Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Playing Games

Today we will begin working on the first group projects in earnest.  Last time, each group decided on aproject idea based on an idea of one teammate for a "grid game."  Students have already looked closely at a grid game from last term (Power Border), which they played on the first day.  We will see if that game inspires them to do even better.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Using Photoshop to Make Your Board

There are a number of ways of making a grid board using Adobe Photoshop, and almost as many tutorials as methods.  Ultimately, all of them return to the idea that you need to create a square object to help you make a grid pattern.  There are just a wide number of ways of getting started.  I have posted these links in their order of usefulness.  You'll have to decide on the method that works best for you.

One word of advice: start by imagining how big you want the board and then calculating how big you want each square.  It will speed things up considerably and prevent you from having to do it over.  As carpenters always say: measure twice, cut once.

Creating a Grid with a Custom Pattern in Photoshop
I liked this tutorial best, not only because it is in video form (which is easier than reading) but because I think the method it shows is probably the quickest and most effective and teaches you some interesting Photoshop skills -- especially in the use of strokes.  It also shows you one way of decorating the squares.

Grid Tutorial
This tutorial is focused on using a grid as a background for a header graphic (which might be useful to know for your box design), but the method it offers for making the grid is very simple.

How to Create a Grid Quickly and Effectively in Photoshop
This one also offers a rather painless method in very few words.  It also shows you how you can use a picture as the background of your board.

Making Grid Masks in Photoshop
This might be a good method if you want to use a picture as the background.

Photoshop Tutorials - Custom Grid
This is the method I discovered on my own for making a grid and it works -- but it is not as cool or simple as the ones above.

Wavey Grid
I threw this one in just in case someone likes the idea.

Grid Games

For the first assignment, I have asked students to develop what I call "grid games" -- that is, games played on a board that has been divided into squares, following a grid pattern.  The best known such games are probably chess or checkers, which are both played on an 8x8 grid.  A similar grid board is used to play a game called Othello, though this is more a game of alignment than capture.  Interestingly, the game we looked at last time -- Power Border -- combined both alignment and capture, with a chance element thrown in.  But it too was a grid game played on an 8x8 board.

The idea of a grid should help to keep us focused, while it is also more liberating than 8x8.  After all, a grid can be quite big.  Some of the games I played in my youth featured a grid, such as Dogfight and Gunsmoke.

Dogfight puts you in the cockpitas a WWI fighter ace to battle for the control of territory while staying alive. Gunsmoke was a classic western game of cowboys vs. Indians with similar territorial objectives.

I want to emphasize that the grid does not have to be confining.  It just helps to keep us on the same page so that we are dealing with some of the same problems and can get conversations going between groups.  Ultimately, though, you will have to decide what elements you want in your game, using the four basic elements of games: strategy, chance, story (or mimicry), and physical skill.  The grid board is just a place for that game to play out.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Authenticity, Learning Communities and Playing Games

Is playing games an inauthentic or authentic activity? Does it encourage us to be "fake" toward each other, using the arts of deception and trickery, and viewing others as "the enemy"? Or does it encourage authentic engagement with others? Or does it do both?  Is college just a game to be played, to "get over" by BS-ing our way through? Or can college be a site for authentic learning?

These are questions that occur to me as I approach teaching the Game Design class again. I think that this class can inspire genuine engagement in students, and I have seen that happen.  But some people refuse to be a part of the program.  Last term, it was clear that two groups of students were not as committed to excellence in the course as others. They appeared to treatthe course as "an easy A," spent class time checking Facebook, and were shocked when they did not receive the grades they had expected.

The worst team in that regard all lived on the same dorm floor. And they seemed to have entered into a conspiracy of mediocrity with each other, agreeing to do as little as necessary to get by. When they received the lowest grade in the course, they either pretended to be surprised or genuinely did not recognize that goofing off in class and turning in half-finished work was not acceptable.

As I did last year, I have attempted again to divide the class into six teams based mostly on where they live (maximizing geographic proximity), with the idea that each team might thus more easily be able to work together outside of class. All members of Team One, for example, even live on the same dorm room this year. My secret hope is that grouping people together by where they live, the dream of an authentic "learning community" might be realized, where discussion of classroom topics might happen in spaces outside of the classroom.

So far I have some doubts, but I'm always hopeful. Already some members of the same team have asked if they really need to bother doing different individual proposals since they are all going to collaborate anyway...

There is a lot that stands in the way of the learning community ideal, not least what Michael Moffatt (in the 1980s book Coming of Age in New Jersey) called the discourse of "Undergraduate Cynical."  Moffatt spent a year living in a Rutgers dorm, studying life on his floor.  One thing he discovered is that, no matter what the Deans might hope for, the dorm was never a place that fostered intellectual or academic discussion.  As Moffatt writes:
Imagine, for instance, that you were an undergraduate who had been reading a sonnet by the poet Shelley for a classroom assignment, and that it had really swept you away. Unless you enjoyed being a figure of fun, you would not have dared to articulate your feelings for the poem with any honesty in the average peer-group talk in the average dorm lounge.
As Moffatt found, dorms can be a downright anti-intellectual space where, ironically, any lofty attempt at genuine reflection on the world of knowledge -- such as expressing pleasure on discovering Shelley's poetry -- was sure to be shot down as an expression of "inauthentic" belief in "inauthentic" institutions.  In the discourse of "undergraduate cynical," there is no authenticity outside the space of the dorm room, where you get to be yourself.

