Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Reflection on the Fall 2017 Serious Game Design Colloquium

I had a great time in my Honors Colloquium on Serious Game Design this past semester. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to teach this course. It is not part of my usual load, but I have received internal grants that give me the course release from regular Computer Science courses. This is possible because I tie the game design course to my immersive learning work: our study of serious game design is framed around a community partner's needs, and the students' learning manifests in playable prototypes that are delivered to the partner. The best ideas from the Fall become inputs into my Spring Game Production Studio course, which is also made possible through the grant and the generosity of my community partners.

I wrote last summer about the significant revisions I made to the course for this past semester, and I want to take some time this morning recording my reflections on these.

The most significant change was that I increased the amount of reading and exercises that students completed prior to beginning their final projects, from about a third of the course to about half of the course. We read the first ten levels of Schreiber's Game Design Concepts, more than I had assigned before, and I also picked out a selection of my other favorite readings, which you can see on the course site. Each of the readings had a corresponding exercise, most involving students creating some artifact that represents their understanding and sharing it with the class.

This portion of the course went well and I was pleased with the amount of student interaction and apparent student learning. One noteworthy story is from the reading of Schreiber Level 8 and completing the homeplay assignment described there, which is to sketch a game design that would appeal to "griefers". I prefer Bartle's "Killers" term, and the fact that the reading drew heavily on Bartle Types is significant here. All of the students—as memory serves—described games that had a similar structure: multiplayer games where you kill or disrupt other players in order to win. When they finished their presentations, I told them that I thought they had all missed the mark: the goal of any competitive game is to beat your opponents, and so if killing or disrupting them is the game's mode of victory, then it's Achievers who are being motivated here, not Killers. This got them thinking and led to a good discussion about how everyone who plays a game has to follow the rules—otherwise they're not playing the game!—but that player types give us a way to think about how players bend or apply the rules to serve their own ends. It may merit mentioning that this is an Honors College course, so all the students in the course are "good students"; that is, they are predominantly Achievers in the game of education!

We wrapped up the first half of the course on a positive note and moved on to students' pitching their ideas for final projects. One problem that arose here is that students were happy to throw ideas around and comment upon them, but I think they couldn't see the bigger design issues that were at play. If I am able to teach the course again, I should have them pitch based on an actual prototype rather than just ideas, since they suffer from the blindness that defines beginners. I recently listened to an episode of Ludology in which Geoff Engelstein suggests that every game should have a vision statement, and perhaps I should also require something like that. It reminds me of a little story I neglected to tell in my post about Fall's CS222 class, where a team had real trouble focusing their efforts. I suggested they invest time in creating a vision statement, such that they could use it as a sieve for all of their creative ideas. It took longer than they expected, but once they had it, it served them well for the purpose I suggested. For some of them, this was one of the major takeaways of the semester's work.

I already wrote about how students showed a dearth of theory in their final project production work. I ended up keeping the question basically as I had written there, just with minor editorial changes:
Consider the discussions we have been having in class during the pitch and production period (October 17 through November 30) along with the essays you have written above. According to my notes, no student referenced any theories from the first half of the course during this period. Write an essay addressing the question, Why is that?, and What are the implications? To address this, you might consider corresponding questions such as Could it have been otherwise? or What are the relative merits of personal opinion vs. theory?, although there are certainly other directions one could take a thoughtful essay. [6 points]
As one might predict, a majority of the submissions were rather flimsy justifications around the idea that they had internalized the lessons from the first half of the semester and were implicitly drawing upon them. I don't think this really holds any water, and none of them went through the effort of considering reasonable objections to their point: for example, in any humanities course, you wouldn't be expected to get away with not citing the class readings in your final paper. Perhaps I should have reminded them that a good essay has to stand up to obvious criticisms.

However, one submission really blew me away. The student wrote coherently and convincingly about confirmation bias and the dangers it poses to students. He described how the majority of Honors College courses are designed to help students separate themselves from their biases to gain an enlightened view of culture, but that in this course, they had fallen into the trap of doing the minimum required work to get a good grade out of the education machine. He points out specifically that the course is comprised primarily of hobbyist gamers who are programmed into confirmation bias by reading IGN and Metacritic reviews. His essay really grappled with what the question posed without succumbing to generalizations or educational folk tales.

I want to document here a few other potential shortcomings so that I can consider them if I am able to teach the course again. First and foremost, although I provided explicit goals for each status report presentation during the production period, you wouldn't have known it from the student presentations. For example, one of the requirements was to report on the type of playtesting that was performed and how it was influencing you, but many were clearly not doing any playtesting at all. In retrospect, I could have included some kind of tangible submission, such as a completed status report template, to hold students accountable to the process. After all, the course and their grades were supposed to be about the process, and so I should capture artifacts to support that.

Speaking of playtesting, it was late in the semester that I realized we never really talked much about it in class, and that's in part because I had not assigned any readings or activities about it. I should consider adding readings, such as Schreiber Levels 12–14, so that they have a better sense of how to conduct playtesting. In Fall 2016, my guest speaker from Megacon Games spoke strongly about the value and process of playtesting, but the students didn't hear that story this year.

Our last four class meetings consisted of two practice presentation sessions and two final presentations to the community partner. The practice presentations were a good investment I think, as the final presentations were much improved in many cases. However, it was a breakneck pace, and there was little time for students to share their final feedback with each other. I had them write a bit about each others' work in the final exam, but that's not the same as talking to each other. Perhaps next time I should pull back the presentations on class meeting so that we can have the final one for some kind of debriefing about the semester. I am not sure who this would play into the final exam. For some time, I have been giving the exam as purely online in large part because they kept scheduling the final for Friday afternoon of finals week. It was the first day of finals this year so I could have managed it differently if I had thought about the need for a final reflective meeting with the students.

I had an excellent meeting with my collaborator at Minnetrista at the end of the semester, and he pointed out that for some of the games, it was a bit hard to see how they were tied into the theme. This aligns with the idea of having students produce some kind of vision statement or to have to list the expected learning outcomes in status reports. We have some strong ideas for moving forward into the Spring production studio course; he had a meeting with his staff last week to discuss it, and I am awaiting a summary of the meeting before moving forward with preproduction steps for the Spring Studio course.

I have to close with the same thought I always have at the end of the course: was this the last one, or will I be able to teach it again? It's an uncomfortable feeling for a course I enjoy so much, but as I said, my teaching it is contingent upon receiving funding to do so. I have had some discussions with my department chair about what it would look like to bring this into a regular departmental course that I could be loaded to teach. While it's possible to do so, it's impractical: Computer Science is growing at an unprecedented rate, and he is obligated to assign faculty first to our majors and courses that support our college's programs. Even though I am sure a game design course would be popular, it's not popularity alone that justifies its being offered. I believe I could design the course in such a way to fill a slot in the current core curriculum, but it's not clear that even that would justify its being offered over, say, CS222. I am hoping that perhaps our new university administration will bring with it some new opportunities and structural changes that I can leverage. In the meantime, I need to continue thinking about next academic year and what kinds of projects I want to commit to.

Thanks for reading!

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