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)