Sunday, September 28, 2008

Everything I Learned About Teaching, I Learned From My Field

I talk a lot here about how teaching is really just a special case of game design, and how so many skills transfer over from one to the other. I changed my mind. Sort of.

At a recent teaching workshop, I witnessed about twenty fellow teachers give short presentations on teaching (and they all taught different subjects, everything from English to Calculus to Welding to Phlebotomy) and I was able to learn something from each of them.

Afterwards, I talked to someone who taught Comedy Writing and realized that she could easily give a workshop on "how to use comedy in the classroom" -- after all, comedy is a great icebreaker, it engages students, and it gets them to relax and enjoy the material. It's broadly applicable to any subject, so any teacher should be able to learn something about this field and take it with them back to their classes to make them more engaging. Of course, I've said the same thing about using game design in a classroom. How many other subjects could you say this about?

And as I thought some more, I realized the answer is probably all of them. Every subject has its own specialized knowledge that could be useful in a broader context. Consider:
  • Welders and carpenters and machinists learn about safety first, before they even get to touch any power tools. These people could easily walk into a class and point out any number of safety issues that would be invisible to the rest of us. Making sure your students don't hurt themselves in your class by, say, tripping and falling over a poorly-placed wire is certainly something that would be useful. (Not to mention the importance of planning before you begin any project, such as a lesson plan.)
  • Statisticians and mathematicians can draw a lot of really cool inferences from numbers, like taking the mean, median and standard deviation of test scores and using the information to figure out where the class is having the most trouble. Wouldn't it be great for any teacher to know, after an exam (if not before!), what topics their students are struggling with... without having to even ask?
  • Computer programmers and engineers are great at taking a complex task and breaking it down into simple tasks... the same way that a teacher developing a new course needs to take overarching course goals and learning objectives and break them down into day-by-day sub-goals and mini-objectives.
  • Medical technicians have to deal with people in a friendly yet professional manner. So do teachers, except we call our customers students instead of patients. (Some of our other customers, we call deans and department chairs. It's useful to deal with them friendly and professionally as well.)
  • Businesspeople and managers have to monitor, predict and direct the behavior of a lot of people at once. So do teachers.

It seems to me that any field has something to bring to the table.

So, I no longer see education and game design as inherently linked. Instead, I see education as a field that overlaps with and touches every other field. Including game design. And since games are my field, that one particular overlap is the one that I'll happily continue to blog and write and speak about. But in the meantime, I would be perfectly happy if folks from other fields would follow suit and let me know what I can learn about teaching from them.

Monday, September 22, 2008

2nd Ohio Game Jam: Results

I coordinated the second Ohio Game Jam this past weekend. I didn't make a game myself, although I did assist all the teams in very minor ways, so I got to see a little bit of everything. As such, I probably learned as much as any participant.

Lessons learned about running a Game Jam:
  • Event planning is a lot harder than I thought it was. Last year, everything just fell into place, and there was a minimum of hassle. This year, it seemed like everything was an uphill battle, from finding a venue (which had to be changed last-minute due to a large-scale power outage) to recruiting participants (since I don't have reliable web hosting for the Ohio Game Jam website right now). For anyone else thinking about hosting a game jam, start planning at least a few months in advance and come up with contingency plans for everything. Hopefully the up-front work will be wasted and things will run smoothly for you, but if they don't then you'll be more prepared than I was.
  • Things to take care of (either through soliciting donations/sponsors, providing yourself, or asking participants to bring their own): physical space; computers; open work space (for designing on paper); physical prototyping materials (blank paper, lined paper, graph paper, pens and pencils, and anything else you have on hand); food and drink; sleeping space (preferably with no light); and a large area where all participants can gather (for introductions at the beginning, and presentation of work at the end).
Lessons learned about game development:
  • It's impossible to understate the importance of rapid prototyping. All three teams knew about this already, and yet they all made the mistake of trying to implement the complete game mechanics in one go, leaving them all with only 4 to 6 hours of time after "first playable." It's very easy to say that it's important to have something up and running really quickly, and quite another to actually do it; defining the minimum functionality set for playability is a skill, and one that not all designers are strong at.
  • Corollary: trade off everything for speed when doing a rapid prototype. For artists, no need to have polished art when a stick figure works just as well for playtesting, and can be done in five seconds. For programmers, all that stuff about proper code structure and good commenting and re-use and maintainability that was drilled into you in every CS class you ever took... all of that goes out the window, because it takes extra time to make your code readable, and time is the one thing you don't have.
  • Save early and often and back up. Sounds obvious, but one team had a computer crash that caused them to lose about an hour of work... when there was only 45 minutes to go before development ended.
  • If you have a programmer shortage on your team, don't design a game that requires complicated game logic or AI. If you have more than one programmer, choose a development tool that allows you to work on code concurrently (two teams used Game Maker, which is hideously bad at merging two projects, for all of its other benefits).
  • Game development experience helps in a game jam... but not much. Looking at the output of the teams, you wouldn't be able to tell which ones had industry professionals and which did not. (When I participated in a Game Jam, I noticed the same thing; I don't feel like my own project was any better for all of my experience, which is humbling.) I'm not sure why this is; perhaps, for all the benefits of field experience, lack of sleep ends up being the ultimate equalizer.