Rebekah Nathan (in My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student) confirms that undergraduate cynical is, if anything, even more firmly entrenched among college students, creating obstacles for any genuine collective engagement with the life of the mind. As Aaron Swartz nicely summarizes in his review of Nathan's book:
[A]ctually caring about the material is deeply frowned upon, and the only questions you're permitted to ask of a teacher are about the details of grading and assignments... Signs and talks geared to incoming students explain that one must "work the teachers" by talking to them, getting them to recognize you so they will give you hints about tests and go easy on you when you need exceptions. "I take the information I need from the professor", one highly-successful student tells Nathan, explaining what that consists of: "how they're going to grade you and what they think is important". Everything is seen as part of the game, not worthwhile for its own sake.
"Playing the game" of college success is seen in the discourse of undergraduate cynical as always a way of "getting over" -- which is reaching the goal of career and "life" after college with the least effort possible. In their book Educated in Romance: Women, Achievement, and College Culture, Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart describe three common attitudes toward college among the women they studied, which they called "getting over," "doing well," and authentically "learning from experts." Students who are "getting over" just want to do what is absolutely necessary to get their degrees and therefore see school work as an obstacle to their goal to be "gotten over" by whatever means necessary (short of actually working hard or engaging with the material). Those out to "do well" have basically the same focus on grades and graduation as those out to "get over," they just work a lot harder because they want to get an A. They have set loftier goals for themselves than the "getting over" crowd, so they envision higher obstacles to get over (like admission to med school). Undergraduate cynical tends to favor "getting over" as the most social leveling attitude (because it's the one most likely to diminish expectations among peers and faculty in a socially reinforcing loop of highest grades for least effort), but it acknowledges "doing well" as a valid desire. What undergraduate cynical cannot abide, or perhaps what it cannot understand, is any authentic desire to "learn from experts." In fact, undergraduate cynical basically does not encourage athenticity of any kind, since the basic ideology it supports suggests that all things are game playing.  So any expression of authentic engagement must itself be a pose or a sham -- just brown nosing for teacher.

The truth is, however, that those out to "learn from experts" not only want to do well at the game, they want to understand how the game works and why people play. They want to grasp the bigger picture by not just engaging in discourse but by fashioning a meta-discourse that comes with higher knowledge and real learning. They also want to understand excellence, not only so they can gain rewards but so they can understand and appreciate what is truly good.

If undergraduate cynical supports a conspiracy of mediocrity by claiming that everything is inauthentic, then perhaps a class that gets students authentically engaged with the subject can break through the barriers of resistance that this discourse helps to erect to bring students to an authentic engagement with knowledge.

This year, to help defeat conspiracies of mediocrity I introduced a "leadership bonus," whereby the individuals who develop the best ideas as chosen by the group will get a 5 point bonus.  Students who do not succeed at leadership will ultimately not be able to get the highest grade.  This competition should inspire the pursuit of excellence.  And it should make it harder for everyone to just accept the mediocre as the norm.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Final Projects

Here are the final project websites and blogs posted by my students:

Kids Crossing
Website and blog
In this game for kids that challenges math and language skills, two players race to get all of their animals across the board while answering math word problems. I really liked this game concept and this team worked very hard at realizing the final project. It was one of the few games aimed at children, and the only one with educational value. I was especially impressed by the children's story book that accompanies the game and provides the narrative explanation for why the animals want to move from one side to the next. I was critical of an early draft of this game and suggested that they make it more realistic -- creating a story, perhaps, where two goat-herders are competing to get to the Spring meadow the fastest. I always prefer games that map onto reality, so that the game also teaches you something about real systems. Or you might have the story be more abstract and math focused -- where intergers have to move from the land of negative numbers to the land of positive numbers or something like that.

In the end, I admired this team for sticking to their vision and working to justify their choice of a more whimsical approach than I had encouraged -- even providing the story book to fill in the narrative details. The pictures of the game pieces featured in that book are very cute, and it was a good solution to the problem of providing illustrations.

I found the game very fun and playable and thought the basic concept was excellent. They'd have to do some market testing, but I think with some modifications this could be a successful game. I had just a few points of criticism and commentary:

  • I like that math is also incorporated into the rolling of the dice, where the lowest number is subtracted from the highest to arrive at the number of moves for that turn. The only problem, though, is when players roll a double, in which case the score is zero and they basically lose a turn. I think this slows the game down a bit and could frustrate children. I may be wrong about that, but it might present an opportunity to add another element of luck to make this potentially frustrating moment a fun one instead. One thing I suggested to the team was that when players rolled a double they could be allowed to choose a "Chance" card that could be either positive or negative. There may be circumstances (such as the double roll or when they land on certain spaces) where players would have a choice whether or not to take the chance.

  • I rather dislike rule cards, personally, as in the frog rules, where someone has to do or say silly things at each turn or under certain circumstances (e.g.: whenever a three is rolled). I just find them annoying, and I found that as I played the game we just forgot about them after a while. I suppose one rationale for them in the present game is that kids have to learn to abide by rules and they can help focus your attention on details. But the rules are purely arbitrary, and I think kids have too many arbitrary rules to abide by already -- and it is easy for them to perceive things like math as too rule bound. You'd have to market test it and see how young players feel. But personally I don't think they add much to the game, despite the fact that the frog himself is amusing.

