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Monday, November 26, 2012

Teaching Game Design at the Masters of Digital Games at the University of Malta.

This fall I have been teaching a study unit on Game Design at our Masters in Digital Game at the University of Malta. This is the first year we teach the course, and we are starting with a small group of students. We can be flexible and find individual solutions in case our structure isn't optimal this first time around. Except me teaching at the masters' there is Rilla Khaled who teaches game design with me, there is Gordon Calleja and Costatino Oliva who teaches game analysis, and there is Georgios Yannakakis who, together with two teachers from ICT, teaches computing science for game development. We also have a fourth strand in the masters, which is commercialization and project management. This is taught by industry professionals, this year by the CTO of TRC.

I have been teaching game design and related subject since 2004, but somehow it always feels like it is the first time. During the summer of 2012 I planned this introductory course in game design, but as soon as got hold of the students' contact details I sent out a survey to them to get an idea about previous experience in both the playing of games and of developing them.

This is the short description of the course:
"The course address the role of the game designer, the structure of games, how to work with formal elements as well as dramatic, and ways to approach system dynamics. Students work in groups and conceptualize and prototype smaller games."

Play-testing Mafia Boss


I had several concerns while I was planning the course. How to balance theory and practice? Were to begin - which topics need we start with, and which can wait? How do we make sure the group dynamics work out? And what about creating a safe environment for experimentation despite that their work is graded?
I'll go through my main concerns, listing them, and describe how I aimed to solve them. Then, I'll tell you how it went!

- What to teach them - where do I start, and in what order should I place the content?
I decided to use a course book as a basic skeleton for the course. I had, unconsciously, already decided to use Tracy Fullerton's book Game Design Workshop, but just in case I would like to change my mind I browsed through the rest of my design library. I stuck with Fullerton's book because it is the one that put most weight on prototyping and play-testing, and does so in a very concrete way. This agrees with how I like to work in design. As recommended reading I added chapters from other books for certain topics, such as Bates' chapters on what project documents are useful in game productions.
Also on the list of recommended reading is Brathwaite's “Challenges for Game Designers”.
It has an excellent and condensed introduction chapter defining important terms and approaches. The remainder of the book contains design challenges/exercises for different types of games and game contexts.
Another one is Koster's "A Theory of Fun". This book has had a large impact on the vocabulary used in the area of game design. Koster just gave a speech at GFC Online (October 2012) taking the perspective of "ten years after" - that is, ten years after the publication of the book. The slides for the talk are here:
Yet another great book on game design is Schell's The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. If I had not used Fullerton's Game Design Workshop as the main course book I would have used this one.

Joseph, Stelios, Alan, Vincent, Michael

-  How to achieve a balance between theory and practice? Students need the practice to appreciate the theory, and they need the theory when working practically. (This is something Jesse Schell have been blogging about too)
I had seven seminars and seven workshops to work with. Part of the first one would go to overview and introduction, and the end would be the final seminar. I considered what they absolutely HAVE to know about the design, and what they MUST learn to do and think about when designing. I plucked those topics, and then added workshops where they would apply the knowledge in the topics. This meant that I was not using the order in Fullerton's book, but I could still use the full chapters for different seminars.
Given the large amount of time that it would take for the students to complete the assignments they needed to do in order to practice game design I aimed to only add the absolutely necessary texts as reading assignments. Besides the selected chapters in Fullerton's book I only added two texts as mandatory reading: one about Hunicke and LeBlanc's MDA model and the other about Dorman's Machination framework.
In the first seminar the students got to choose from the course literature about which texts to champion. This text, they would in one of the seminars present to their co-students and prepare a discussion about.
There is  a list of the topics we had at the seminars, and a list of workshops and assignments in the end of this post.

Stelios presenting a section of the course literature

- How do I make sure that they early get practical experience of designing different types of games? (There is a risk of individuals getting so immersed in one idea or problem that they do not want to focus on anything else.)
It turned out that this particular group of students all were graduated computing scientists and many of them had partaken in game development projects. I decided that even though they would be able to create digital prototypes from start, I would encourage them to stay with pen and paper. This way they would be able to quickly try several different designs, and they wouldn't get distracted by coding problems. During the first three weeks they prototyped three different games. Then, they got to choose one of them to develop further. This game was play-tested and iterated for three more weeks.  I hoped that this would help them to have their focus on the core design as well as on the experience their certain design might result in for the player.

- How do I cater for good group dynamics in the student groups? (Or at least be prepared to sort out things if it becomes terrible.)
I planned for having two occasions for group division. In the first seminar I divided them into two groups using coin flips, thus making a random group division. Then, after having made their first three game designs they would be able to change groups for the second half of the course. This would make sure that if two persons who for some reason cannot work out their differences would be able to change groups. In the one of the game design exercises a beginning task was to fill in a Meyers-Briggs Personality test - I added it in as part of the exercise so that they might use personality properties of some kind of system as part of the design of a game that contains characters. I hoped for a secondary effect where they would be aware of each other's strengths as individuals when working in groups. In my experience shortcomings of others are easier to accept and overcome when one have concrete knowledge (or some kind of belief or interpretation) of others strengths.

