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Design a videogame class.(r/truegaming)
I’d be interested in teaching design, but not the standard vocational tripe you’d get at Fullsail or Digipen, or in the ‘electronic media’ courses you may get from other accredited universities. I’m talking about a serious analysis of games as an artistic medium.
Age range: Honestly, what I’d be aiming for would be ideal for college students. They have the maturity to internalize the ideas being presented and the technical know-how to actually implement the ideas should the need arise. But anyone from high school students through to grown adults would be more than capable of learning something.
Specific outcomes: I’d love to cover the basics, first of all. Start with the concept of the Magic Circle and the amorphous definition of a game. Get them accustomed to the idea of a game as an arbitrary yet formal system of rules above all else; casting aside preexisting concepts of videogames as we know them and build the way they look at games back up from scratch.
From there, I guess, I’d like to hit how to convey meaning with games – how to contextualize play with win states and lose states, the nature of boolean and non-boolean winstates, the concept of an ‘implicit’ winstate or lose state, how representational metaphors impart meaning to play, the correlation between representational metaphor, authored narrative, and emergent narrative, the nature and philosophy of choice… lots and lots of stuff to talk about here. I could go on for hours.
If we have time and if it would be technologically feasible with the students/tools at hand, I’d love to wrap up with some discussion of kinaesthetics. Discuss what is kineasthetically pleasing and why, discuss situations where you might intentionally make something unpleasing to interact with and how you can use that to your advantage when designing your own games.
Required Reading: First and foremost, Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play. That thing is more or less the workbook from which all other gaming classes should be taught. Each chapter takes a turn looking at games through a different lens – as a medium of social play, as a medium of conflict, as a medium of narrative delivery, etc. It actually comes with activity proposals for classes, and with short segments by the likes of Will Wright and others. It makes no assumptions about what games are, but instead analyzes everything they have the potential to be – really refreshing in an age where we’re pumping out engine programmers and 3D modellers and calling their degree a ‘study in game development.’
Additional reading: Chris Crawford on Game Design. Crawford’s a cantankerous old curmudgeon at this point, but the guy knew what the medium was about decades before people really wanted to discuss it as a medium. He’s sort of gone off the reservation in recent years, but his insights here (and scattered across the rest of his writings) hold up to this day. He doesn’t get enough respect as one of gaming’s elders, and I’d love to see this changed by encouraging students to read his work. The man started what ended up becoming the Game Developer’s Conference in his house. He was there at Atari during the boom years. He has cred.
There’s other stuff that’s good – Jesper Juul’s work, Ian Bogost’s writings, Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, Johan Huizinga’s seminal Homo Ludens, etc. But a class can’t cover every text that’s ever been written, so I’m keeping with what I suggested.
Required Playing: There’s no sense in having required reading about games if we can’t have some games to discuss as examples, now is there?
The Stanley Parable – If you’ve played it, I think it should go without saying. This is an absolutely brilliant deconstruction of the traditional linear content-munching FPS narrative structure while also providing an ingenious example of a narrative where all possibilities are canonical and valid. Every ending you can get is just as valid as any other ending (which flies in the face of traditional game narrative structure). This is a great, great game to discuss in a course about the nature of design.
The Passage – It’s oft referenced, but with good reason. Rohrer’s The Passage is a minimalist look at human life, utilizing a unique rendering method (squishing the future into the distance at the beginning, then slowly shifting over as your character ‘ages’ such that you’re looking back at your lifetime of accomplishments in the past) to help convey how the way we look at life changes as we age. Throw in a light anti-materialism message and one of the more tragic losses I’ve experienced in a videogame, and you’re looking at some really powerful stuff for less than 512 kilobytes.
Gravity Bone – Brendon Chung’s stunning freeware game made with the open source Quake II engine. I love how it functions, essentially, as a joke. There’s the setup and the punchline, and that’s it. The fact that it sets player expectations up one way, only to have them shattered, is just stunning. I won’t spoil it here, but I highly recommend you play through it if you have the opportunity.
Potential Assignments: Early assignments would be simple writing tasks.
- Come up with a definition for the word ‘game.’ Then describe all of the games you can think of that don’t fit that definition.
- Describe what differentiates ‘dribbling a basketball and shooting some hoops with friends’ from a formal basketball game, or how swinging a few rounds in a batting cage is different from a true game of baseball.
- In what ways are Putt-Putt and Golf similar? In what ways are the appreciably different?
- What is the nature of fairness in a game? Is there ever a situation where a designer might intentionally create an unfair game?
Eventually, time permitting, we’d come up with simple board, card, or other non-digital games based around various activities.
- Part 1: Make a game that has no representational metaphor. Make a completely abstract game using only numbers, counters, and shapes.
- Part 2: The following week, I would have them take that game and make two different metaphor sets for the same mechanics. Then I would have them write a paper regarding what changed about the game – what did the first version of the game say? What did the second version of the game say? What does this tell us about mechanics, and how their meaning can be influenced through visual or other representation?
- Make a game that utilizes a lose state to make the player do something he or she might find otherwise unappealing.
- Make a game that, through the nature of its mechanics, gives one player a large amount of power over the other players. Observe the game being played, then write about how that changed the dynamics of player interaction.
* sigh *
If only I could go teach game design somewhere. In the mean time I guess I’ll just keep making shitty internet videos.