  • The educational cards that teach something about animals are an intriguing touch. But I think they might be more focused on the topic at hand and offer instead some math vocabulary (difference, sum, etc.) and maybe some tips on speeding up calculations or solving word problems more easily. That would enrich the educational value of the game a bit and make it more appealing to math educators.

  • Ultimately, this is a race game, not very different from Candy Land but with a very rich math and language learning element added to it -- and a lot of whimsical animals. I could do without the whimsical animals and just make it more math focused. I think making it a math and word problem game at every level would make it more appealing to educators.

  • Some of the specific questions might be too easy or too hard and should be tested on kids. But that is a minor issue.

Website and blog
Supernova! features one of the best board designs -- likely because the board was the first thing this group came up with! This game expands on the group's earlier success with "Sibling Rivalry" but sets the competition in outer space. This is a very fun party game, mostly because it makes people do silly and embarrassing things. It really does get you exploding out of your seat.

This game made me realize that next year I will have to do more to discuss party games since this is the age group that responds to them. This one has an attractive game board and some very imaginative and amusing questions and tasks. I think some of the core concepts are very good and with a little more work they could have something more fully coherent. In the end, though, this is definitely a fun game.

Website and blog
The game for people who want to be a star. Players move around the board and gain money by responding to one of three challenges presented by cards they draw at each turn (depending on what space they land on). The cards offer three possible questions, each worth different monetary values. There is a trivia question, worth the most. There is a chance to act out a scene from a movie or TV show. And there is a low-paying but easy general opinion question (so that you are always earning a little money on each turn). The first player to collect a million dollars wins the game. It is sort of like Monopoly meets Trivial Pursuit Silver Screen Edition with some other interesting elements thrown in.
discovered the gameI thought this was a somewhat coherent game with a lot of promise, if they had only done another revision to make it more coherent or to think through the specific questions a bit more. I thought the game board was very attractively designed and fun. I thought the card designs and the idea of offering three possible ways of scoring at each turn was smart. Ultimately, I think this game does not have a lot of market potential and is not very fun to play. But it was well designed (especially the board and the money) and a lot of work went into it.

I had some reflections and then some specific criticisms:

This game made me think a lot about whether trivia games are basically dead. The success of Trivial Pursuit is often attributed to the fact that it arrived on the scene just as the baby boomers came of age to buy a party game. The reason the game appealed so much to baby boomers is because they were the last generation to have a shared knowledge of movies, television, history, and news events. They all watched the same shows or had familiarity with them. The boomers came of age at a time when hit TV shows could capture 50-75% of the viewing audience. They lived at a time before movie multiplexes, where films stayed for a couple of weeks at the theater and everyone eventually saw it -- or they saw it on Movie of the Week when it came to TV. I could go on -- but basically, this was the last generation with a shared culture of trivia knowledge that many aware people with a good memory would be expected to know. Today, however, is very different. The entertainment and TV market is much more fragmented -- to the point where there just is not a shared culture of knowledge. Even the most popular TV shows are lucky to get 10% of the audience. Hit movies for one subsection of the audience could remain completely unknown to another segment. African Americans and anyone over 30 has probably never heard of Michael Cera, for instance. And not everyone grew up watching every Disney movie that came to market.

  • So I think movie and TV trivia games are basically a non-starter or slow-starter in the marketplace today. They may not be completely dead, but I think they are not going to be very popular unless they tap into a sub-group with some shared knowledge. I think this game had that potential, but to really make it succeed they would have had to interview or play-test with a group of aspiring actors or something like that. What facts, people, scenes, or information do the majority of aspiring actors feel obliged to know? I think you might do better with that -- and if players don't know it, at least they will feel like they should...

  • It may well be that this game reaches toward such a subgroup of middle-class Gen-Ys of college age, but I'm not so sure. The trivia and performance questions are simply obscure to many people. What's more, the obscurity is compounded by the way that the questions are asked -- so that players often have to know very specific details about characters, films, or actors in order to get the questions right. The cards seem to say: "You might have seen the movie -- but did you pay attention to the names of the minor characters?" I think you'll be lucky if 10% of your potential market has seen the movie. Don't push your luck that they remembered the name of a minor character. That is absurd and is bound to turn people off.

  • Though I found the board design good, I also think it is anachronistic. Films are increasingly going digital and it won't be more than a few years before traditional film completely disappears. It might take only a decade before young people completely fail to recognize the board's depiction of "film" as being equivalent to the digital movies they downloaded in their youth... But I think that fits with the anachronistic problem of the game generally.

