Saturday, June 20, 2009

Report from Game Education Summit

I'm just catching up from the excellent Game Education Summit earlier this week. Here are my notes:

Donald Marinelli, keynote:
  • Much of today's educational system is obsolete. Summer vacation exists to let young people go home and help their families with farm chores. How many K-12 students do you know that are planting wheat right now?
  • If you are building a game for a class, build it for someone. Give it a purpose.
  • ETC's "secret sauce" is that they let students teach each other.

Terrence Masson, on building Northeastern University's curriculum:

  • Interesting way to structure a Capstone course with 10 people: first day people give their project pitches (most students pitch several alternative projects). Second day, students narrow the pitch list down to the two projects that the class will work on; students choose their teams (split into two teams of 5); each team assigns roles and chooses their project lead. Essentially, the students drive everything.
  • Another interesting thing about this program is the requirement of two non-adjacent semesters in internships/co-ops. The benefit is that students keep the faculty honest: "What do you mean we don't have Zbrush on campus? That's what everyone is using now!"
  • Note to prospective students: at this particular institution, the program is called "game design" but it is actually "game development". This points to the importance of schools and industry using a unified set of terminology.

Jessica Hammer, on how to teach creativity:

  • First, you have to define what "creativity" is, because it is an overloaded term, and there are different kinds of creativity. She defined it as "appropriate novelty" -- something that is new, but within a given context/domain. (If you ask students to design a game and they write an essay instead, and try to define an essay as an innovative new type of linear-narrative game, this is not what we are looking for.)
  • Creativity happens within a context or domain (i.e. within a set of constraints). There is a virtuous cycle within a field, where the domain influences individuals; the individuals produce creative work within the domain; and the gatekeepers who see this work then influence and redefine the boundaries of the domain to compensate. In the case of teachers, the classroom is the domain.
  • One problem in practice is that we often measure creativity after the fact: we look at the final product and decide if it is creative. Unfortunately, this tells us nothing about the process used to create it... and if we want to teach creativity, we want to teach the process!
    There are three aspects to the creative process that students need to understand: the generation of novel ideas, the ability to decide what ideas to pursue (since ideas are a dime a dozen, once you learn how to generate them), and the motivation to follow through on your chosen idea and do the work to turn it into a final product. The class should focus on these.

Jessica's hints for course design:

  • Begin with outcomes. "The goal of a course is not to deliver content, but to transform your students."
  • Consider the length and pacing of the class. If there is not enough time to generate ideas, fail many times, and still finish, students will take fewer creative risks.
  • "Personal attention is valuable currency." Keep class sizes small when possible. Group work can enable larger class sizes by having you deal with a small number of groups rather than a large number of individuals.
  • Recruitment is rarely thought about, but is important. The more diverse your class (or, um, game studio), the more creative the ideas you're likely to see. When approached by a female and/or minority student, be supportive and ask if they have friends who would also be interested in taking your class. Also, consider the accessibility of your classes: if students can choose between written or verbal assignments, you will see higher enrollment among those for whom English is a second language.
  • Use a lot of class time on playtesting and peer review. Professor should model appropriate feedback, to show what it looks like.
  • Encourage uncertainty, in projects, classes and life. "Your game design education does not end when you leave this class. It has just started."
  • Don't just have students solve problems that are handed to them, because this is not how real life works. Have them create and seek out their own problems to solve.
  • There is a negative relationship between the time and emotional investment in a project, and willingness to take risks. In the middle of larger projects, consider giving smaller-scale "lightning round" design challenges that encourage creative risk-taking -- for example, email students with constraints of a challenge at noon one day, and they have 24 hours to post a short concept in an online discussion group. These are not a major component of the course grade; they are a chance for students to show off. Examples: "Design a game to be played in the waiting room of an ICU while you're waiting to see if a loved one lives or dies." / "Design a game for NASA that can keep astronauts alert and interested on a 3-year mission to Mars." / "Design a game for Obama's cabinet to help improve their effectiveness as a team."
  • How do you assess creativity? Note that you get what you measure; students will game any system. If you want to reward risk, you have to give grading opportunities for it. Jessica splits the final project grade into three equal parts: the game itself (the final result of the process), the theory (students write a companion paper that shows the connections between the theory learned in class and its expression in their game), and the process (students submit a "process paper" that includes everything that was part of the project but not visible in the final form: raw data, early playtest results, early versions of the game, mechanics that were tried and abandoned... whatever the student wants the instructor to see).
  • Divide larger projects into many feedback cycles / milestones. Iteration is part of the creative process, and class projects should reflect that.
  • The nature of instructor feedback is important. If you just give a grade, that carries very little information. Extensive written feedback is much better, but can take a lot of time; to manage this, favor group projects or smaller numbers of submitted projects per-person.
  • As the instructor, you are a strong influence on the culture of the classroom. You want students to feel comfortable taking risks, both in their projects and by raising their hand to make suggestions/comments in class. How you react when students say something "stupid" has a huge impact. Suggestion: draw from the "Yes, and..." technique of improvisational theater -- accept everything in class, refuse to shut down an idea or say that it's wrong, and instead challenge yourself to find the nugget of truth in there.
  • Give students a sense of mission. People are more creative under stress when they believe in the importance of the final project. Because of this, fewer projects (reduction of workload) can paradoxically lead to students spending more time and doing more work... as long as the projects they have are the right ones.
  • Self-efficacy is important: students must believe they can perform well in the class. Corollary: we as teachers must believe in our students. Research has shown that a teacher's belief in a student's ability to perform is often self-fulfilling.
  • Praise students not only for their projects, but also for exhibiting personal qualities that we want them to continue: hard work, persistence, etc.

