Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Lenses in game design and curriculum design

Yesterday, my game design students completed an assignment that had three optional paths. One path involved reading Richard Bartle's excellent summary of the Hero's Journey (1, 2), which includes not just an overview of the concept but also helpful pointers about what students often get wrong. During the class meeting yesterday, a student gave a masterful presentation showing how the The Last of Us maps to the Hero's Journey. Before his presentation, I gave a short lecture about what I've learned about lenses. My point here was to get out in front of issues around the masculine and feminine roles of the Hero's Journey, and I think students got my point.

One of the examples I like to give in this kind of discussion is the ludology vs. narratology wars in game design, which were dying down right around the time I joined the games scholarship community. As I understand it, scholars like Henry Jenkins applied a literary analysis lens to games and, from there, concluded that games are stories. My criticism is that if you hold up any lens, the thing you look at looks like the lens. Using the lens of literary analysis to look at games will always make them look like stories, in the same way that using a Marxist lens to analyze games makes them look like class struggle, or a systems analysis lens makes them look like systems. I made a little joke here and pointed out that we need lenses—if I take mine off, the students turn blurry—but we have to recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

Knowing that my class is mostly Computer Science students, I pointed out that Computer Science curricula still suffer from the fact that many of the discipline's founders were mathematicians. They looked at this new idea through the lens of mathematics and determined that, of course, Computer Science is basically mathematics, and that mathematics is the way to understand this thing that we called "Computer Science." Why, I asked, do we require calculus—which we almost never use in practice—and not philosophy or psychology, which we use multiple times a day?

In truth, I meant it as more of a good-natured jab, but that observation has been haunting me the last 24 hours. The lens of mathematics has undoubtedly done good things for the discipline, as lenses can often do, but it also makes the subject look like the lens. My own department is in the "natural sciences" division of the College of Sciences and Humanities, and that forces the administration to look at us from a particular lens as well.

The old joke goes like this: Ask five Computer Scientists to define "Computer Science" and you get seven different answers. I see the rise of interest in both computer science and in programming for K-12 education, but there's also infighting between the two camps. I heard at a conference the other day, "Logic is the science of Computer Science!" Meanwhile, adults who go to coding bootcamps are taking the jobs that my graduates would otherwise go for: why hire someone green and immature when you can get someone hungry for a challenge and capable of "adulting"? Why, when I try to push the old lenses out of the way, do my colleagues desperately reach out and pull it back like a comfortable blanket on a cold day?

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Fantasy Item Shop Trope

Two games I have recently been enjoying are Bargain Quest and Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth (JiME). Juxtaposing these in a semester when I'm teaching game design got me thinking about the role of tropes in game design. In particular, I've been thinking about the ubiquity of the item shop.

Bargain Quest goes all in on the trope of the fantasy item shop. In this game, you are the proprietor of such a shop. You cleverly play your item cards to lure fantasy heroes into your shop so that you can sell them gear. Then, the heroes go off on their adventure.You earn victory points if they are successful, which raises the reputation of the shop that outfitted them. On the other hand, you also earn victory points by making them spend as much money as they can—even if you're selling them overpriced garbage. Once you've lured them to your shop, you can make them buy as much as you like. This clever spin on the item shop is infused throughout the design: Bargain Quest is entirely about the idea that you run a fantasy item shop, and this idea is executed superbly.

JiME follows in the design steps of Descent and Star Wars: Imperial Assault, all being tabletop adventure games that have app-supported cooperative campaigns. I have played both Descent and Imperial Assault, and they have a familiar rhythm: play a scenario, gain treasure, spend treasure at an item shop, repeat until victorious. This pattern is ubiquitous in CRPGs and has a strong presence in popular tabletop RPGs. The system is implied by the oldest Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks that I have seen: given that killing monsters gets you gold and items in the shop have a gold cost associated with them, then the feedback loop practically designs itself. The item shop is merely the narrative mechanism by which gold becomes power.

Bilbo, Legolas, and Gimli fighting off a hungry warg
Last night, two of my sons and I finished the fourth scenario in JiME. One of them, being familiar with both Descent and Imperial Assault, said, "I wonder when will we get to buy new items." I was the one who had read the rules, set up the game, and been responsible for understanding the basics, so I had passively noticed before that items did not have gold costs, but I had not pointed this out to my boys. When he mentioned his expectation of an item shop, I pointed out to him that there must not be one because there was no currency or costs. This got me thinking about it more critically. Why isn't there an item shop?

It is worth returning to the source material—the inspiration for the game, Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's stories of Middle Earth don't mention item shops. There must certainly have been places where Bilbo could buy a new waistcoat, but that's hardly the stuff of legend. When a character in the novels does gain an item, it's crucial to the story, whether its cram or lembas, Sting or the One Ring itself. Gaining items is an interesting part of the story; one is never so crude as to try to purchase an elven cloak. While Dungeons & Dragons drew clear inspiration from Tolkien's world, in some ways it threw away his storytelling in favor of maintaining the quantified spirit of tabletop wargaming: a mithril coat could not be part of the game without having a weight, an armor class, and a cost. That's practical and simulationist, but it's not particularly Tolkienian.

