Monday, February 28, 2022

Painting Massive Darkness: Bloodmoon Assassins vs. the Hellephant

Why did I buy this Massive Darkness expansion? For the Hellephant.

Ah, paints, it's been a long time. I picked up Bloodmoon Assassins vs. the Hellephant shortly after getting Warrior Priests vs. The Spearmaiden Cyclops, which I finished painting back in ... egads, it was June! I painted the three heroes from the not long afterward, and then the Hellephant itself sat on my desk for months. It was a stressful semester, and kids' bedtimes are shifting as they get older, and the older kids are getting involved in more activities. Also, I judged for IGF, which had me exploring a bunch of games. I had the intention to do the Hellephant over the winter break, but I never touched by brushes. I did spend am embarrassing amount of time on Pathfinder: Kingmaker, and that never even turned into the angry blog post I sketched out in my head.

Over the last few days, however, I finally got my painting groove back on, and I finished this attractive sculpt.  But first, the heroes! 

Now something seems to have gone wonky with my camera settings, resulting in the bottom parts of the images going magenta. This morning, before leaving for my 9:00 a.m. class, I decided to try to re-shoot with more natural ambient light, but I was still getting strange tones. I've never seen that before and had to search my blog for when I last wrote about my camera settings, which was when I wrote about painting Stuffed Fables. That was also the last time I tried photographing on a black background, so I decided to try that again here. I was able to much better match the colors, so that's what we get in today's post. It seems appropriate for "Massive Darkness" too.

Sylvan (front)

Sylvan (back)

The first hero is Sylvan, which is really just a cry for help. An elf warrior in green named "Sylvan"? C'mon CMON. This guy is a sort of male counterpart to Sybil from the Massive Darkness base set. His artwork did not have the interesting purple gradients that I saw in Sybil's. Instead, I did a pale green to forest green on his clothing, and for the armor, I tried to get a distinct but complementary tone for the armor. As I recall, the armor was done by mixing some metallic medium as well. It is hard to tell if this is worth it or not, though. The armored parts do look good, but not exactly metallic; yet, I am not sure if it's doing something good that I would miss if I didn't do it.

Valerie (front)

Valerie (back)

This is Valerie. Class, say hello to Valerie. Really, these Massive Darkness heroes have some of the strangest names. There's no real "world" for Massive Darkness, and I wonder what the designers had in mind as a backdrop setting.

Where Sylvan is a male counterpart to Sybil, Valerie is a feminine version of Sicarius, whom I painted with the KS extra heroes. It was fun enough to paint, but painting is all about the details, and the details are just goofy. She's wearing dark clothes and seems tied to the Bloodmoon Assassins, based on the recommended class. Yet, her thighs would give her away, and like Moira, she's standing in such an unheroic pose. Really, the more you look at her, the more she looks like she's about to fall over.

Victoria (front)

Victoria (back)

Victoria. Victoria. OK, I'll grant that naming things is hard. I had a D&D player who used their own name spelled backward for the one session they attended. My campaign map borrowed names from Hickman and Weiss among others.

This figure should be iconic Massive Darkness, with a flowing tattered cloak, but she has a sensible number of belt pouches for a warrior (zero). Flowing robes or capes like this can be fun to paint, although hers is monochrome. The thing that struck me as odd about this sculpt is that the sword is both large and awkwardly held. Someone with arms that big could not hold a sword out like that for very long. The more you look at it, the more you see things like the flow of the cape going as if the arm is being swung, though its not, and that walking for long in this kind of outfit would result in tripping over like Valerie. That's all right: it's a dice-chucker. Get Victoria on the table and start wiping the floor with some Goblin Archers.

What I like about the paint job is that I was able to get the two subtly different kinds of metallic that are showing in the illustration. I cannot remember at all how I did it, but I think it's a nice touch.

