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.

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