  • The game concept is intriguing, but it could have been pursued in a way that made it more coherent. My suggestion is always to try to map the game onto a real system -- and in this case maybe that system is how people become a star of the big or little screen in real life. I don't think you become a star by answering trivia questions -- and definitely not by answering opinion questions. Rather, you become a star by having some talent, honing your craft, and then getting a lucky break where you can shine because both producers and then audiences respond to your performance. If you look at the Hollywood star system as a model then perhaps a better design for a game like "Discovered!" would present a board designed after the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- or, better yet, a bunch of audition opportunities. At each audition you are asked to demonstrate some talent -- whether singing, dancing, or acting. The other players (who represent the audience or the producers) would have to respond. Perhaps if one of the other players recognizes the scene you are performing, or can name the actor you are imitating, both you and that player score points that round. If they fail to identify the scene or character, then you still get some "experience" points for trying. Once you have a certain number of points, you are ready to be discovered -- but you will still have to wait for your lucky break to come along. Perhaps there could be star-making opportunity spaces on the game board -- and once you have accumulated enough points, you are ready to be discovered on that turn -- whereas until you have the required number of points it acts as just another audition. You might still have various scoring opportunities on each card -- but the scores would be based on talent, with the most points going to singing a song, then acting a scene, and finally telling a joke. With the joke -- if you make anyone laugh then you score some points that round. That's a loosely formed idea yet, but I think the concept is more coherent than that of the present game because it more fully maps onto the real world.

  • The money element adds a bit of annoyance to the game -- rather like the more annoying element of Monopoly, where you need a banker and someone to do the accounting. While players attracted to the business situation of Monopoly might not mind some accounting, most would-be actors likely would not enjoy it as much.

Are You Talking to Me?
Website and blog

  • This group took one of their midterm games and turned it into a fun game for macho guys. There were lots of fun social elements and the game was fun to play, with lots of amusing ideas.My main criticism at midterm was that there was not much room for women to play -- but they responded to that by incorporating female characters. It was revealing that one of their play test groups had two women, both of whom liked it.

  • My biggest criticism is of the play board itself, which really should have been redesigned in order to make it easier to accommodate the player pieces on each square.

  • I also thought that the play pieces could have been better chosen or better constructed to fit the set.

Journey through the Stars
Website and blog.
This game creates a carnival atmosphere, with kids playing verious games of skill in order to advance in their quest to collect all of the planetary keys and unlock the box to buried treasure. This game had some promising elements, but I thought it was finally under-developed and its promise unrealized.

Basically, this group took on nine planets and ended up with only four. Also, the game boards for each planet are not reproducible.

  • I very much like the idea of having skill-based games be central to whether or not players can advance, and I was very glad they picked up my suggestion that they use purchased games as a way of doing that -- perhaps creating for themselves some cool cross-marketing opportunities. These two core concepts are the most promising elements here, but the final execution is lacking.

  • The story concept, featuring space pirates and buried treasure, seems hard to take seriously. They could have come up with a better reason why players had to visit each of the nine (or eight) planets.

  • I did approve of them just doing game boards for a few planets, but I expected the game boards themselves to be more fully elaborated. In the end, they just present you with pictures of each planet and you are supposed to craft the remainder.
  • I think they should do away with turns and just have you compete to get through the game as quick as possible.

  • My best suggestion to this group is that they should reconceive the game as a Big Urban Game or as a children's party game. Basically, they could have a game board that resembled a giant Twister game that you spread out in the living room or even the yard. The various play stations are depicted on the board and players literally race to collect a card from each showing their completion of they game.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Catching Up

battle boardBattle Board

I have not found time to post for a while and so I am about a month behind what we are doing currently in class, which is working on our final projects. You can now trace the progress of the final projects by checking out each group's blog, linked to in the upper left hand corner of this site.

The pictures included with this post show some of the more interesting games from the first half of the class. We stuck to arts and crafts design for these. For the final projects, all groups must use Photoshop and produce a design that can be easily modified and mass-produced. Students even took the initiative to design boxes for their games, some of which, like that for Battle Board above, lent an air of excitement to the game.

sleepwalking sibsSleepwalking Sibs

One of the most unusual games was Sleepwalking Sibs, in which players were little babies trying to find their way to the refrigerator for a midnight snack. The basic game play seemed to depend too much on chance, but I thought the game board had a nice design and the narrative element was strange but amusing and whimsical.

Sibling RivalrySibling Rivalry

By far the most popular game at our midterm "Game Day" was Sibling Rivalry, which required players to perform somewhat embarrassing acts (from singing to dancing to doing jumping jacks) if they received a Dare Ya card. Everyone thought it was a fun party or family game and that the concept was the most promising of any we saw at midterm. The same group has gone on to develop a similar game but with a much more interesting board design and the title "Supernova! The game that will blow you out of your chair!"

power borderPower Border

My favorite 8x8 game was Power Border, which begins with the checkers arranged around the perimeter of the board. I also think that the game play is the most interesting of any that I tried.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Week #4: Arts & Crafts

Building a game is a lot like making art.

I decided to shift the class schedule back a week so that we can book our "Game Day" into a larger meeting room. That way we can have a catered lunch and invite some people to play with us. On "Game Day," teams will bring their invented games to play, and each student will bring an unusual game to share to help broaden our knowledge of games. We should end up with nearly 30 games to look at and try out.

I urged students to use the extra time to make their games as nice as possible so that they will present well to others. I suggested that some try using Adobe Photoshop to design their game boards, and I demonstrated how easy it is to set up a simple checker board, for example. But most students were enjoying the hands-on experience of "arts and crafts" game design.

Some took the time to create attractive boxes for their games.

The 8x8 checkers game "Power Border"

The box for the card game "Sibling Pains" with
instructions on the box so they don't get lost.