OK, time for the star of the show.
Hellephant (front)

Hellephant (back)

This sculpt is amazing, but painting big miniatures can be a slog. I started with a zenithal prime as usual, then I laid down grey over all the skin. I did a light ink wash over the whole thing to try to get into the cracks before going back over it with two-brush blending to add two layers of shadows. I drybrushed in highlights, and then I used more two-brush blending to add about three layers of highlights. After hours of work, it was still monochrome and looked quite a bit like it did when it was just primed! Sure, it did look better, but starting with all this grey, when the model is primed in grey, leaves it a grey blob for a long time. 

Massive Darkness' card illustration has a graphic novel feel. I think I have written before about the implications for gold. In some of my earlier models, I think I used gold paint to paint the gold areas, but the illustrations are really much more yellow. I went back to my post about painting Ostara from the Warrior Priests expansion, since that figure is almost entirely gold. I was able to produce the same effect here for the Hellephant's gold details, mixing white, lemon yellow, and metal medium, adding some grey and brown for shadowed areas. I also used a bit of brown ink wash to bring out the separation between the bracelets. Really, those three-ring bracelets are the worst part of the model, having no details at all on them. Fortunately, the eye is drawn to other, more interesting parts.

Let's have a battle

That's all for today. It felt good to get the Hellephant off my desk and to finally finish another painting project. There are a host of other monsters from Massive Darkness that I would like to paint sometime, a wonderful mix of classic D&D-style creatures and real oddball things. None of the others are primed right now. I have some mini-heavy kickstarted projects scheduled to arrive in the coming months, so I'm not sure if I should prime up a couple of my guys from my stock or see what inspires me when it arrives.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 24, 2022

My Proposal for "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time"

Next week, I will be presenting in the "It seemed like a good idea at the time" panel at SIGCSE. Each of the panelists submitted a 150-word summary of their experience that will be published in the proceedings. This is mine:

When the pandemic left a colleague unable to complete teaching an upper-division programming languages class, both sections were given to me for the last two weeks of the semester along with the mandate to give the students "a good experience." The previous instructor left no plans for the end of the semester, and I had not taught programming languages since the early 2000s. I saw the opportunity to give a brief introduction to declarative programming through Prolog. I asked the students to complete the classic family tree assignment. The unfortunate result was that over 25% of the students violated the university's academic integrity policy, submitting solutions copied from each other and from the Internet. Three days of paperwork was not how I expected to wrap up a stressful academic year, but the experience exposed interesting conflicts in culture and expectations between me and my students.

It's fine. 

The reason I got to write it—the reason I will be able be part of the panel—is that I wrote a proposal to do so. As I prepare my presentation for SIGCSE, I have returned to the proposal, which was written shortly after the experiences described in the abstract. As I feared, it is a bit like opening old wounds, since it was a stressful and spiritually draining experience. That said, I had spent significant time working on the proposal, even though it is not itself published. 

After some consideration, I have decided to re-post the proposal here with just one minor correction. The section headings were given as part of the required format. The task for me now is to determine how to take the ideas contained within the proposal and distill them into an eight-minute presentation.

A description of the good idea, including your inspiration, how it was implemented, and the expected results

During the Spring semester, the impact of the pandemic left one of my colleagues unable to successfully complete teaching his classes. Hence, two weeks before the end of the semester, I was assigned to take over both sections of his programming languages course. It is an upper-division required course here, and this was the first time it had been taught online and asynchronous. There were no plans for the end of the course, nor the final exam; I had carte blanche and a mandate from the department chair to give the students a good conclusion to the course.

I never had taught the course here, and the last time I taught it was in graduate school in the early 2000s. Reviewing the department's syllabus and the previous assignments, I saw that the students had not yet studied declarative programming, which is one of my favorite paradigms. I decided to give them a quick, one-week introduction to Prolog, just showing the simplest examples of facts and rules. For the week's assignment, I gave them the definition for several family relationship rules (father, sibling, etc.) and asked them to write several more. I explained in the assignment that this was a "classic problem" in Prolog, and that they could doubtless find answers to these challenges online, but that they were being asked to puzzle through the logic and sort it out themselves.

The expected result would be that students would be intrigued by this unconventional programming paradigm, puzzle over the challenge, email me a few questions about it, and enjoy it as an end-of-semester curiosity. It was not designed to be very hard, and so I expected that the high grades on this straightforward assignment would raise their course grades, which is something students always seem to like and that seemed appropriate, given their tumultuous experience during the rest of the semester.

