This semester, I am again privileged to offer a Video Game Design & Development Studio, through Ball State University's Immersive Learning program. I have eleven students working with me this semester: seven from Computer Science, two from Animation, one from Philosophy and Religious Studies, and one from Digital Storytelling. Our community partner is The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, who I worked with two years ago when I was at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry.
We spent the first week of the semester going over some basics of game design theory. The team read several sections from Ian Schreiber's Game Design Concepts blog. I don't know if anyone is still actively following the exercises, but even without this community aspect, the blog makes an excellent free textbook on game design. I also assigned a few other readings, including How to Prototype a Game in Under 7 Days and the MDA paper. Each student conducted two critical analyses—the first, a game of their choice, then one that is explicitly educational. Conveniently, Raph Koster posted an excellent essay on critical analysis that same week, and I pointed my students there for some ideas on how—and why—to do the analysis.
During the second week, each student was asked to make a concept document, in Tim Ryan's format, based on any of the given themes from the community partner. The strong majority of these were based on the "Bone Wars"—the feud between rival 19th-century paleontologists Othniel C. Marsh and Edward D. Cope. The team agreed that this represented shared interest, and so then each was asked to create a playable prototype based on this theme.
The story of Marsh and Cope is fascinating, and I highly recommend the American Experience documentary about them. I find the topic rife with possibilities, two of which stand out to me. First, the historic activities of these two men clearly represent a competition for fame: that is, it already had the critical properties of a game. Second, their story is tied to the origins of modern paleontology, which involves significant procedural knowledge—the type of which can be encapsulated in the process of the game.
I wrote a concept document of a variable-phase Bone Wars game and shared that with the team, mostly so that I could model for them how to approach the problem. Every time I deploy Tim Ryan's format with students, a significant portion of thm miss the important point that the description should be in the second-person present tense. This makes for a good lesson when we review the documents, and I can demonstrate the rhetorical difference between this and comparatively dry and "academic" third-person.
The next step was for everyone to develop a playable prototype. My own design evolved into a worker-placement game emphasizing the paleontological process in a competition for fame. About half the students and I put our prototypes forward for consideration, but in the ensuing discussion, we realized that mine was the only one that was actually a playable prototype: the rest ranged from sketches to storyboards, but none were playable. Given the options, the team decided to move forward into production with my prototype rather than spend more time iterating on designs.
There was an awkward moment of professorial decision-making involved in the selection of the prototype. I pointed out to the team that none of their artifacts were actually playable prototypes. A student suggested that we do yet another round of prototyping, because, as the student claimed, now they knew how to do them, and they could work together on it. Both parts of this stung me. The assigned reading clearly explains how the prototyping process works and proclaims the importance of playable prototypes. Actually making a prototype is harder than reading about it, of course, but the matter of what constitutes "playable" is purely theoretical: one who did an honest reading of the material should have been able to identify whether a prototype is playable or not. Also, the team had already been encouraged to work with each other, together in the studio, to develop, test, and tune these prototypes. I made mine in the studio so that I could model my own idiosyncratic techniques, but I was alone the whole time. It seems the students, at that point, had not internalized the idea that we're all in this together. It is possible that the problem here is that recognizing prototypes as playable is actually hard and I have internalized too much, in which case I should develop better interventions for future groups. On the other hand, if the problem is that some students are not taking the reading seriously, maybe I need to encourage more group discussion of the readings. In any case, the clear majority of students wanted to move forward with my prototype and get started with production, and so I did not comment on the matter.
Incidentally, about half the students chose not to propose their own prototypes for consideration by the team. I have very little data about these: I saw some laid out on the table, but I never saw them in action. It makes me wonder if these students did, in fact, create playable prototypes, and through this, realized how hard it actually is to make a good educational game. From some informal conversation, I suspect this to be true for at least a few of the students.
Now, we're two weeks into the first sprint, with plans to have a publicly-testable paper prototype as well as a digital proof-of-concept done by the end of the week. I am enjoying working with the students in these varied production tasks, including creative design work and technical software architecture.
The project blog can be found at http://bonewarsproject.blogspot.com, where you can find student essays and photographs. You can also follow us on Twitter (@bonewarsproject).