Others took the time to make sure that their games were fully playable and fun. Because if it's not fun, you'll be graded down!

If it's not fun, then something's wrong...

Next time, we will exchange games and do a "peer review." Basically, teams will switch tables and try each other's games, based purely on the set of instructions and the playing board or cards offered to them. We'll see how many puzzled expressions we get -- or how many students who exclaim "Cool!"

Monday, February 11, 2008

Week #3: 8x8 Prototypes and Rutgers Football

Students trying out their 8x8 game ideas

I had not recognized before teaching this class how much game design is essentially an experimental process. Our textbook calls it an "iterative process," which essentially means trying it again and again until you get it right. Basically, you can imagine all sorts of rules in a game, but until you try it out you really cannot know how it will "play." That's because games are essentially complex systems, so changes in even a single rule (however minor) can have all sorts of unpredictable ramifications -- sort of like the idea of a butterfly affecting the weather.

Last class, my students brought in their designs for 8x8 games using the pieces of a checkers game (or whatever additions they wanted to provide). I asked them, by a show of hands, how many had actually tested their designs by playing them. Fewer than 1/4 of the class had done so, which did not surprise me. And so I was also not surprised to find that their groups had a lot of trouble making any one of their designs work -- or, as was the case with one group, they very quickly latched onto the only game concept that anyone had actually tried out ahead of time. The interesting thing, though, was that most of the class period was spent trying out their games, and trying to get them to work through collaborative play and experimentation. If they learned nothing else from today's class, then, it was the importance of play testing!

I have been learning the value of play testing myself, first hand, as I try to develop my "Rutgers Football: The Board Game" concept. Initially, I had tried to make it work as an 8x8 game, but in playing it a bit with my nephew we quickly realized that something had to change. Either we needed a much bigger field or we needed fewer pieces -- something more akin to a backyard pickup game than a full-blown eleven-man squad.

Back to the drawing board!

At first I tried a 10x20 game board, but I also found that too small for 11 pieces. The working prototype turned out to be 20x40 -- or 800 squares! If you had told me when I started that the game would have to be that big to work like football, I would not have believed it. But the more I actually looked at the scale of a football field (which I did quite a bit searching for football field images), the more I realized that the game of football itself takes place on a gridiron of an even larger scale.

800-square prototype of Rutgers Football

I have still not settled on all the rules of the game -- but I also have not played it enough to know what it really needs. I do, however, have a fully functional and playable prototype so I can keep modifying and improving the rules. And I can try it out on other people.

Rutgers Football 20x40 game board

I was most proud of the game board, which I will eventually print out in color and on a larger scale than the black and white prototype I've put together. The way I made it is that I found an image online showing the Rutgers stadium field from above -- but at an angle -- and had to play with the "Edit">"transform">"skew" feature of Adobe Photoshop to get it to look like a bird's-eye view (above). I then added a custom grid to the picture -- creating a "custom pattern" on a transparent background, then stretching it over the image of the field I had created. I was surprised at how quickly the whole thing came together, though it took a lot of experimentation and prototyping -- just like creating the game itself. I then cut the image into three parts and pasted it into Word to create a three-page PDF for easy printing and sharing.
Fiki Football goal post and ball

I am waiting for the Fiki Football goal posts and balls and the green and black "Football Guy" plastic players I've ordered from Amazon before I generate the final prototype. I suppose I'll have to research ways of dying plastic plastic pieces red. But, if the game is playable, I'm very close to having everything I need for the final prototype. Then the real fun of promoting it begins... But at least my students can learn from my experiences -- as well as from their own.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My 8x8 Ideas

Today students were asked to develop an 8x8 game. I decided to take on the challenge myself. Though I've previously developed a chess variant called Dracula Chess, I wanted to do something more accessible and interesting for our class. Originally I thought of just simplifying the Dracula Chess concept and incorporating cards (along the lines of Knightmare Chess). But it still seemed like a rather esoteric game that required people basically to know chess to a significant depth to appreciate. I also wanted to take on the challenge of developing a game that used all four of Roger Caillois's fundamental categories of play: strategic competition, luck, role play (mimicry), and physical activity.

Initially I played around with a number of ideas, including dice to decide battles (on the model of Risk), various card schemes (including one where you could plant mines on certain squares in your territory -- with the proviso that you could not occupy that square yourself without being blown up, which could give away their location to an observant opponent with a good memory), and various interesting movements of the checkers (including having them jump over each other like "chinese checkers" with the goal of reaching the other side of the board).

As I thought about these ideas over Super Bowl weekend, it suddenly dawned on me that a good role play "back story" would be football. Football would provide roles, and would also impose its own rules, which you could try to mimic in a checkers-like setting. What I came up with was Rutgers Football: The Board Game. It still needs quite a bit of work, and would obviously work best on a bigger board (probably 10x10, plus endzones), but I like the basic concept and (based on my research so far) it appears to be original.

Board and Card Games on YouTube

Later in the course, as students begin to develop their final projects, they will be required to do some research to see if other people have developed games that resemble the one they're developing. They can do much of this research online, and I strongly recommend that they actually purchase at least one game with similarities to their own. I will be saying more about this in future posts, but I thought I'd mention an interesting resource that I've been exploring a bit myself, which is, of all things, YouTube.