A description of the actual results

A shocking number of students violated the university's academic integrity policies on this assignment. I followed up on over 25% of the students for violations. The number I discovered with relative ease is a lower bound on the possible violations, modulo a very small number of false positives. Most of these students copied solutions verbatim, either from the Internet or from each other; some of these even copied and submitted solutions that did not meet the assignment specifications.

My morale was devastated by this experience, which came at the end of a stressful academic year, and I might have thrown in the towel if it weren't for one case. Most students were silent about the academic integrity violation, and a few students wailed and wheedled over email and Zoom, but one student stood out as a pillar of integrity. This student sent me a message admitting their guilt and, essentially, thanking me for catching them. They explained that they knew what they did was wrong, and they were sorry for it and accepted the results with a clear conscience. This student gave me hope that, indeed, there are still those who understand the educational value of these policies and that the lasting goal is not certification but the acquisition and practice of virtue.

A simple description of the evidence supporting failure that you will be able to supply

The percentage of academic integrity violations is the evidence of failure. I have spent a lot of time pondering how it came to be, and my best hypothesis is that the real failure was one of mismatched expectations and culture. I share some of these in the section below about the presentation. If only I had known this would happen and could have collected qualitative data about student perceptions—what a research study this would have been!

Ideas for your presentation

The presentation would have to begin with the simple narrative of what happened. Once they understand the story, the audience should be able to follow my reflections on the experience. I want to discuss the various mismatches of culture and expectations that are represented in my story. Briefly, the two major points I want to make are (1) differences in expectations and (2) the transactional vs. interactional nature of higher education.

One mismatch comes from my experience learning Prolog and theirs. When I studied and previously taught programming languages, there was a young World-Wide Web, but we could not have had the Copy-Paste Programming attitude that rose to prevalence with sites like StackOverflow. The entire K-12 experience was different for me than it is for contemporary undergraduates, who have been inundated with dehumanizing standardized tests. I suspect that current students are not only more interested in "the answer" than past students, but that they also see this itself as virtuous: that is, I think many believe the answer is the goal rather than the pursuit. Put another way, it was not at all clear to me that most of these students understood what they did as "wrong," and they considered the real problem only to be that they got caught. This attitude is reinforced by schooling, including higher education's constant promotion of job-readiness and certification culture. At the risk of offending zealots, I believe that the university's idea that any course can be put online sends the message that there's nothing valuable about what's happening among humans in the classroom. Yes, some people can teach online well, and many people teach in-person poorly. My point is that students are inundated with a subtext that says "seek ye first to get your degree and get a job and make money."

This would be no different here than in any of my other classes except that we have to look at another mismatch, to which I alluded above: that the students had no personal relationship with me nor with the previous instructor. For most of the semester, the previous instructor struggled to stay on top of the class. When I took over, almost none of the students had ever met me. Despite my attempt to welcome and encourage them through written messages and talking-head videos, there was no real opportunity for us to build a culture of trust. This is in contrast to my usual courses, where I pride myself in having high standards and in building a classroom culture in which students recognize that they can meet them. Instead, this programming language class was instituted as transactional rather than interactional, and its modality—along with so many other students courses—emphasized this as well.

In many ways, this is a sad story with no real conclusions, but as a scholar, I see many opportunities for further research. I would like to end my presentation by encouraging the audience to consider designing qualitative studies to better understand these cultural issues, and for us, as a community, to think deeply about what it means to teach students to live "the examined life."

(The proposal concluded with the 150-word summary that I have already shared above.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

A Community-Engaged Software Production Studio: Joy with a Side of Worries

(I have lightly edited this post for clarity after hearing some confusion about it.)

I have a large and fun group of students in CS490 Software Production Studio this semester. The past two years, I've been experimenting with running the course in a non-community-engaged manner, allowing students to form small teams and create their own passion projects. This year, we're back to working with Minnetrista, who always make for a great collaboration. 