- On Malta, student's work is graded. How would I make sure to create an environment where student feel that they can be creative, where they take risks, and where they are not mentally frozen by performance anxiety?
I divided the assignments I gave into those that would be graded and not graded. All the design exercises except the final deliveries were to stay without grade. At the same time, the final deliveries would report on and be a result on what they had been producing during the course. But then, they would have been able to pick one of three designs they liked best, and had been able to iterate that design several times.

Alan play-testing with Joseph as tester

How it went

I have the impression that the course went well. The students had a 100% attendance. They delivered 100% of their assignments, and not a single one of them was late. For me this is the very first time that has happened. The group of students was very small, and they all had responsibilities in the seminars, so that could have been a reason. But still: Highscore! They also volunteered for extra work, and went the extra mile of doing the extra exercises.  When the students had handed in their final assignments (an individual short-paper, a production report, a game design document and a game prototype) I was quite impressed by their work. They had managed to create games, describe how they did it, showing that they had understanding for the process. I had played the games with a colleague the day before the seminar, so I could get them some feedback on that too. Next year I'll schedule more time for playing the students' games though, in order to get time to explore all features. For their individual short papers I had asked them to define an important design problem and give suggestions for how to explore the same.  Here, they all had picked very interesting and relevant topics, which we spent most of the last seminar discussing these.

Ending discussion
I had created an online survey for the students to fill in, but some topics I wanted to ask them about face to face. In the last seminar we spent half an hour discussing the course. What had worked and what had not worked?

 It seems that the balance between theory and practice had worked well - the students had recognised that they were, in the workshop, practising the same skills and topics they had been discussing in the seminar the same day.

The workload seems to have been fairly well adjusted. I was worried that I had given them too much (see list of assignment and bear in mind that they had 3 other courses running in parallel). But they had appreciated the incremental nature of the workload, that they got week-sized chunks of work, and then one week to assemble the work into their final deliveries. They also said that they liked to have this 4 hour marathon (2 hours seminar, 2 hours workshop) rather than dividing their day. I had been worried about that too.

They were generally happy with the clarity of instruction, but would have wanted to learn more about table top RPGs before getting the task of designing one. Next year that could be a part of assignments.
They had really appreciated the guest lecturer from TRC, Jade Pecorella, who talked about how game design is communicated and documented in the projects where she works as a designer.

Jade Pecorella

They had also liked the way they were each championing parts of the course materials, so that (no offence they hastened to say) not only the professor talks all the time, and that it is easier to learn when one has to explain to someone else.
It was difficult to squeeze out something negative of them, but that's what the anonymous survey is for. I told them to think about it as a play-test. If I don't know what's wrong, I can't fix it.  
The next course I will teach will be focussed on AI based game design and prototyping/sketching tools and methods. I really look forward to it. I need to make sure that even if this group are all computing scientists I need to design a course that is meaningful and useful for non-computing scientists too. By the way, there is a quite common understanding that computing scientists or 'coder types' would be less creative than others. This is wrong. Not that we would be MORE creative. Just that we are just as creative as the rest of the population. At least, this is my belief after having witnessed the process of game creation in this group that consists only of computing scientists. (Also - take a poet. Teach her how to program. Will she be less creative when she has more knowledge?)

Our students rock. It's an honour to get to be their teacher.

Vincent, Alan and MichaelStelios and Joseph


List of topics

The list below is presented in the order they appear in the course.
Brainstorming and Conceptualization methods                  
The role of the game designer                       
The structure of games         
Prototyping methods             
Formal Elements                     
MDA - a formal Approach to Game Design and Research (paper)             
Working with Dramatic Elements                 
Play testing    
System Dynamics
Functionality, Completeness and Balance
Simulating Mechanics to Study Emergence (paper on Machinations)     
Revisiting Brainstorming and Conceptualization (creativity in the long run discussion)
Game Design Document (Communicating Game Design)


List of mandatory Assignments

Presenting chapters from the course book and papers to the seminar (in seminar and assignment) (graded)
Brainstorming Exercises (in workshop)      (not-graded)
Writing my first treatment (assignment)    (not-graded)
Making my first paper prototype (in workshop & assignment) (not graded)                   
Modifying a Battleship Prototype (in workshop) (not graded)                 
Making a Table top role-playing game prototype (in workshop and assignment) (not graded)
The first play-testing and writing a play test-script (assignment) (not graded)              
Play-testing using the other group as testers (in workshop) (not graded)                       
Writing the game design document (in workshop and as assignment)   (graded)
Writing your production report (assignment) (graded)   
Finalizing your prototype for delivery (assignment) (graded)                  
Writing your short-paper (assignment) (graded)               
The text seminar - presenting and questioning a colleague's text. (At the end of the course) (not-graded)