YouTube actually turns out to be a great resource for learning about games, because you can find people playing the games that interest you or describing and showing the game play, so that you can practically learn as much about how that game works as you would if you had played the game yourself -- and certainly much more than you can learn from a brief description at BoardGameGeek.

I was especially impressed by the series of video board game reviews posted by Prof. Scott Nicholson titled "Board Games with Scott." He makes a fun and interesting presentation and packs a lot of information in a relatively short time. I came across his stuff searching for videos of boardgames with a football theme (mentioned in my last post), and I liked very much his detailed 15-minute review of Pizza Box Football (where you get to hear Scott play his sax). In the future, I think I will make his lecture Board Games 101 (32 minutes) required viewing for the course, especially because it does a great job of covering fun party games, which are not a part of my own expertise. He also talks about a wide range of interesting and unfamiliar games (including the poker-based game "Havoc," which sounds like a lot of fun). I'm not sure I agree with his categories--especially what he calls "Family Games," since his examples involve a lot of death and destruction (he seems to like war games). His videos would be worthwhile viewing for anyone still searching for an interesting game for game day.

Besides occasional game reviews posted by fans, you will also find some high-quality commercial videos for games on the market, such as Card Football (4 minutes), which clearly explains the poker-based mechanics of this game, which is sure to be popular with college students who might like both football and poker. You can even find an occasional series of videos explaining games in detail, such as Magic, The Gathering (also parts 2, 3, 4, etc.) which is discussed in our text as having founded an entirely new type of game involving card collecting.

So if you want to learn more about games, YouTube can be a great resource -- though, obviously, it is hit or miss, since only current games with fan support are likely to be represented there.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Football Board and Card Games

Thinking about the Super Bowl today, I'm developing a concept for an 8x8 football-based game. To help me think about that game some more, and to check if the idea hasn't already been developed, I did a little online research to see what's out there -- much as students will be required to do when they design their final projects. Here were some of the more interesting ones I came across (though I hardly started on the search at BoardGameGeek):
The Paper Football Association
Who knew that the game you played as a kid had official rules and tournaments?

NFL FIKI Football Board Game
The thing that comes closest to my concept.

Football Board Game Patent
Not enough here to judge, but interesting concept.

Pro Draft
I like BoardGameGeek for info on old games.

Interview with the Designers of Card Football
Poker meets football in this game of strategy and chance.

Pizza Box Football - Board Game - Interview
You have to give them credit for the great box concept. The game sounds less than appetizing to me.

Big Sunday Football
Catch the video (a good marketing idea). A board game that tries to cover every rule, including penalties (which, if you ask me, is the most boring part of the game).

Electric Football
They still make this stupid game? Even when I had one as a kid, I thought it was a scam.

Football Guys
Not exactly a game, but hmmmm -- those would make interesting play pieces.

Radical Play TV Football
Football causes fewer injuries on TV than in real life.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Week #2: Sibling Rivalry Game

sibling rivalry game groupsTeams begin work on a "Sibling Rivalry" game.

After the excellent summary of Chapters 1 and 2 in our book presented by the first Jigsaw group, we quickly set about working on today's project in our assigned teams.

The assignment for today was as follows:
Read a description of the game "Sibling Rivalry" (distributed in our first class meeting). Using only the core concept of "Sibling Rivalry," imagine a game that would use the elements of that competition between brother and sister as the basis for a competitive game (card game, board game, or combination of both). Come to class with at least a one page description of your idea to share with me and with your assigned group.
The idea was to get students to give significant thought to an idea for a game so that when they met in their groups they would be able to present their concepts and commit to a vision, perhaps incorporating ideas from other members in the development process.

sibling rivalry game groupsTeam Three's prototype board takes shape.

I actually feared a bit that individual students would cling to their own game concepts, even after a vote was taken, and that teams might end up in conflict between two or more warring ideas. But I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and seemingly unanimously they came to agreement. As members of Team Two told me, for example, as soon as they heard the "daemon" card game that the first presenter described, they recognized its potential and realized it was more promising than anything they had thought of themselves. In fact, they didn't even bother presenting the other ideas, but instead jumped right into the brainstorming process!

sibling rivalry game groupsTeam Two develops a "daemon" card game.

I had brought various craft materials to class to help students construct their prototypes. These materials included blank index cards (for constructing game cards), manila folders (for possible board backings), colored paper, dice of various kinds (including some large plastic dice that could be modified), tape, scissors, markers, colored pencils, etc. I even had a big box of crayons.

sibling rivalry game groupsTeam Five decides on a manly adventure game.

Building a prototype is more akin to arts & crafts than to scientific experimentation. In fact, when I suggested to one group (who were mostly Pharmacy students) that our class environment should seem familiar to them, since they are used to doing chem labs and writing lab reports, they quickly dismissed the comparison, saying this was much more creative and "less cut-throat." In chem lab, they said, the goal is to follow the directions precisely and get exactly the result that would be expected. Creativity is not allowed. In fact, creativity is forbidden and even punished! If you make a single mistake in chem lab, your lab-mates will want to kill you and your grade will suffer. The atmosphere of chem labs is intense and stressful. Our class, by contrast, was more like pleasure and play. Creative expression was not only allowed, it was required!

sibling rivalry game groupsTeam One discusses the board layout.