We spent the first three weeks on preproduction, trying to figure out what it is we really want to make. The team decided on a multiplayer collaborative game that simulates the cooking process. It resembles Canning Heroes, which my team made in 2019, but we're taking it in a different direction. Rather than have the game played on one, large, interactive tabletop, this year's project will be played on multiple networked tablets. Each tablet will represent a different workstation that would be involved in canning; the current design calls for a prep station, a filling station, and cooking and jar sanitizing.

The students are really excited, and they bring a lot of energy to the process. However, they are all still pretty green. Few of the programmers have ever built a game at all; I think only three have taken my game programming elective, and one of them was 1.5 years ago with no game development since. Many of the programmers are just coming out of CS222, so yes, they can program, but they lack experience.

My purpose in writing today is to share some of the complications that I've had to deal with in helping the team get moving forward. None of this is to complain: I love working with teams like this. These are, in many ways, necessary problems that a team has to face before they can move forward. To put it another way, what I'm describing here is what I really do in the classroom with a single student team, which activities I could not possibly do when mentoring multiple game development teams as I have done the last two years.

The students were excited to get involved in designing the gameplay, and maybe a third of the team has taken my game design class. A lot of their work is still undisciplined and ad hoc, but I should have expected that: taking one class on a topic is only enough to get started, and it's a long climb toward expertise. Curiously, much of the prototyping work was done by people who had not taken the game design class, so I had to try to feed them a few fundamentals of player-centered philosophy as they worked. I wanted to be able to sit with them and work through the problems, but I was also pulled in many directions, so the design process was not as smooth as I had hoped.

To get an application running on a tablet through Godot requires working through multiple steps of setup and configuration. I've spent at least three hours working alongside the students who are working on this. I take no great joy in devops, but I am happy to help. It takes me much less time than it takes them, but it takes time, and that's time I'm not mentoring another aspect.

We're doing a multiplayer game, and so we really need to get the right version of the app running on multiple tablets simultaneously. I ended up switching from mentoring to a steering role to help the students with configuring a machine to be able to run a custom batch script that builds and deploys the app to all USB-connected devices. I feel a bit badly about aggressively steering, but it also felt like the best approach to scaffold the rest of the project.

A student came up with a UX flow that a staff member could follow to get all the devices connected. The first draft was well-intentioned but more complex than was necessary for the task at hand. I was able to give some feedback, but I wish I had given more guidance about how constrained a problem we were really trying to solve. The original testing protocol for the UX flow contained errors that we fixed before deploying it, and it was a good reminder to me to talk to them about the importance of validation. Every step is hard. If we had moved forward with the original protocol, it would have been worse than doing nothing, because we would have built up knowledge based on contradictions, from which we could not possibly deduce the truth. I would have liked to sit with the team working on this and mentored through rather than do it transactionally through Slack or Google Docs. I have to make snap judgments about where to spend my time. The squeaky wheel gets attention, but that's not always the where I can help most efficiently.

Most of the team has never seen Godot Engine before, so of course they are not using it prudently. Those with some experience are providing good guidance, taking into account the point made above, that just one course is only enough to get your toes wet. The code is not being held up to the standards that these students are supposed to know from CS222 or their capstone SE course. It can be hard to know what something like "SRP" means in the context of a new game engine, but I also don't see them asking the question. I am thinking about how to advise them so that they remember that refactoring is a crucial part of the process, not just a value-add. One of the most peculiar things I've seen is people spending time implementing gameplay that does not comply with the design we specified. Why they have done the latter is still a puzzle to me that I hope will be clarified in Friday's retrospective. Again, if I sidled up next to them every session and mobbed together, I am sure I could have taught them some great Godot Engine shortcuts and ways to think about code quality... but there's just one of me.

I provided a starter methodology and assigned it as reading. The team agreed to follow it. Two weeks later, it was clear that many had not read it at all, and some did not even know where it was. As I recall, nobody posed any questions about it, but truly, it should have raised some powerful questions, like, "What exactly is a technical environment with automated tests, configuration management, and frequent integration?" That is a good question.

