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  • The Rapid Prototyping Game

    [07.30.20]
    - Matt Smith
  • I am a teacher.  I make a living helping others.  So when I began to adjunct at my local university, it was only natural that I, like any of you, would want the students to succeed in their scholarly endeavors.  My task as an employee in the School of Digital Animation and Game Design was to take my passion, game-based learning and game design, and instruct first year students in the basics of game development.  

    No problem, right? 

    Well...it turns out that knowing game design and teaching game design are two very different skills and I am humble enough to admit that I had a lot to learn in that first year when it came to both.  

    Luckily another instructor, and a friend of mine, Andrew Peterson was willing to spend the time answering my many questions and I felt that each iteration of the class was continuing to improve.  While I knew the content and delivery was getting better, I still had this nagging feeling in my stomach.

    You see, the students were still struggling.  They were afraid of failing. They were unoriginal.  They made games like Chutes and Ladders or Monopoly.  They didn't see any value in board games and they told me quite honestly that they really only wanted to make video games.

    As you can see, this was going to be quite the challenge. Each student came to class with a diverse gaming background. Some had taken a programming or game design class in high school, others had families who valued game night, a few took the course because it sounded better than a humanities credit, and many loved to play video games and wanted to make a career of it. 

    If I was going to teach game design well, I needed to create a plan that would take account of all of these factors.  


    What I really needed to do was create a way to increase the students exposure to game mechanics and also teach them how the elements of game design exist within a game.  I thought of it like training a chef. What they really needed was time in the kitchen--to understand major flavor profiles and to recognize that adding certain combinations worked well. They needed experience and they needed it crammed into one semester. 

    It was at this time I remember mentioning to Andrew that it would be amazing to have a repository of game mechanics that that students could access. A resource where they could go to see the mechanic, have it explained, see it in a game, a dictionary of sorts for them to reference--aside from an online database. Call me old school, but I find value in holding a physical book in my hands and lovingly turning the dog-eared pages looking for untold answers.

    Not long after our conversation, we attended Gencon and found out that, like many good ideas, someone had accomplished it.  We immediately purchased Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev's book Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms  and instantly fell in love with it.  It was exactly what we needed as a reference book for our students.  

    Armed with this book, it was time to take the next step.  As an instructional designer, I knew that I had the content that I needed for the course, now it was time to work on the delivery method.  Playing games is tactile, it's community, it's strategy and critical thinking.  The delivery method had to mimic those qualities. This had to be done as group work. The students had to manipulate a game board, work with the pieces, and think about how the elements worked together. Most importantly, they needed to understand the iterative process of game design. 

    Understanding these teaching strategies, I began to categorize the game mechanics for the students. My goal was to create a user-friendly delivery system which grouped the elements into manageable categories which would allow the students to isolate specific components. In doing so they would be able to analyze how adding, subtracting or combining these elements would create dynamic changes in a game.  What I found was that many times students would focus on the entertainment when they were play testing--without ever thinking analytically about why they were having fun.  This new system, which I called The Rapid Prototyping Game, taught them how to make meaningful choices as they learned the iterative process through game play.  

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