Kudos to the designers of JiME then, for eschewing the trope in favor of designing within the source material. They were not only fighting the trope but also inertia, given that the same company produced the Descent and Imperial Assault systems. I would have liked to be in the design meetings when these decisions were made. Was it more a desire to be true to the source material or a dissatisfaction with their existing systems that led to this interesting design decision?

(By the way, here are links to my painting posts for games mentioned above, in case you want to check them out: Descent 1234Imperial Assault 123JiME 1.)

Monday, October 7, 2019

Reflecting on my activities at CCSC:MW 2019

This past weekend, I attended the annual conference of the Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges, Midwest. I have been involved with this organization for many years, and I wanted to take a moment to share an overview of how I was involved at this conference.

Student Showcase

I am in charge of the Student Showcase. Many years ago, it was a Student Poster Competition, but it felt to me that this format gave inordinate status to the scholarship of discovery. When I took it over, I revised the format to have two tracks inspired by Boyer's Scholarship model: traditional "research" goes into the Discovery track, and interesting applications of computing goes into the Applications track. This year, we had six Applications track presentations and three Discovery track.

There are practically always Ball State students in the Showcase, and so rather than judge the event myself, I organize volunteer judges. The students are told ahead of time that they will be judged on the same six categories recommended by Glassick et al.; specifically, they are told they will be evaluated on the following:
  • Clear Goals (“What is the goal of this work? What problem are you solving?”)
  • Adequate Preparation (“How did you get ready to do this work?”)
  • Appropriate Methods (“How did you solve your problem? Why did you approach the problem in this way?”)
  • Significant Results (“What was the result of this work? Who is affected by this work?”)
  • Effective Presentation (“How well does this poster or demonstration communicate what is important about this work?”)
  • Reflective Critique (“What would you do differently? What does this mean for you and your career?”)
Over the years, I have fiddled with the judging form with varying degrees of success. This year, I asked each judge to rate presenters on a 1-5 scale for each presentation and each category, and there were no hitches. The scale I provided was Poor (1), Below Average (2), Satisfactory (3), Good (4), and Excellent (5). I have also put the actual judging form online, in case anyone would like to see it.

To determine the winners, I simply take the medians across the six categories and sum them. This led to a clear winner in Discovery and Application tracks as well as a clear Honorable Mention (the third highest overall score), so those are the prizes we awarded. I am proud that my own Canning Heroes team presented and won the Applications track award this year.

Tutorial: Unreal Engine 4 for Computer Scientists

Since getting into Unreal Engine 4 a few years ago, I have noticed many interesting manifestations of Computer Science concepts. I decided to run a tutorial session this year at CCSC:MW to show these to the attendees. However, it did not go as well as I had hoped. I did not have machines that could run UE4, nor could I expect attendees to have adequate laptops, so I designed the tutorial as a sort of Show and Tell. Then I was scheduled for 8:30AM on Saturday, which meant that attendees would be tired and very few students would be there. The room we were given was really awkward: it was a lab, which meant everybody was behind monitors where I could not make eye contact. To make it worse, there was no station where I could stand and work at my laptop, so I was seated and, because of HDMI cabling, facing away from the attendees. To top it all off, I was traveling with family, and my son got sick that morning at the hotel, so I was distracted and unfocused.

Suffice it to say, I would not be surprised if the session were poorly reviewed. Heck, I would poorly review it. I would like to do something like this again, but in a more controlled environment. Perhaps I will move forward with writing up an actual paper about some of the interesting manifestations, and then be able to give a shorter show-and-tell in a future year.

On a positive note, preparing for the tutorial gave me several new ideas for video tutorials. In fact, I could take my tutorial outline, chop it up, and have a pretty good series. Now, it's a matter of determining which ideas have sufficient weight to merit the time required to do the video. (For those who don't know, I have a YouTube playlist of game programming tutorial videos. In fact, I have written up this blog post while rendering my latest video in Blender.)

WIP: Mapping Game Design Learning Outcomes to CS2013

I presented in the Works-in-Progress session what I have shared here on my blog about mapping game design learning outcomes to the ACM/IEEE CS Body of Knowledge. I think it was well received. I have made the slides available online for anyone who wishes to see them, but as usual, my slides do not make a lot of sense without the stories to go with them.

I think the audience assembled for the WIP session was happy to hear my story, and they seemed to understand my frustration. I think they appreciated seeing how one becomes more critical of CS2013 as one digs deeper into the recommendations. One mentioned that his institution had given up on CS2013 and simply used instructor consensus. Ball State is really the largest school in the region that regularly participates in CCSC:MW though, and most of the attendees were in very small departments at private liberal arts schools.