We have talented artists in the room, but they are not in the flow. Some did not read the methodology. I still get the sense that some think the methodology is for somebody else, but I'm not completely sure about that. We're halfway through our second two-week production sprint, but we don't yet have a pipeline for how art assets are created and integrated, no non-CS-students can download or run the game, and despite my reminding them several times, we're not seeing organic formation of cross-functional teams: the art majors are sitting as if they are a separate department. I need to get in with the whole team and demonstrate what this should look like since they are collectively not getting it by imperative nor by methodology nor by contemplation.

I find myself wishing I had any veterans. I don't have anybody in the studio who has done anything like this before, so all the words of wisdom come from "the professor." Even if they understood what I was saying and didn't tune me out, there's not enough of my time to be in all the places I want to be. If some of the people in the studio had more experience building games, they could take a leadership role. I'm hoping that some of these students will stick around and help lead future endeavors. I think they all have the capacity to do this once they have more experience. Right now, they either don't know how or are afraid to hold each other accountable to our standards.

The first sprint is always rocky. The team had taken what I considered a conservative commitment for the first sprint, and they failed at it. That's fine. They took a more ambitious commitment for this sprint. However, I think they still don't see what it means to work together nor to do quality work. This is my challenge: how do I show them something better? It will be interesting to see on Friday, during our retrospective meeting, if they can become aware of how they are continuing to violate the methodology and the real costs that has. 

When I was mentoring three or five teams at a time, the best I could do is hand them some rules and wait to hear about problems. However, those were small teams, and they could get away with ad hoc collaborations. This is a team of thirteen, and a team that size needs rules. I gave them the rules, but they're not following them. They are on the road to failing this sprint, which is fine but only if they understand why. It's that last piece that has me worried. They might see the semester as having eight more weeks. I see the project as already being half over with nothing to show for it.

Something I haven't written about yet here is that my department recently announced a new curriculum model. Rather than having one path through the major, there will be five concentrations, one of which is Game Design and Development. I will have more to say about that here soon, but in the meantime, I'll point out that a structured curriculum around gamedev is something I've wanted for years. Students will have more opportunities to learn these strategies for collaboration, for design, for testing, and for development, and I am hopeful that we'll see more and higher quality projects in the coming years.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

"What do you call this kind of game?" and other questions

Over the weekend, I was with a friend whose family enjoys games like Catan and Carcassonne but who one would not call "in the hobby." At one point, he brought out Mice and Mystics and Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth, which he had bought at the FLGS but never was able to really get into. He mentioned feeling like the rulebooks were written for people who knew something he didn't know, which is a fascinating observation: it makes me want to study rulebook readability and its relationship to games literacy. My friend mentioned that he had wanted to try one of these two (I cannot remember which) with his family, so they sat down together to play, opening the box for the first time then and looking at the rules. This, too, is fascinating to me. As a hobbyist, I would never do that, but it's a completely reasonable thing for an intelligent layperson to do.

My friend pointed to the boxes and asked, "What do you call this kind of game?" I understood the question and was stunned at my own inability to reply. Now, if it had been Runebound or Mage Knight, I would have said, "Fantasy adventure game," or if had been Descent, I would have said, "Dungeon Crawl." The two games he had on the table are kind of strange hybrids of these. One could certainly go to the FLGS and say, "Please show me a game like Mice & Mystics," but I did not really have an answer for him as to what to call such a game from first principles. When I talk to hobbyists friends, we often refer to games as constellations of mechanisms, like "deckbuilding strategy miniatures game," but that's basically jargon. 

Puzzling over the conversation, I am left with several questions. Is there a useful nomenclature for games that non-hobbyists can use, or were his problems with these two games really because you must experience a rite of passage into the hobby in order to approach them? What knowledge do I have, that was assumed in the presentation of the rules, that he does not have? How can one design a box to convey the idea that the purchaser should open the box, explore the contents, read the 20+ pages of rules, and probably watch an introductory video before sitting down to actually play it with people? 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Right and Wrong, Well and Poorly, and the Art of Programming