Next time we will meet in the same groups to work on a concept for an 8x8 game as described on the syllabus (which can be 8x8 or smaller and should use checker pieces). I had distributed the sample game Ironclad, but students might also look at submissions to the 2001 8x8 Game Design Competition for ideas. I will supply Dollar Store checker sets and the same craft materials we had in class this time. Students are required to bring any additional (or superior-quality) craft materials or play pieces that their game concepts might require.

Final versions of the "Sibling Rivalry" and "8x8" projects should be done by the end of class on February 13th, with the goal of sharing and playing them on February 20th.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Week #1: Card Game Analysis and Comparison

As you can see from my syllabus, the main activity for our first class session was to analyze and compare two card games, using Google Docs to generate a collaborative document recording those thoughts (on the model of Chapter 2 in our textbook, Game Design Workshop). My Card Game Analysis activity guide provided the basic "rules." Students played Blink, Uno, Loot, Rat-a-tat Cat, Slamwich, Ziggity, Chomp, Duck Duck Bruce, Quiddler, and Apples to Apples for Kids. You can see one group's final document (completed during the first class session) online.

To help students analyze the games, we spent some time discussing Roger Caillois's four fundamental categories of play (as described in his book Man, Play, and Games): Agon (or competition), Alea (luck), Mimicry (make believe characters), and Ilinx (vertigo). He also used the terms Ludus (rule bound play) and Paidia (improvization), setting forth a second category that can map over the other terms (since you can have games of mimicry that are rule bound, like charades, or improvizational, like playfully imitating a co-worker), but I chose to focus for now on the four fundamentals.

I encouraged students to broaden the definitions of these four categories rather freely to help capture different play elements and to help think about how each category can add another channel of engagement to a game. Consider games that engage only one of these four fundamental elements. For example, chess engages a structurally narrow channel because it is, essentially, a game of pure Agon where the player with superior understanding of its complexity will inevitably win unless he or she is matched with an equally strong opponent. That doesn't mean chess is not endlessly fascinating for those who get immersed in it, just that it is really only providing one channel of engagement (though I suppose we could argue that the feudal story suggested by the pieces might add an element of Mimicry to the proceedings). Craps, meanwhile, is a game of pure Alea, where everything depends on the chance careenings of the dice. It is definitely a fun game to play at the casinos, but it really only has one channel of engagement (though betting strategies can make it very complex).

A game like backgammon, by contrast to chess and craps, provides two channels of engagement because it combines fundamental categories of strategy and chance. Though you might be a very good backgammon player and know all of the strategies (including when and how to play a "back game" for long-term advantage), you can still lose to somebody who keeps rolling double sixes. The same is true of poker, which may explain some of its enormous appeal. While there is a lot of strategy in playing poker well, the game comes down to who gets the better cards, which is determined essentially by the luck of the draw. And we all have heard of "beginner's luck." When poker neophyte Chris Moneymaker went overnight from amateur internet gambler to professional poker player and world champion, he practically poured gasoline on the growing flame of the game's appeal. His name, and the multi-million dollar prize that he won, certainly didn't hurt.

The element that Caillois calls Mimicry can also add an interesting channel of engagement to a game by getting us to participate in a fantasy world for a while. Depending on the complexity of the game's mimetic universe, it might be possible to get completely immersed in the story, as happens with players of games like Magic, The Gathering, for example, which is practically like playing Dungeons & Dragons with cards. Even card games as simple as "War," "Go Fish!" and "Old Maid" suggest narratives by their very names. Several of the games that I gave students had clear narrative elements, encouraging players to see themselves as pirates (Loot), as cats chasing mice (Rat-a-tat Cat), or as fish fighting for food chain supremacy (Chomp!). The stories and graphics make these games attractive and more fun to play. More importantly, a good mimetic element provides a "cover story," if you will, for inevitable feelings of mutual aggression created by the competition. After all, I might feel bad "Looting" cards from my opponents in a normal social situation; but if I am acting like a pirate, then it's ok to steal!

Ilinx may be a little more difficult to apply to most board or card games. But if we think of it simply as the element of physical activity and bodily engagement with a game, I think there are a number of ways it can be incorporated to add another channel of engagement even with cards. For example, simply by adding rules that encourage speedy play, by disposing of turns as in Blink, can turn a card game into a physical challenge. And I remember a game of cards people used to play at the schoolyard in my youth that involved getting rapped on the knuckles if you lost!

These four elements were useful for thinking generally about the channels of engagement that a game can create. But how do games actually keep us engaged? A lot depends on the players involved. I had asked students to evaluate the "audience" for each game, trying to judge the type of player who might most enjoy it (including age level, obviously, but other elements as well). In this regard I introduced the concept of "Flow" based on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chicks-send-me-high" I'm told), which provides a very good and easy to grasp model for how games (and many other activities) keep our interest and even can allow us to enter a state of optimal experience or "flow." The following diagram helped guide our discussion.

This simplified version of Csikszentmihalyi's "flow" diagram is from Bernie DeKoven's excellent online essay "Fun and Flow." It is a very useful image for explaining how games connect with some people and not others by providing just the right level of challenge and skill. Games that allow you to connect with them at even a low skill level are going to be very broadly appealing. But if a game is too simple or repetitive for you, or if it is too difficult or anxiety producing, you are not going to be able to enter a state of flow and so are not likely to enjoy it or do well at it.

