Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Summer Course Revisions 2018: Game Design

It's that time of year again, where I review my notes and memories from the past academic year and make changes to my Fall courses. First on the docket is my Honors Colloquium on Game Design, which may be the simplest revision because I have already done the most thinking about it. The Fall 2018 course plan is online, and I will share here the highlights of what has changed.

More Rigorous Playtesting
Last year, I laid out a simple taxonomy of internal vs. external testing, but it wasn't until too late that I realized I neglected to assign any readings or exercises around playtesting itself. I believe that this contributed to some of the troubles I encountered in the game studio last semester as well. In the Fall, we will still be using Ian Schreiber's excellent Game Design Concepts for most of our readings, and I have put in required reading of levels 12–15. These levels describe self-testing, testing with designers, testing with non-designers, and "blindtesting". I have never before required that last one, but when Megacon Games' Brian Shotton came and gave a talk in Fall 2016's class, this was one of his strongest points: that blind playtesting, interpreted through a producer, was invaluable to the development of his team's games. In the Fall, students will be required to complete one round of blindtesting. I expect them to use each other to run these sessions, although that will not be required.

Game Design Logs
Past students have been required to give oral status reports, supported with summary posters. Sometimes, it's hard to tell what exactly someone had been working on; frequently, students fail to address the required elements of the report. This is not unreasonable, however, given that there is a very limited time to give the report, and there is sometimes a prominent and complex idea that the student would rather share instead. This Fall, students will be required to keep a design log, inspired by Dan Cook's style, where they track work on their project. Specifically, this log will contain an entry for each status report as well, where the requirement components of the status report—what was your goal, how did you prototype a solution, how did you test it, what were your results, what will you do next—will be documented.

No More Art
Last time I taught the course, we read Schreiber's level on "games as art," and then the topic came up several times during the semester. In my expert opinion, it was a waste of time. Everybody has something to say, but nobody has any coherent definition of "art", so it turned into students taking turns talking with nobody really listening. Mine is not a course on game studies: we're doing design work here. Questioning whether or not someone calls it "art" is not worth the time.

No Achievements
My game design course was one of the first in which I experimented with using achievements—formalized incentives for activities taken outside the normal confines of a class. That was when I was doing a very short, roughly five-week crash introduction to game design followed by roughly ten weeks of iterative development. Achievements were an option for students to take on a week when they wanted a break from their main project. Since then, I expanded the portion of the course devoted to readings and exercises, trying to get students a firmer foundation for when they are production mode. For Fall 2018, there are only five status reports for each student, so replacing one of these with an achievement means 20% cut in production time and opportunities for feedback. The downside is that there won't be any incentives for students to engage in quasi-curricular activities such as game nights or game jams. That said, I think the other changes are all raising the bar of expectations, so there isn't reasonable wiggle room to fit in, say, a three-hour game night or reading a classic text, into a nine-hours-per-week expectation. I thought about making these other events "extra credit," but I really don't like the concept of extra credit because it is essentialy inflation: it devalues the other credit.

I have been thinking a lot about what kinds of classroom policies I might use to help increase student learning, both in the class and to prepare them for lifetime learning. The truth is that many students are good at school but bad at learning. I am generally not one to pass the buck. If it's my job to make lifetime learners out of these students, then I feel like I have an obligation to at least attempt to undo the damage of my predecessors. Here is my current draft for the new decorum section that is in the course plan miscellany:

We will begin our meetings on time, which means you should arrive a few minutes beforehand, to give you time to get situated and exchange greetings with your classmates. Recognize that it is inconsiderate to miss or be tardy for a meeting. Consider bringing treats to a future meeting by way of apology; your classmates will not forget this kindness. 
Stow all portable electronic devices for the duration of meetings. If you anticipate receipt of a communiqué so critical as to merit an interruption, it is certainly better not to be in that meeting at all. 
Always have paper and a writing implement on hand during meetings. Be ready to take notes or record questions as inspiration strikes you. The most frequent lie that we tell ourselves is, “I will remember this.” 
Listen actively. Assume the person you are listening to might know something you do not. Listening this way means you are not simply waiting for your chance to speak. More often, you are asking probing questions in order to build a better understanding of the other person's experience.
I hinted at my work along these lines in my reflection of the Spring HCI class. The only piece that's missing—both in the policy and in my mind—is what the enforcement policy looks like. What if I remind students to stow their devices and someone doesn't? My imagination keeps returning to a scenario in which I point out that the student must believe they know better than me, and so I excuse myself from the class and leave them in charge. That's sort of like going from zero to infinity, but one thing I've been considering a lot as a parent is that leniency is counterproductive to maintaining order and setting expectations.

Polymer 3.0
I have been building course sites using Polymer for several years now. Polymer 3 recently came out, which features a transition away from bower to npm. I had no trouble with bower, but I understand that many developers encouraged this shift to improve interoperability. Even though I was fluent with Polymer 2, there were enough changes to the API that I had to spend a lot of time double-checking templates and samples to get simple structures right. Now I have my own, though, and so I feel confident in being able to do future Polymer 3 projects should the need arise.

Those are all the major changes. We're going to be partnering with Minnetrista again and funded through the Immersive Learning program, and I am very grateful for both of these. I'm looking forward to the class, which at this time has twelve students enrolled from a great variety of majors.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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