Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Revising Courses, Part II: Game Design

Following up on my previous post about revising my game programming course, today's post is about a revision to my game design course. This course is an honors colloquium, a special topics course only open to honors students and with an enrollment cap of fifteen. Every honors student has to take six credit-hours worth of colloquia, and the topics depend on who is available to teach them in any given semester.

This colloquium in part of a two-semester immersive learning project undertaken in collaboration with the Indianapolis Children's Museum, and it is being funded by internal funds through the Provost's office. Teaching in the Honors College is not a normal part of my load, and a major portion of the grant is "assigned time," allowing me to teach this colloquium. I mention this because the behind-the-scenes machinations are likely opaque to those outside academia: if I didn't have the grant, I would be teaching a Computer Science course instead of the colloquium. I am grateful to the Provost and his committee for approving my proposal, which allows me to teach this course that aligns so well with my research interests.

I taught a similar colloquium last Fall, and it had the same fundamental objectives: engage students in the academic study of games and learning, and, in collaboration with a community partner, have them produce prototypes of original games.There were two significant differences: I was team-teaching with my colleague Ronald Morris, and the community partner was the Indiana State Museum. It was my first attempt at achievement-based (i.e. badge-based) grading, and I wrote a lengthy reflection about the experience. For the redesign, I decided to focus on a few specific pain points from last time:
  1. The students put off achievements until the end of the semester.
  2. Some students made zero or nominal changes between game design iterations.
  3. Not all the students were engaged in reflective practice: they were not adequately learning from the process.
  4. In-class prototype evaluation time was rarely meaningfully used due to the points already mentioned.
I have met a few new colleagues through the conference circuit in the last year, and I am grateful for their willingness to share tips and tricks. In particular, the following changes reflect some specific ideas I have picked up from Scott Nicholson at Syracuse University and Lucas Blair at Little Bird Games.

Perhaps the most important revision to the course is the introduction of reflective essays. As in my game programming course, I was inspired by the participatory assessment model to grade reflections rather than artifacts. The students will present their weekly artifacts to the class, where artifacts might include summaries of essays and articles, posters, one-page designs, or prototypes. These artifacts will be subject to peer and expert formative evaluation, following the studio "crit" model. However, it will be students' reflections on these artifacts that are actually graded. As in my game programming course, I have decided to frame these reflections around essential questions and grade them based on (a) how they characterize an essential question, (b) the implications to practice, and (c) potential criticisms of the characterization. The research I have read predicts that this combination of achievement criteria and reflections should encourage students to produce high-quality artifacts without sacrificing intrinsic motivation.

Last time, the students had to choose a topic and iterate on it fairly early. The students with the best designs at the end of the semester were, for the most part, those who had to throw away major elements of their design or change themes entirely. This leads toward the desire to do more rapid iteration on ideas, not just prototypes; however, I still want each student to create a significant prototype by the end of the semester. To address this, I have divided the semester into three parts. In the first part, we will survey major themes of the course, such as games, fun, learning, museums, and children. The second part of the semester will be rapid creation of design sketches based on specific themes at the Children's Museum, about one sketch each week. The students will then choose one of these to prototype for their end-of-semester deliverable. I hope that this approach improves all the students' prototypes: even though they have less time to work on their prototypes, that time will be more focused and based on having had more reflective practice earlier.

Going along with the three-part division of the semester, I have organized the achievements into groups, some of which are tied to one of these parts. There is also an "unrestricted" category that can be earned at any time. I have introduced a throttle of one achievement submission per week plus one revision per two weeks. The students' grade is tied to the number of achievements they earn, and so this should help the students pace themselves while keeping me from having to evaluate an inordinate number of submissions at the end of the semester.

Following the most popular design principle for assessing learning with digital badges, I have introduced a "leveled" system of achievements. Certain achievements have gold stars attached to them, designating them as requiring special effort. These stars are tied in with number of achievements and reflection points in order to determine a student's grade. Note that two out of the three of these are directly in the student's control, and the one that isn't—reflection points—permits revision. Hence, students can essentially pick their grade based on their level of legitimate participation in the class. 

The full list of achievements is available online, and you can view it on its own page or embedded into the course description. Each badge is defined by a name, a blurb, criteria, and an image. The blurb and image are new this year, and I think they represent a major improvement. I used to design the badge images, making significant use of icons from The Noun Project. In case you're curious or want to sketch up your own, the border is the Ball State red taken from our logo (#ed1a4d) and the starred achievements use light yellow background (#ffff66).

Note that the core class activities in the second and third parts of the class are associated with achievements that lead up to stars. For example, a student who shows design revisions every week for the five weeks of prototyping will earn two gold stars, which are half of those required to earn an A. Indeed, I intend for the standard path through the course to consist of some student-directed inquiry in the first part, then two stars from one-page designs, then two stars from prototyping—and I will make this clear to the students at our first meeting! However, the system gives the students agency to choose a different path: if someone wants to focus on games criticism, or reading and reporting on game design texts, these are still rewarded and earn course credit.

One other change this year is based directly on student feedback from Fall. Last time, I had an achievement that was earned by playing several games that exhibited specific mechanics that I had identified. My intention was that I could guide students to experience genres, mechanics, and themes that I found interesting, but it ended up making the achievement hard to earn and delayed rewards for legitimate course activity. Note that there was no formal "leveled" achievements as I have this year with starred achievements, so this one achievement took much more time for the same reward as any others. This year, I have given the students much more freedom to choose a the games they will study and critique. They can choose analog, digital, or hybrid games, including sports and gambling games. I still provide some scaffolding through the games I chose to put on course reserves, but students who want to go in a different direction are free to do so.

The one weak spot in the course design, as of this writing, is the identification of essential questions. I have come up with two so far:
  • What is the relationship between games, fun, and learning?
  • How do you design an educational game for children?
I thought about introducing a third about design generally, such as "What is design?", but it seems that this is embedded into the second question. I worry that adding such an EQ would diminish the impact of the design-related one I already have. Finally, I will point out that the first essential question has explicitly guided my work over the last several years, and it was the explicit topic of my seminar at the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry: it is such a big question that others pale in comparison.

After having spent about three weeks this Summer revising my Fall courses, I find myself looking forward to the start the semester. It is good to have the time to rest, reflect, and revise. Of course, all this work has been without compensation, but, as the Spirit of Christmas once said, the rewards of virtue are infinitely more attractive.

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