For those who are curious, here's the rundown of what happened at the event:
We had 13 people working in 3 teams, with a total of one game per team created (3 games total).
I gave teams a dual constraint: first, choose a social issue and create a game to spread awareness of that issue; second, design the game to be propagated through a social network like Facebook. As long as we're making games, we may as well try to save the world, right?

One team tackled the issue of financial responsibility and personal spending habits. The core concept was that people have two stats, Money and Happiness, and that there is a tradeoff where spending too much money on luxury goods causes you to run out of money (which makes your happiness go way down), but of course spending no money at all on luxuries also causes happiness to decrease, so the trick is to find a reasonable middle ground where there's plenty of money left over but also enough nice stuff to be happy. The game itself was a top-down scrolling game where the player's avatar wanders through a store looking for the cheapest necessity items, and maybe picking up a luxury item or two on the way. There were other AIs running around: other shoppers which were minor obstacles to work around, salesmen who would convince you to buy a luxury item against your will (while giving you minimal happiness in exchange), and thieves who would just steal money from you. The game created was incomplete, but could make use of social networking by allowing players to buy things for their friends (which increases both of their happiness) and competing with others on your friends list for achievements (most money, most happiness, fastest purchase of necessity items, etc.).

A second team examined the environment, specifically choices that governments make with regard to energy policy, in a turn-based resource-management strategy game. You control a small city with access to randomized natural resources, and choose what land to develop in what way (building hydroelectric dams over rivers, wind turbines in windy areas, solar panels, nuclear plants, etc. -- or of course you could develop the land as a commercial/housing area to attract more people to your city). You have a carbon footprint based on your population and the type of economy you have (fossil fuel-based, hybrid or pure electric), and a cap that's based on your population; if you go over your emission limit, you receive heavy fines. If you don't produce enough power for your population, you suffer blackouts and eventually you'll start losing population. You also have to balance all of this building against your available funds, of course. In Facebook, this game would also allow you to trade carbon emission credits and power with your friends, and also have leaderboards for largest city.

The third team took on the issue of child labor sweatshops. In their overhead-view action game, you played a child trying to escape from a shoe factory. You could pick up various shoes lying around each level (with tradeoffs for each: boots were powerful but slow, while flip-flops could be thrown quickly and accurately but did minimal damage). Your goal in each level was to pick up shoes and use them to knock out the adult supervisors, then talk to the kids to get information (which helped you progress in the game, and also gave you real-world information about sweatshop conditions). The game could propagate socially simply by having a high-score list, but did not include ways for different players to interact with one another otherwise.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Online Classes and Readings

Most traditional classes have two kinds of learning: students attend lectures, and they have assigned reading from a textbook.

I say "and" but really for most undergrad students it's an either/or proposition. Lecture and readings are usually redundant, so the students who attend lecture tend to blow off the reading and those who diligently do the reading don't feel too bad about skipping class. This is a generalization; there are plenty of exceptions, students who attend class and study heavily, or classes where the reading and lecture have no common ground. But in a lot of cases, students are conditioned to study as little as possible, and this is an obvious shortcut that can free up some extra time for, say, playing games.

Without going into a discussion of how to change the culture of an entire generation, let's assume that this carries over into online classes and see what happens.

In the online classes I've taught before, there is no "lecture" per se; the lecture has been replaced by... more reading, which was written by whomever developed the online course. So students have reading from the course website, and assigned reading from a textbook. (Visual learners are probably quite happy about this, while auditory learners get screwed, but I digress.)

