Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Summer 2017 Course Revisions: Game Design

In case I have not mentioned it here before, I am grateful to have another internal grant to pursue an immersive learning opportunity—that's Ball State's brand of student-centered, faculty-mentored, product-oriented, community-connected learning experience. Over the next academic year, my students and I will be working with Minnetrista, which is a local museum and cultural center. In particular, we will be creating geolocative games that can be played on Minnetrista's beautiful grounds. This is a spiritual successor to last year's Spirits at Prairie Creek game (blog post here), which was my first foray into geolocative games. This year, we'll be using the spatial element along with more focused and educational narrative content. The grant allows me to teach my game design course at the Honors College, and so one of my summer tasks was to revise the course. It is offered as an honors colloquium, which means that it's only open to Honors juniors or seniors, who come from any department on campus; each Honors student has to take six credit-hours of colloquia, so it's sort of a captive audience of high-achieving students.

I have decided to make some changes to the course to try to improve the outcomes. The results can be found on the course description that I published yesterday afternoon. The overall structure will be the same, with a few weeks of theoretical foundations and exercises followed by focus on iterative production of final projects. The most obvious change is in the book selection. Many years ago, when I was using the Honors Colloquium as a team production environment, I had an achievement where students could read Koster's Theory of Fun for Game Design. This book was immensely influential on me: reading it was one of the factors that shifted my scholarship from information visualization to a focus on games and game design. Each time a student earned this achievement, I asked if they thought it was something everyone should read, and my recollection is that the answers were unanimously affirmative. A few years ago, then, I made this a central reading for the course. We spent a lot of time discussing the weighty and beautiful ideas Koster presents in his classic book. However, Koster's treatise is about why we make games, not how to make games, and given that my students generally have no background in game design—and almost all of them have precious little exposure to games beyond school sports and Monopoly—I started wondering if I was getting the cart before the horse. This year, I have designed the first several weeks around reading Schreiber's Game Design Concepts, which began life as a massive open online course in Summer 2009, before the "MOOC" acronym was popularized. It remains on the Web as, essentially, a free and high quality game design textbook. My students will be working through a rather aggressive schedule of readings and exercises as we go through the first ten levels of Schreiber's work. I hope that this will help prepare students more explicitly for game design work, familiarizing them with more of the nomenclature and processes of game design.

A related goal for the course is to increase the accountability of the learner. With any discussion-oriented class, one tends to have a mix of levels of engagement, but one maxim remains true, especially for Honors Students: if you grade it, you communicate to them the seriousness of it. I would rather have all my students engage through pure passion for the subject, but that's kind of a pipe dream: these students are pulled in so many different directions that even a passionate student needs to sacrifice their interests for more pragmatic issues. Hence, for the first time in my roughly twenty years of teaching, I am assigning participation credit. The course will only have 10–15 students, and so I hope that I can do this in a lightweight manner, with a simple sheet in my binder that I can mark as students share insight and critiques. You can be sure I'll let you know how it works out.

The course description lays out a high-fidelity schedule through October 12, at which point I expect to transition to production mode. Rather than specifying the precise final project requirements and schedule, I designed the grading scheme in such a way that the students and I can negotiate the requirements when we get closer to it. I think if the students work through all I am asking them up to that date, they will have a good sense of what they can expect from themselves moving forward.

I am excited to teach this course again, and I'm hoping for a positive mix of majors and interests. At some point I have to dig up some more icons to use for achievements, since I just dropped in a placeholder question mark yesterday. My next course redesign task might be my most ambitious one yet, though, as I have to reconsider my CS222 plans in light of moving back to a twice-per-week schedule. But first, breakfast!

Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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