Walter Rotenberry (Wake Tech), on the challenges faced by Community Colleges:

  • The ideal case for a Community College is that you are based in a "hub" of the game industry, so that your graduates have immediate local employment and internship opportunities. What if there are no game companies in a 100-mile radius?
  • An alternative: focus on entrepreneurship. Require your students to take classes in business, enough that they would be comfortable building their own startups. Give students the tools to start their own local studios.
  • Wake Tech's approach to a two-year program is interesting: cover a little bit of everything (at least one or two courses from programming, design, art, production, audio, business, game studies, etc.) to give a well-rounded background. This provides a foundation for transfer to any four-year school. I thought this was an interesting approach -- in my experience, usually with only two years to work with, Community Colleges focus on art or programming. I'm not sure that one approach is "better" than the other, but I can see the use of both.
  • Encourage students to take courses in other relevant areas and departments: theater/drama, history, storytelling, etc. - the bonus is that in many cases there is no need to add specialized "game" classes, you can work with what is already there.
  • Wake Tech got an $800K grant from NSF to develop their curriculum. This money is not allowed to go to new hires, but can be spent on curriculum development and new equipment. Other schools may be able to get similar money, so it is worth looking into.

G. Michael Youngblood on Computer Science-focused game research:

  • Students can get involved through an NSF program called REU (Research Experience for Undergrads).
  • It's easy to get academics involved; this is what many of us do. Biggest challenge is collaboration across departments, since games are so interdisciplinary.
  • If you're working in industry and want to get involved, the easiest way is to visit. Invite some local researchers to lunch. Look at their stuff, read their papers, ask questions on what you don't understand.
  • You can support students for your own benefit! If you have an idea you'd like to test out, $1100 per month for a grad stipend x 5 months = $5500 for a prototype and white paper. This is a pretty good deal if you're a large studio with an R&D budget! Note that some schools and some researchers will ask to charge overhead (to cover costs of building maintenance, utilities, etc.) that is as much as 50% of your grant. You do not have to put up with this; operations costs are not required for non-governmental grants, and you can offer the funding on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Most universities would rather accept money than turn it down.
  • Be on a university's Industry Advisory Board. Suggest that they research difficult, interesting problems.

Michael's list of things that the industry should keep in mind when dealing with academic researchers (particularly in Computer Science):

  • Academics are extremely "paper-focused". If there's not a publication in it, then it doesn't matter.
  • Academics are always behind and have too much to do.
  • Like any programmer, academic researchers will overstate their ability to deliver for nearly everything.
  • If a study involves humans in any way (such as, say, using college students in a playtest of your game), learn about the IRB process.
  • The field of games research has matured quickly. Two years ago, "I'm working on a game" was good enough to get published. Today, you must also be able to show why your game research is cool or useful in some way.

Random tidbits from side conversations:

  • Games and learning are both negative feedback loops: once you have learned something, you don't want to learn it again. This drives students to learn something and then stop. We need to find a way to counteract this by including a positive feedback loop, so that great students will want to keep learning and to learn more.
  • I wonder if a school has ever hired an entire small development studio. Granted, not everyone has teaching skills, but you would get complete coverage of all subject areas and you'd be hiring people who already know how to work together as a team.
  • Giving students a general literacy of classic games is important. One approach: have students write "reviews" of classic games. How do you get them to play older arcade or console games in the first place, when the original hardware is hard to come by? Several alternatives: first, many companies are repackaging their classic games for sale on modern systems (Atari Flashback, Midway Classic Hits, original NES games downloadable on Wii, etc.); second, with questionable legality, you can download emulators such as MAME; and third, particularly useful in class, you can find short gameplay videos of just about everything on YouTube to show what some of these games looked and played like.

1 comment:

Kevin O'Gorman said...

Thanks for the recap. If you have anything else from the trip, I'd love to hear it.