Several students commented that the games they were given to analyze were not ones that they enjoyed playing or even fully understood. It may not have been that they were poorly designed, just that those students just were not the best audience for these games.

For next class, the assignment is to develop the concept (in about one or two pages) for a board or card game based on "Sibling Rivalry" as a narrative theme, providing an element of what Caillois calls "Mimicry" to whatever game they think up. I will divide them into groups and they will choose one concept (or some combination of two or more) to develop into a group project. I gave them the description of Richard Garfield's commissioned game of that title from Salen and Zimmerman's Rules of Play, but I encouraged them to go off in their own directions with only the "Sibling Rivalry" theme as their guide.

I will assign their groups when they come next time. I decided early on that I would assign groups for the first two projects and only allow them to choose their groups for the final project. This way, they get to know each other by working together in various contexts. And I get to play the game of social engineering. To help me do that, I had them fill out a Questionnaire, which gave me insight into their skills, interests, and abilities so that I could make up well balanced teams.

Among the readings I handed out for next time were two New York Times articles on game-related issues: Clive Thompson's "The Play's the Thing" (November 28, 2004) and Brooks Barnes's "Web Playgrounds of the Very Young" (December 31, 2007). Thompson's article discusses the the company Cranium (developers of Apples to Apples and Ziggity) and contrasts their "everyone wins" style of game design with the more standard "winner takes all the glory" standard of American games. I wanted students to read this just to expand their conceptual paradigms for designing fun and playable games. The Barnes piece talks about the work being done to create online play spaces for kids, which is clearly going to be an important and growing field for anyone interested in getting a job designing games or play spaces. I was interested in the article because one of my interns this past semester worked for Nickelodeon helping to develop web content for young people, including for Nick Games. Our discussions made me realize that sites like Nick Games and Webkinz (the focus of Barnes's piece) are going to be an increasingly important growth area for jobs related to game development and design. While I doubt many (or even any) of the students in the class will go into this field, I wanted to make them aware of how important games are becoming as a part of the entertainment industry -- very likely taking the place of reading and even television viewing in people's lives.

This detailed summary of our class may help students who join our class next week to catch up more quickly than they would otherwise. But I also hope it eventually helps teachers who want to try out the topic of game design.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Topic: Game Design

I developed Collaborative Writing Practices: Game Design after reading Richard Louth's The Game Project, which describes how his students designed games as a collaborative writing exercise in a technical writing course back in the 1980s. It seemed to me that such a course would be especially exciting and interesting today with our much expanded ability to use technology in the classroom. Everything involved in the course is much easier to teach than in the past, since there are so many good tools now to aid with design, collaborative writing, and game development.

Teaching design and collaboration are aided tremendously by new technologies. Whereas Louth's students were presumably limited to what they could accomplish with "arts and crafts" design, our students today can use Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and a host of other programs to produce a professional looking final product. And with new Web 2.0 technologies (especially Google Docs, Google Page Creator, Blogger, and Zoho), they can generate professional-quality marketing and support materials (including webpages, blogs, online collaborative documents, wikis and a host of other documents) using easy-to-learn, free, and web-based software. I am especially pleased with Google Docs, which makes collaborative writing easy and universally accessible -- as described in the wonderful YouTube video Google Docs in Plain English.

Meanwhile, teaching games is much easier than ever before -- even if the definition of what counts for games (which now includes many more video and computer games) is much broader than it was in the 1980s. There are now a wide range of textbook options to support designing and making games, and "Game Design" has become an increasingly popular college course topic -- taught in courses devoted to art, education, English lit, computer science, engineering, and even (of all things) architecture, so there are even model syllabi on the web. There is even a blog devoted to teaching game design. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's books Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals and The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology have practically laid the theoretical groundwork for game design as a new academic discipline, drawing on ideas from such fields as sociology, psychology, literary criticism, film studies, semiotics, cultural studies, art, computer science, etc. The book I chose for the course, Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping, and Playtesting Games by Tracy Fullerton (soon to be in a second edition), sets forth a very practical program for designing games. And there are a number of other texts on the market.

In my original plan, as I conceived it years ago, I was going to make the focus of the course "Communicating in Small Groups," using the expensive and widely known textbook of that name. But the theory they offered seems now so generalized and abstract (as is typical of any "textbook") as to make it practically unusable. Besides, I think you learn collaborative writing by doing it in a very realistic and engaging setting. I can't think of a better topic than game design for creating that realistic setting in a way that really engages students.

The classroom, however, is the most important setting of all -- and teaching in the unique "collaboratory" of the Writers House at Rutgers completes the picture. This computer lab is not only designed for collaboration, it practically insists on it. While each student is able to have a Mac laptop to do individual work, they are also seated at six tables with a collaborative computer and screens so that they can literally compose together. It's an amazing space and makes collaborating easy and even fun.

I have put together my syllabus and met my first class. So far, so good. I'll keep everyone posted (including my students) in this space about what we've done and how things are going. I hope I also have a chance to show off some of their work for other audiences than just ourselves alone.

Game Design (01:355:375:01)