocolate-covered broccoli" phenomenon: that is, if someone is actually trying to make something fun and not just homework wrapped up in a pretty package. Here, while we have many good theories of education, and many studies of the efficacy of individual games, there is little by way of theory. Add to the mix the goal of making these for children and you open a new can of worms. Beyond the obvious problems of dealing with issues such as age, maturity, vocabulary, and capacity for abstraction, there are the purely logistical problems of getting college students and youth together for meaningful interaction and playtesting. I required my students to do two authentic playtesting sessions with kids to get an A in the course; I recognize that this is not enough to make a masterful game, but it was also very hard to get even one of these set up. We were fortunate that one of my students had a connection with College Mentors for Kids, who were willing to work with us to coordinate playtesting.

One of the goals of the semester was to produce designs that would be amenable to digital production in next semester's game development studio, but unfortunately, I didn't see many that really would work for this purpose. We only have three credit-hours next semester to work, and so I think it would be a mistake to push this green team into a multiplayer game; right away, that cuts out many of the designs from the Fall. However, there were two games that come to mind as having repurposable components. In a first for my game design students, one of the students created a short-form roleplaying game. The game casts the players as a motley band of civic-minded individuals who must unravel a mysterious source of pollution around the White River in Muncie. It's a tabletop RPG and so cannot be turned directly into a single-player digital game, but I could see adapting the story and aesthetics of the game into an adventure game of some kind. The other potentially useful game was never actually finished: a student was inspired by Eminent Domain to make a game about the awakening of nature spirits and trying to bring these to the United Nations. I could see a game around this theme drawing upon popular anime art styles, and the formal systems of Eminent Domain might reinforce the idea that cultural ideas tend to propagate. That is, as a deckbuilding game, your future possibilities are created by your present decisions of which card to buy; I feel like there's a good metaphor there for concepts of environmental protection, rampant consumerism, and pollution.

One of the frustrating aspects of teaching this course is that every time I teach it, it could be my last time. I am only able to teach the colloquium because I have a grant that buys me out of one of my regular CS classes, so I'm essentially paying my department to let me teach something else. It's an internal grant, so there's a weird "funny money" feeling around it, but I'm very grateful to be able to do this. However, I think I made some mistakes this semester that I want to quickly document here in hopes that I will not make them again. One was that, as in 2014, I had students self-report their behavior at the end of the semester. As you can see from the course description, there's a simple table where students could essentially pick their grades by choosing their level of commitment to the course. It should work out so that if a student presented something every week and did two authentic playtesting sessions, they would get an A. At the end of the semester, a lot of students claimed they did this, but my memory of their contributions during the semester don't quite match that. I didn't keep my own records, since I trusted them to do so. Maybe it's just paranoia, but it does seem like some students claimed something they did not actually do; if this were true, the ones who really lose are the honest ones. The other problem is very simple: I had a final exam, but I didn't give it any explicit weight in their grades. My intention from the beginning was to use the final exam to determine +/- grades, but I didn't document that. In what I assume is a consequence of this, many of the students' final exam essays were perfunctory at best. Everyone turned in something, but most were not the thoughtful responses I hoped for. I probably also ran into this endemic problem that students see "essay" and think it means "rambling paragraph;" I should write up a guide to what I mean when I say "essay" and link all future assignments to it, like I do for my triage grading rubric.

That's my reflection on the Fall 2016 game design colloquium. I hope to be able to teach a similar course again sometime soon. The call for next year's immersive learning projects is out now with a deadline of early February, and I've been thinking about reaching out to partners who might want to collaborate. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Learning Unreal Engine 4

Eight or ten years ago, I looked into UDK (Unreal Engine 3) as a potential tool to use for research and teaching of game development. I didn't get very far into it, though, in part because it required rather arcane use of C++, and most of my students don't know C++ at all. Toward the end of the Summer, though, something reminded me to look again at what is now Unreal Engine 4. In particular, I was reminded of two facts: it is now free to use, and it incorporates a visual scripting language—Blueprints—that can be used in addition to C++.

I spent just a few days before the semester started diving into UE4, and I decided to invest a lot of my "research time" this past semester in learning it. I hit something of a milestone two days ago, and I proudly posted on Facebook. A friend asked for advice on learning UE4, and so I decided to write this blog post to provide a few pointers. When I first began this adventure, I started a document into which I intended to keep a running tally of what resourced I used and what I learned from them, with an eye toward being able to reuse these in planning a future game programming course around UE4; the truth is that it quickly got too chaotic to be easily tracked down. Still, I think I can provide some breadcrumbs.