Writing, painting, drawing, acting. These are arts that you cannot really do wrong, but you can do poorly. If a student writes a weak, unstructured, meandering essay, a good teacher will have to tell them that they did it poorly. A less dedicated teacher may decide not to give such feedback or even to lie that the work is good. Remove the feedback system, and the author will have to draw conclusions about their writing for themselves, subject to all the usual bugaboos like impostor syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Programming is different. You can do it poorly, but you can also do it wrong. If your program does not compile, it is not really a program at all. That is, the syntax of a programming language determines what constitutes a valid program, and if you don't have valid syntax, you only have an approximation of a program. You have a non-program. Once you've done it right—once you have something that is, in fact, a program—only then can you consider whether you've done it poorly or well. Put another way, you cannot even program poorly unless you have programmed.

This puts learners of programming in a unique situation in education, as far as I can tell. The closest relative may be poetic forms like haiku. If someone walks up to you, shows you four lines in iambic pentameter, and asks, "How do you like my haiku?" the only real answer is that the question is malformed. It is not a haiku at all. If someone hands you a bunch of monospace text and semicolons and asks, "How do you like my Java program?" then unless it compiles, all you can say is that it is not a Java program at all.

Proofs and philosophical arguments are interesting to consider. For these forms, each step should follow logically from the previous. Consider what happens if a nascent mathematician produces a "proof" but the steps do not logically follow from each other. Is it a wrong proof or is it not a proof at all? That is, can a proof be wrong? I think most mathematicians would agree with me that it is not a proof since the question remains unproven. Notice, though, that in the absence of an evaluator, or in the presence of evaluators' inevitable oversights, a learner may not recognize the distinction. This can be addressed by formal theorem-proving systems, which are, essentially, programming.

It seems then that computer programming is the best tool for teaching someone that truth exists. Without the intervention or explanation by a teacher, a learner can see that some things are programs and some things are not.

Recently, I asked my students to evaluate their accountability to a team with respect to a stated methodology. Several students presented arguments in this form: (1) I followed the methodology. (2) There was one part I didn't follow. (3) In conclusion, I followed the methodology. This kind of intellectual dishonesty pervades undergraduate writing and thinking, although I cannot tell if it is getting worse or if I am getting tired. The compiler doesn't care how much I want the text in this file to be a Java program. It won't take sympathy on you, it won't tire of reading, and it won't lie. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

An exercise in assessment of scholarship: Another look at the Year of Fam Jams

I'm sure I mentioned it before, but reading Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered was formative in my development as a young scholar. It helped me abandon the uninspiring taxonomy of teaching, research, and service and instead to think about scholarly ways of being. Boyer's taxonomy includes Scholarship of Teaching, Discovery, Application, and Integration. It makes me sad to see how frequently these terms are misunderstood at my own institution, where people use them as neologisms for teaching, research, and service rather than really engaging with what Bloom was saying.

Glassick's Scholarship Assessed deals with the significant problem of determining whether or not an activity aligns with that scholarly way of being. This model can be used regardless of domain and regardless of what type of scholarship is being assessed. I have never encountered any opposition to Glassick's model except, if my memory is right, by one old crank who insisted that peer-reviewed publications were the only form of scholarship. I have met plenty of people who neither thought about them nor engaged with them, but I don't remember ever seeing someone try to refute them.

A ridiculous series of events leads me to an interesting writing and thinking exercise. I agree with Paul Graham's recent essay, which asserts that "no one who hasn't written about a topic has fully formed ideas about it." Regardless of the series of events, then, it's good to take the time to write. Indeed, I originally made this blog post last night, but after reflecting on it, I've returned to it this morning to tighten it up.

The topic for consideration is whether my 2020–2021 FamJam project represents scholarship. To address this, I will take Glassick's criteria as a given. One could frame this primarily as Scholarship of Integration, although it has elements of Teaching, Discovery, and Application as well.

Clear Goals

The project started with a few goals. One was to build original video games with my family through the application of best practices, contemporary scholarship, and appropriate tools for game design and development. This serves dual subgoals, which are that the family would learn from the experience and we would make something to bring joy to others. Combined with this goal was the desire to investigate the extent to which what I had learned about mentoring undergraduate game design and development teams would be applicable to my own family. That is, what elements or ceremonies from my scholarship of teaching would apply in this context, and how? Another goal from the beginning of the project was to use this experience with my family to inspire other people to try something similar themselves.

