Friday, May 30, 2014

Revising courses, Summer 2014: Serious Game Design

I recently finished revisions to my Serious Game Design course. These come in response to the changes I made last Summer, when I designed a rather complex system of achievement-oriented assessment. I was happy with how the system allowed students variability in how they approached the themes of the course. However, I may have been a bit too tricky in the design. I had designed grade incentives for students to follow a particular path, and of course, these bright Honors College students determined that path and followed it. That involved unnecessary indirectness, however, and a few students called me out on it in course evaluations.

Seeing it in that light, I plan to divide next year's course into two units. The first five weeks will be structured, with students doing common readings and activities. Last year, I encouraged students to play a variety of games and reflect on them, but I think this was a "you can lead a horse to water" problem. Yes, the students played some games they wouldn't have otherwise played, but often just once (which is insufficient for critical analysis) or sometimes incorrectly (which leads to inappropriate analysis).  Hence, the activities of the first five weeks will involve more reading and discussion of common experiences—including games we will play together in class, assuredly by the rules—and less divergent experiences.

The second unit of the class will be the design workshop. Last year, we spent five weeks coming up with various game concepts, and the following five weeks were spent iteratively prototyping one of them. The variety of game concepts last year was excellent, and they did increase in quality over time; however, in the last five weeks, many students got burned out or stuck on prototyping. I think they kept working on the prototypes only for the grade and not because they thought it was the best use of their time. This Fall, the plan for the last ten weeks is to allow students to present either concepts or prototypes each week. I have put a threshold on the number so that, for students to earn "good" grades, they need to iterate on a prototype several times. However, I am hoping that opening up these ten weeks this way will let students dabble a bit more, rather than feeling trapped into one prototype in which they have lost confidence.

I have kept a pared down version of the achievements system for the ten week design workshop. For a student to get an 'A', the minimum number of design artifacts would be two game concept documents and four generations of a prototype. Presenting one each week, this leaves four weeks for other legitimate activity—that is, to earn achievements. Most of these are repeated from last Fall's list, but there are two new ones. Networker is earned by going to a formal meeting of game designers, of which there are a few in Indianapolis, and Organizer is earned for organizing a playtesting session for the whole class. I am pleased with this last one, since setting up playtesting is an important part of the process, but there's no reason an interested student couldn't do it rather than me. This gives a student a chance to make a big impact in an authentic way. There is also an achievement that can be earned if students want to just keep on developing prototypes, since this is surely authentic class activity. I thought about adding an achievement for bringing snacks to a team meeting, but as much as I love snacks, this is probably too easy an out.

For several years, I have included an option in my game design class for students to read and present on A Theory of Fun for Game Design, the book that sparked my current scholarly endeavors. I have held off on requiring the book, however, for fear of trying to force students to follow "my path." Yet, every year, one or two students read the book, were amazed by it, and recommended that I make everyone read it. This year, I have decided to require it, and we will read and discuss it in the first five weeks. It was meaningful to me when I read it ten years ago and to my VBC students back in 2012, and I hope that it will inspire this Fall's group as well. I also hope that it will help us develop some common vocabulary.

Once again, we will be working with my friends at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. They will providing themes and feedback on the designs, and I know that this was an important aspect of the course for the students last year. Last year's Fall game design course was intentionally scattershot: students explored a wide range of themes and ideas. This year, we are going to be a bit more focused. Also, I am planning on designing a game in the Fall as well, to use as a running case study. I look forward to the creative challenge as an opportunity to model some of my favorite practices, as well as to show students that nobody gets it right the first time.

Here are some links for the interested:

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