To a student who sees this parallel of "lecture == course website" the reading again becomes either/or: read the course website, or read the textbook. Naturally, the website wins, so any assigned reading from a textbook in an online class is likely to get ignored by a lot of people.

I never noticed this until recently, when I was grading an assignment for one of the online classes that I was teaching. Most of the students seemed to not understand a particular concept, the difference between constituative and operational rules from the Rules of Play text. It's a difficult concept, granted, but everyone seemed to be misunderstanding it in the same way. What's going on here? Well, I checked the course website to see what it had to say about this concept... and it just mentioned it in passing, giving a couple of examples to supplement the textbook but not really explaining it properly (probably because the course developer expected that students would do the reading). But here's the thing -- you wouldn't notice that the course website's material was supplemental unless you did the reading in the textbook! So all of these students thought they knew what was going on, even though they didn't.

This is, I think, a major hazard for online course development. Here are a few ways around it:
  • Warn students early and often that none of the work in the class is optional. (This probably won't work, but at least it makes it harder for students to complain when you catch them slacking.)
  • Force the issue. If the graded assignments directly reference parts of the reading that aren't on the course website, students will have to read at least those parts in order to complete the assignments.
  • Tape your lectures and put them online, instead of writing text. This requires some extra equipment and technical know-how (and not all course website packages support all kinds of video), but it does at least make it so that the students aren't just doing reading and reading and more reading. If they don't burn through their will to read on the course website, maybe they'll have a few brain cells left over that are willing to take a peek at the textbook. (Bonus: if you already teach a face-to-face class and tape it, your content is easy to develop.)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Choosing a School: Ownership

Question: Who owns the IP rights to games that are created by students?

What to look for: Ideally, the students should own all copyright and other intellectual property ownership of the projects they create while they are students.

What to do: Decide if this matters to you. Some people don't care, because they aren't planning on selling anything they make as a student anyway. Some people care, but they're willing to compromise on this (maybe by just not using their favorite game ideas until after they graduate) in order to go to a school that is otherwise their choice. For some people, this is a deal-killer.

What to watch out for: Some schools explicitly state that they own all rights to all student work. Probably the most notorious example of this was Team Toblo (a good story to read for why IP ownership might matter to you as a student). Other schools do not have an official policy at all, which is a signal that they haven't thought about it yet in spite of it being a legal and PR minefield. In these cases, proceed with caution, because the rights may be legally unclear and the last thing you need as a student is to get involved in a legal battle. Still other schools have restrictions: they own the rights to anything you create using university resources (such as computer labs or printers), but a project you make on your own with your own equipment is 100% yours, so there's a way to own your work if it matters to you. Mainly, the important thing is to be aware of the official policy before it becomes an issue... and if you think the policy is suboptimal and you plan on attending anyway, consider taking it upon yourself to push for policy change.

Update 11/13/2008: The monthly IGDA column on legal issues gives some insight into IP ownership rights of student work:
Thanks, Jim!

Update 11/14/2008: It appears this is becoming a much larger discussion. A recent Gamasutra article highlights the problem. This blog post is quoted and linked to in the article, alongside quotes from Tom Buscaglia, Brenda Brathwaite and Susan Gold... so I'm in good company. Maybe this will eventually become a big enough issue that the "we own your IP" schools will consider policy changes, and the schools without an official policy will get off their behinds and make their policy explicit.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Assessment and Evaluation

People who study education will talk a lot about the differences and similarities between assessment and evaluation. I'll spare you the details, but basically we're dealing with the question: how do we know that learning actually takes place when a student attends a course?

The traditional response is to give the student tasks (often in the form of a final exam or project), and hope that their ability to perform well correlates with their mastery of the subject material. But there's the rub: what we measure (performance on a task) is still different from our goal (learning). There's no way to measure an abstract, transparent concept like "learning" directly, so we have to find indirect ways to take a guess.

It strikes me that there's a parallel here with game development, and metrics-based playtesting in particular. During playtesting, what we'd really like to do is know if the players are having fun, but there's no way to measure "fun" directly. So, we take measurements of things that we hope will correlate: how long did each tester spend on this level, how many players finished the game, how long was the average play session, and so on. But it's still indirect measurement.