Let me point out too that my first goal was to build a simple clone of Every Extend (the precursor to Every Extend Extra, which every Google search seems to want me to find instead). I love Every Extend, as one can see from my old research project EEClone, and whenever I am learning a new game development environment, I start by recreating Every Extend.

I began by turning to Lynda.com only because so many of my students have told me that it is useful. I have free access through my university, but I had never used any of their videos before. I got through some of Craig Barr's training materials, but I found them much too slow for me. I suppose it gave me some big-picture ideas, but the pace was painful. Looking over Lynda's selection, it looks like they've targeted artists and level designers with their videos, not developers, so maybe I just had bad luck on this one.

Via a search that landed me on the Unreal Wiki, I ended up on a YouTube playlist on building a 2D Sidescroller using Blueprints. This was more of what I was looking for: taking a simple game and implementing it using this behemoth of an engine. It was a simple click from this playlist to finding the official Unreal Engine channel on Youtube, which has a wealth of video tutorials. My favorite series here for wrapping my head around core UE4 tools and workflow was the endless runner series.

This was about the point where I felt armed to really get into making my Every Extend clone, but I quickly ran into that imposing barrier between watching someone make something and actually making something. Truly, I thought I had a good grasp after watching these videos, but I found I still really didn't know how to do some essential things, like put a camera where I wanted it. This Pong tutorial was really helpful for essentials like a fixed static camera, custom keyboard input, and turning BSP brushes into simple meshes. Working on my learning project, I needed an event dispatcher to deal with chain reaction explosions, and this video helped me make sense of them.

It was around this time that a few things happened. First, my other professional responsibilities started eating up more of my time—particularly, travel to two back-to-back conferences (Meaningful Play and NASAGA). Second, my project hit a bit of a hurdle in terms of my desire to have a fixed play area. I had quite a bit of trouble trying to get my HUD and play area synced up so that the actual playable area would be a square centered in the screen. I ended up not touching UE4 for a couple of weeks, and in fact, I never did go back and try to fix this problem. I suspect that this beginner project was so rife with kludges that there were a lot of factors making it difficult to proceed. That's OK, though, since the whole point was really learning, not production.

Coming back to it a few weeks later, I had a concept for a multiplayer game that emerged from my game design course. This inspired me to look into the multiplayer support in UE4—another key feature of an engine that, if I could learn it, could save me a lot of effort in future work. When my team created Children of the Sun in 2013 using Unity3D, I would describe using that networked game system as "a bad time." My initial readings on UE4, though, made it look much more like what I would like to have. Unfortunately, I stopped keeping track of specific resources I used here, but I can tell you that I did much more targeted Google searching (spending a great deal of time on the UE4 forums, wiki, and official documentation) rather than binge-watching YouTube videos. That is, I had a good understanding of the actor, controller, and components model, and so I could focus more on network replication and RPCs. This video series introduced core terminology, and I bookmarked one particular forum post about Blueprint networking that is amazing, but I think you need an UnrealEngine account to view that link.

Once again, getting some simple things to work took a very long time, but that's because I had to shape and re-shape my understanding of UE4's networking model. Finally, after countless hours of fiddling since the end of Summer, I got a very simple demo running, which you can see below:

If you're a gamer and not a developer, you're going to be disappointed. Let me explain what's going on here and what it represents to me, though. First, I have a custom player controller and pawn such that the pawn follows the mouse; the farther the mouse, the faster the movement. This is done by tracking the mouse position client-side and sending that position to the server. The server handles all the physics of turning and then it multicasts the pawn position to all clients. (The pawns were originally pyramids, but I couldn't distinguish the front from the back, so it was hard to debug the mouse-movement controls. Like a good programmer, I found some starter assets with more clear front and back, and hence the chair.) The server is also spawning one new gold box every second, and when any pawn hits this, an explosion particle emitter is spawned at the point where the box was.

Conceptually, it's about as simple as a multiplayer experience can be, but again, to me it represents tens of hours of effort in understanding something new, and I'm happy with it. Unfortunately, being so late in the semester now, I am not sure that it's worth my completing this prototype either. I had hoped to make something to show my game design students, but instead I just barely got the skills to build this tech demo. Still, I may push forward to the next step: the actual game concept is an asymmetric multiplayer game, and I would like to test my own understanding of whether I can show completely different player experiences to different clients.