As the project continued and our process matured, I thought more about how I could communicate our findings to the right audience. That is, having effective dissemination was a goal from early in the project.

Adequate Preparation

I've been studying game design and development for over fifteen years and have written multiple peer-reviewed and published papers on the topic. I have mentored many student projects, and I myself have made many games and participated in jams, alone and in teams. Before starting my project, I also spoke extensively with a colleague who has guided families in Fam-Jams before, and we stayed in touch intermittently throughout. Maintaining my YouTube channel has also helped me gained adequate skills in video production, which would prove useful for meeting the dissemination goals.

Appropriate Methods

My family ended up doing 13 consecutive monthly Fam Jams, starting in March 2020 and ending in March 2021. Each month, we carved out a day to work on an original video game project. We assigned a creative director, worked on our project, and finished it before the day was out. We incorporated various reflective practices inspired by agile software development, engaging in semi-structured retrospectives after each project.

Doing this work was a kind of action research, getting into the field and participating in the work. As action research, the goal here was to understand particulars. Elements of the project may also be viewed in an autoethnographic light. Part of what makes this method appropriate is that we were making lemonade with the lemons we were given: a global pandemic had emerged, and lockdowns and distancing requirements were imposed, and so my family was the unit that I had to work with. 

We chose to release all of our projects publicly on the Web and to make all the code available under a Free Software license. This way, interested parties could learn from these artifacts, use them in their own work, and also, if desired, seek evidence of my claims made about them.

Significant Results

Over the course of 13 monthly jams, we learned more about working together. Some of these findings were significant in the small in that they helped us improve and learn. I mention this because in educational action research and Scholarship of Teaching, significance is often in-the-small: if the process worked with the intended class, then it is significant. Many of my writings and presentations about the Fam Jam experience mention particular areas where improvement was seen, including the quality of the source code, the formal structure of the music, the elegance of the gameplay, and the visual aesthetics.

Taking a wider view, the project gains further significance. I developed a tested structure for one-day Fam Jams. Through iterative reflection on what we learned, I was able to develop a list of our learning outcomes, which can then be used as potential learning outcomes for others.

As far as I know, mine is the only work of this kind. It has served as a talking point for several of my formal and informal presentations about game design and development.

I have talked to my students about this experience and shown them how I approach it. In this way, one of the significant outcomes of this work is that it models a scholarly way. Students are often inspired to make games because of a love of playing games. There are countless articles and videos explaining how to make games, but what I provide in my work is a framework for how to make games thoughtfully and within a scholarly method. The projects themselves have also served as reference points in my teaching, to show students what is possible in a one-day timebox.

A final point here that could be argued is that the projects themselves were significant because they brought joy to people outside my family. One of our goals was to spread some joy during a dreary season, and we succeeded. Discussing whether this is significant is a philosophical question that could sidetrack us, and my defense of this point is rooted in the transcendentals.

Effective Presentation

There are many layers to the question of effective presentation. I started writing blog posts about my experience from the beginning so that I could come to a clearer understanding. My initial hope was that interested people would search the Web and end up here. 

There is a lot of game design and development content on YouTube, but I did not originally see a way to talk about my FamJam experience on my own YouTube channel. Hooking into GodotCon would increase the chances that I could inspire people and get my findings into the hands of those looking for it. Those seeking information about running a game jam with their family would watch a video and might read a blog post, but unless they are a scholar themselves, they would be very unlikely to find or read a journal article. 

When I saw the call for presentations for an online version of GodotCon, I realized this was an opportunity to reach a much wider audience. GodotCon 2021 was on Jan 23, 2021, and the whole event was streamed on YouTubeThis excerpt includes only my presentation. The conference featured an online chat system whereby the online attendees could interact with the presenters. I engaged with the chat there after my presentation, which was another form of effective presentation.