In both cases, we still live in an imperfect world. Someone tell me when we solve one problem, because it probably means that we'll have solved the other one as soon as someone puts two and two together.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Notes from CTL

I recently attended a small in-house conference held at Columbus State called Celebrate Teaching & Learning Day. I admit this is a hokey name; I mean, we do this as opposed to, what, celebrating ignorance?

I gave a presentation based heavily on my Origins seminar, tailored for an audience of teachers who may or may not actually be gamers. But that's not what this post is about. This is about the other seminars I attended and why they're relevant to teaching and/or game design.

Keynote: Dr. Mark Milliron

  • Normally I dislike keynotes, because they tend to be abstract and just an artificial excuse to get people excited. They remind me of pep rallies from high school. But this guy had a lot of interesting ideas, making him one of my favorite keynote speakers to date.
  • First big idea: the use of analytics (that is, mining a bunch of data and using it to make educated guesses about future behavior) is already an established technology -- some examples being's ability to make pretty good guesses of other things you might like to buy whenever you click on any single item, or TiVo's ability to download TV shows you've never heard of that it thinks you'd like, or your email spam filter getting better over time the more you tell it what is and isn't spam. We need to leverage this kind of predictive modeling in academics. Wouldn't it be useful for a professor to receive this email: "Based on past behavior, here is a list of students who might be thinking of dropping your class next week."? Wouldn't it be useful for a student to receive this email: "You seem to be having trouble with this particular concept. Other students who have similar problems have found the following resources useful."?
  • Second big idea: using the power of open-source to improve teaching. Pointed us to, which is essentially Wikipedia for instructors. (Unfortunately, there are currently no learning objects for game design. But if you teach Biology or English or something, you're in luck.)
  • Amusing quote: "Most people who use PowerPoint have neither power, nor a point."

"Sage on the Stage to Edutainer": Dr. Bill Dross

  • Three different ways that people learn: visual, auditory, kinesthetic. Any given class will probably be split evenly between them. This is probably not news to experienced teachers, but it certainly has applications for game design (e.g. don't just have a page of scrolling text when it's possible to add voice and pictures; see if you can add an icon to each menu item so that they aren't just text; include subtitles for voice, and visual effects to match audio cues).
  • In the classroom, you can help auditory learners by recording your own lectures and making them available as podcasts. (If you don't know how... ask your students!)
  • Likewise, you can use audio or video recordings during class time. In particular, it's expensive and not always practical for students to attend GDC, but you can at least download some sessions from GDC Radio and make them available on your course website.
  • There is a concept in the field of education called "discovery learning" which is when students do research and learning on their own, relatively undirected (similar to a self-paced course, or doing work on a portfolio piece). I see a direct analogy between discovery learning and open-world games like GTA or Oblivion... and a similar analogy between structured lecture and on-rails RPGs. (This all makes me wonder how much information you can get about a student's preferred learning style, simply by asking them what their favorite games are.)
  • I use a lot of informal discussion in my classes, but some professors prefer formal debate (which I haven't tried, but now I want to). The idea is to present a controversial issue, and randomly assign students to either be "pro" or "con" (so, students may be arguing something they don't personally believe). Pro always speaks first, then Con (for only a couple of minutes each -- no interruptions allowed by the other side); then Pro and Con again to rebut each others' arguments; then a short break for each side to regroup; then a summary from each side; and then you can determine a winner (perhaps by a randomly-selected panel of students who are made judges instead of speakers). Examples of topics that I'd like to try this method with: government regulation of the game industry, the importance of diversity in the workplace, narratology vs. ludology, or whether the proliferation of sequels and licenses is good or bad for the industry.

"Hybrid Courses: The Best of Both Worlds?" (various speakers)

  • I'd never heard of "hybrid" courses before. Apparently these are courses that are half face-to-face, half online (with half the number of normal contact hours in a classroom). Does that mean that they're a mostly face-to-face class with some extra online content? A mostly-online class with a little bit of face time? An entirely new type of class that has some elements of online and face-to-face and some parts all its own? At this point, the concept is new enough that it varies from class to class, which leads to student confusion.
  • Best way to avoid this is to make expectations clear up front -- preferably in the course catalog, and repeated at the start of class.
  • If you want to draw a parallel between hybrid courses and development of hybrid-genre games, be my guest.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Game Jams!