Thanks for reading! It's kind of a brain dump, but I hope there's something useful for you here. If you have some favorite sources for learning UE4 or any other feedback, please feel free to share them in the comments!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Books that influenced my teaching

A colleague is undertaking a sabbatical project that involves collecting books related to teaching in higher education. I was honored to be asked to provide some for his list, and in the spirit of last week's post, I figured I would share them here as well. He was asking specifically for books about teaching in higher education, which I'll start with; he also clarified with me over email that particularly inspirational disciplinary books may also be of use to him, so I'll share some of those as well.

General Teaching Books

Without going back through my old notebooks, here are the books that I remember reading and enjoying. I've provided Amazon links mostly to remove any ambiguity, not because I have any particular need for people to shop there.
  • How People Learn is an excellent overview of what is known about learning, and I remember that reading this helped me build a better understanding of some core educational concepts. Like most professors, I had practically no formal education in how to teach, and I had picked up a lot of folk wisdom; this book was useful for turning this ad hoc understanding into something more rigorous.
  • How Learning Works, I read this about the same time as the previous one, and I remember it covering similar ground but with more emphasis on higher education. Since I read these at the same time, and many years ago, I may have muddled some of their influences, but to me that's okay: I believe I have internalized most of the main premises into my action, and that was the goal.
  • Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. This book was recommended to me by a colleague, and it was fundamental in helping me shape my current understanding of learning as a social process. I have directly drawn on the ideas of this book in designing my game production studio courses. If anything, I wish I could use more of the ideas in this book: my main annoyances in higher education are precisely those conventions and structures that make it hard to follow the patterns of LPP described here.
  • Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn provides another overview of the science of teaching and learning, framed and supported by the Visible Learning meta-studies. This is a fascinating piece, and in some ways it is a quantitative counterpoint to Situated Learning's qualitative perspectives. It's fascinating and well-supported, and yet the authors' apparent disdain for non-quantitative work left me feeling uneasy. (For what it's worth, I came across this book by reading Grant Wiggins' blog, where he points out one of the most important contributions of Hattie's work: that there are many easy classroom practices that have a higher effect size than students' socio-economic status. Also, in digging up that link, I just found out that Wiggins died in May 2015, over a year ago, and now I am kind of bummed. I knew I had missed his writing; I didn't know he had passed away.)
  • Speaking of Wiggins, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding focuses on what I consider the most fascinating aspect of Understanding by Design: framing inquiry through essential questions. Longtime readers will know that I have been tinkering with EQs as a method to frame my courses for a few years, and now I feel like they are a critical tool to my course design and evaluation process. In fact, now I often prefer to describe courses in terms of their questions rather than their content.
  • Although I have not read their entire book, I will point out Papert and Harel's chapter "Situating Constructionism" from Constructionism. I think I may have read this more times than any other article. I find it fascinating, and when I am pushed to state what educational philosophical camp I belong to, I would have to say constructionism. (Of course, then I usually have to explain that I didn't just say "constructivism," and people give me blank stares. Hence, I include this chapter here, because anybody interested in effective higher education philosophy should read it.)

Other Inspirational Books

There are several books I have read that are not about education in particular, but that reading them greatly informed and influenced my teaching practice. Here are some:
  • Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate and Scholarship Assessed, which I read in my third year as an assistant professor, gave me a much broader view of what it meant to be a scholar and a professor. Relevant to this post, it helped me to see how my teaching was scholarship, not just something that produced scholarship. This fundamental observation from Boyer's classic work is still something I find broadly misunderstood in academia. The counterpart by Glassick et al. provides a well-known six-stage framework for assessing scholarship—a framework I use not only in my own work, but which I worked to incorporate into my department's promotion and tenure documents.
  • A Theory of Fun for Game Design. For those who are not familiar with Koster's amazing treatise, this is not a book about how to design games but rather about why we design games. The fundamental thesis presented here is that learning is fun, or put another way, fun arises from learning. I read the first edition of this book shortly after becoming an assistant professor, and the ideas of game design here strongly influenced my course design.
  • Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game. The title of this book hints at its thesis: that software development is a cooperative game—not engineering, not modeling, but a game. Internalizing this principle has allowed me to apply my research on game design directly into my teaching work. 
I hope you find this list useful. Please feel free to share your feedback or your own favorites in the comments!