As mentioned earlier, the software itself is also presented publicly, both the source code and the executables. Anyone who reads my reflections or is inspired by my work can see the actual fruits of our labor via GitHub.

Considering all this, I would argue that this project is potentially one of the most effectively presented works I have ever done. It hits multiple modes and gets information directly where it would be sought.

Reflective Critique

Critical self-evaluation is an essential element of this work: moving through the process toward my goals was a process of regular reflective critique. I have written numerous pieces about the FamJam project, all of which feature at least a modicum of reflection, while some are purely reflective. To illustrate the point, I've gathered links here to all my blog posts during the FamJam project.

  1. Fam Jam #1: Joe Johnson Gets Captured
  2. Fam Jam #2: The Rocket and UFO Game
  3. Fam Jam #4: Get the Food (and a few words about #3)
  4. Find the Ornaments: Thoughts about the December 2020 Fam Jam
  5. Reflecting on almost a year of FamJams: What the family learned
The work also produced these additional blog posts about technical issues that came up while jamming.

My family has continued to do game jams together, and we have experimented with varying the format to reach different learning outcomes. I have contemplated running workshops locally to promote this kind of family event, but the ongoing pandemic and other responsibilities limit such opportunities. I think it would be fascinating to do an ethnographic study of a Fam Jam, and such work would easily find publication in the field of serious games. I am not currently pursuing this line of research, however, since the return to in-person teaching has turned my attention toward studying phenomena around my university students rather than the local community.

That's it. I think this makes a strong case for the 2020-2021 FamJam project being an example of scholarship. I'm happy to hear any refutations you have to the points made above, as I'm sure it would be an opportunity to sharpen my own understanding of Glassick's framework.

Monday, February 7, 2022

"Are there too many games?" is probably not the right question

I enjoyed reading Jeff Vogel's recent essay, "There are too many video games." I shared it in two different game development communities, and it was interesting to compare the difference. In one of them, the article was met with thoughtfulness. In the other, I saw what looked like knee-jerk reactions against Vogel's rhetoric rather than a thoughtful engagement with his conclusions. This forced me to ask myself, "Are there too many video games?" My next step, though, was then to ask, "Is that the right question?"

Vogel cites an analysis from VGInsights that shows that there were over 11,000 games released on Steam last year. That averages to over thirty per day. Is that "too many?" In the BSU Game Design and Development Discord (which, if you're a student, faculty, staff, alumnus, or partner, you're welcome to join), the point came up that it's definitely a lot, but nobody wants to be the art police. Certainly, nobody in my social networks seems to want to do that, and even my good friend who is skeptical of the value of playing games does not deny the artistry and skill in making them.

If, as Ethan writes, the problems are larger and systemic, then we should not fret over very small numbers when they are dominated by large ones. In this case, I wondered about the ratio of time spent playing games to time spent making them.

I wrote up an ad hoc analysis filled with estimates and handwaving in the BSU Gamedev Discord, and I decided to copy it over here. If you happen to have more information that could improve the estimates, or if you think other conclusions should be drawn, feel free to leave a note in the comments.

I got to wondering what the scale of consumption on Steam is. Let's say we were able to estimate how many hours of time went into making the 11,000 games that were released last year. How would that amount of hours compare to the number of hours spent playing games on Steam worldwide last year? I bet it's a tiny fraction, but I don't know how tiny.

This old article says that people spent 31 Billion hours on steam in 2020.

Let's say it takes 18 months of 50-hour weeks to make a game and release it. That's 3900 hours for one person. Complete ballpark indie team size estimate: 5 people. So maybe it takes about 19,500, or roughly 20,000 person-hours to make a game. Obviously, a AAA title is going to be much more than that, but we're not really so concerned with those.

20,000 person-hours x 11,000 games is 220,000,000 hours. So, roughly speaking, making 11,000 games took about 220 million person-hours.

Let's scale 31 billion hours of play from "per year" to "per 18 months" and get a ballpark figure of 46.5 billion hours.

Taking these estimates with a huge grain of salt, that means that while 46.5 billion hours were spent playing, 220 million hours were spent making.

If my math is right, that means that time making was about 0.5% of the time spent playing.