Game Jams are great; I'm a huge fan of them. (Roughly defined, a Game Jam is an event where individuals or small teams work together to develop a complete game or working prototype from scratch in a short period of time, typically one or two days.) You get about as much insight into the game development process in a weekend as you'd normally get in a three-year AAA development cycle. You get to experiment with new tools, processes, or designs in a risk-free setting (after all, even if you fall flat on your face, all you've lost is a weekend... and think of the wisdom gained that would normally cost millions of publisher dollars). You get to meet and work with new people you haven't met before. For students, it's about the best practical experience you can get outside of class. For educators, it gives the kind of insight that's hard to get when you're not working in the industry full-time. For working professionals, it offers the opportunity to grow professionally and hone your skills in a way that's normally not possible when you're in the middle of a development grind.

For those of you in or near Columbus, Ohio, the second Ohio Game Jam is scheduled for the weekend of September 20-21 (starting at 2pm on Saturday and going until roughly 4pm Sunday). Since there's limited space, I'm trying to get a head count ahead of time, so I'll send the location to people who RSVP by email to ai864 at yahoo dot com. Feel free to pass on this info to anyone else you know in the area. The event is free, and open to all ages and skill levels.

For those of you not in Columbus but still somewhere on Planet Earth, there's also the Global Game Jam, a 48-hour event starting at 5pm Friday, January 30, 2009 (in your local time zone). This event is many Game Jams happening concurrently at a number of sites around the globe. More info will be added to the website in the coming months, once the list of host venues is finalized. Contact info is on the Global Game Jam website.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Textbook Review: Challenges for Game Designers

"Challenges for Game Designers" (Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber)

So, it's finally printed and in circulation, and you can buy it now. This is the best textbook ever, and all of you should adopt it for all your classes and buy extra copies from your friends.

Okay, so I'm one of the authors. What, you expect an unbiased review?

This book came about because some people on IGDA's Game_Edu list were complaining that they'd love to have students design games, but they either don't have access to computers or their students don't know programming. Brenda and I were both, like, WTF? You don't need any polygons to play Chess. You don't need any lines of code to play Go. You don't need a development team and millions of dollars to make Settlers of Catan, you just need one guy and five bucks' worth of dice and index cards. So, we decided to write a book about making games without computers.

The original idea was just to take a bunch of exercises that we'd both done in our classes, sets of constraints that serve as starting points. (For example, some of my former students still shudder in horror of the time when I had them create a game concept document based on the Care Bears IP after we studied the use of licenses in games.) Before too long, though, we realized it would be unfair to just give these exercises without any help -- it's fine and good for people who are designers already, but to tell a beginning student they should create a full proposal without telling them how is just unfair. So we added a bit of "how-to"... which incidentally made the book take about three times as long to write, but hopefully a lot easier to understand.

The book is 21 chapters, though one of those is just the introduction to the book. The other twenty all have five exercises each (with a full description of deliverables and suggested process), plus another ten "shorts" (quick ideas to get you started or inspired), for a total of 300 game design exercises... none of which requires any art or programming skill at all (although if you do have programming or art skills and want to take your non-digital design and make a digital game out of it, most of these exercises can be used as a starting point).

Students: If you'd like to design games but don't know where to begin, this should be a reasonable starting point.

Instructors: I expect this to be a good companion to a theory-based textbook like Game Design Workshop. Theory is necessary and all, but at some point anyone learning game design must sit down and design games (lots and lots of games), and Challenges for Game Designers is very practical in nature. You could either combine the two in a single course, or teach an introductory theory-based course to give the basic concepts and then offer a follow-up practical course. I happen to think students would understand more if the theory and practice were combined so that the theories make sense and are contextual, rather than just some abstract thoughts that are meaningless until six months later.

Professionals: When Brenda and I worked at Cyberlore, there was a time when we'd have weekly design department meetings (we worked with two other designers). Once a month, we would use the meeting time to do a design exercise; one of us would be responsible for developing the constraints, and the others would struggle with the problem. It was a way to keep our design skills sharp, and it was one of the few times in the business world where you'd hear people say that they were actually looking forward to attending a meeting. I also ran a couple of these exercises over lunch and invited programmers, artists, and anyone else who had an interest in game design; people had fun, and also gained an understanding of the kinds of things we designers did all day. If you work with other designers (or other people who are interested in game design), we designed this book to be useful in these kinds of skill-building meetings and workshops.