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  • Lessons Learned From Teaching Game Design

    [03.23.21]
    - Lars Kalthoff
  • I've spent the past six months teaching game design at the Cologne Game Lab, a German university dedicated to the study of digital games. In this blog post, I want to share what I've learned during the process and condense it down into five practical rules you can apply to improve your own teaching.

    Fifth-semester students at the Cologne Game Lab get the chance to propose a self-initiated project and work on it for a whole semester under the supervision of a professor. There are no lectures or assignments during this time and students are free to choose any subject for their project as long as it's related to digital games in some way.

    For my own self-initiated project, I've decided to learn more about teaching and put it into practice at the Cologne Game Lab. Originally, the goal was to develop and teach a single three-hour session on a game design topic. The rest of the project time would be spent on research, mainly focusing on the literature on learning from cognitive science. However, things turned out a little bit differently.

    I ended up with four sessions on wildly different subjects: The first one was a two-hour workshop on narrative design for aspiring game developers from Sudan. I took the famous fantasy series Game of Thrones as an example to derive practical advice on writing characters, developing them, and presenting them to the audience. In terms of format, this workshop was similar to a GDC talk-a long lecture segment followed by a shorter Q&A session.

    Although this workshop was a great opportunity to acquire basic teaching experience, there was no way for students to participate other than the Q&A. The second session was much more interactive. This time, I taught a three-hour course on player guidance in level design to third-semester students of the Cologne Game Lab. I combined different teaching formats such as lecture segments, classroom discussions, and group assignments to encourage student participation.

    The third session eventually became a video lecture that was made available to students from all semesters. It covered the concept of feedback loops and how they're used to shape the dynamics of digital games. Since there is no opportunity for student participation in a pre-recorded video, I tried to vary the format by analyzing two popular games that make extensive use of feedback loops (Mario Kart 8 and Teamfight Tactics).

    My last session was tailored to the first-semester students of the Cologne Game Lab. It was a workshop on presenting that was aimed at helping the participants with the game pitches they had to deliver a few days after the date of the workshop. The workshop included a two-hour lecture as well as personalized feedback on the students' game pitches.

    Now that you're familiar with the outcomes of my self-initiated project, I'd like to share some of the key lessons I've learned during the process. Here are five rules to follow when teaching game design:

    Rule 1 - Teach timeless content with contemporary examples

    Let's start with the first half of that statement-"timeless content".

    Educators in the field of game development face a serious problem: How do you decide what to teach when it could already be obsolete in a month, a year, or a decade? Although this issue isn't exclusive to game development, there are reasons why our field is disproportionately affected by it. Digital games are a relatively new medium that's only been around for 70 years. It's a popular truism that games transform more rapidly than any other medium and considering their young age, this shouldn't come as a surprise. The continual transformation of the medium and the lack of consistent conventions in the industry make it quite likely that something you've learned at a games school is no longer relevant when you land your first job in game development.

    So, how do we avoid teaching content that is doomed to become irrelevant within a few years? One possible approach would be to keep yourself up-to-date with the latest trends in the industry and constantly rework your courses to reflect recent concepts, workflows, and tools. Apart from the amount of work this approach entails, there's a logical fallacy that underlies its core assumption. Recent ideas are actually more likely to become obsolete soon. Hundreds of thoughts are put forward every day and the overwhelming majority of them will turn out to be impracticable, irrelevant, or even incorrect. Only a tiny fraction of modern concepts will eventually evolve into common knowledge.

    The solution to our problem is rather simple. We know which ideas are timeless-those who've stood the test of time; those who've been around for centuries and still make sense today. If something you observe today has been established long ago, you can be confident it'll still be there tomorrow.

    When I prepared my session on player guidance, I had to decide which specific techniques to include and which to leave out. To make these decisions, I often considered whether or not a principle had already stood the test of time. For example, landmarks, breadcrumbs, colors, and shapes were among the guiding methods I explained. Landmarks have been a part of urban planning forever and even way before humans built cities, they used recognizable features in the environment to orient themselves. The idea of laying out a path of breadcrumbs goes back to the German fairy tale Hansel and Gretel from 200 years ago and colors and shapes have guided our perception for millions of years. I suspect they'll still do so next week.

    My third session dealt with feedback loops and their implications for games. The concept is so old that the effects of a positive feedback loop have already been described in the Bible:

    "For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away." - Matthew 25:29

    Designers deliberately recreate this rich-get-richer effect in video games to reward the players who are doing well and bring the game to a rapid conclusion. If you're on a killstreak in the Call of Duty series, you receive powerful items and events that make it easier to maintain the killstreak. It's the Matthew principle turned into a game system.

    In addition to that, feedback loops are studied in several different fields such as biology, engineering, cybernetics, and game design. We can see that the concept is universal across time and disciplines.

    Now, what about the second half of the rule-"contemporary examples"?

    First, we have to recognize that there's an age gap between teachers and students, often a quite significant one. An undesirable consequence of that age gap is that students may have never heard about the games that their professors grew up with and now use as examples in their teaching.

    The problem isn't that students and professors play different games. The problem is that when you use examples that you're familiar with but your students aren't, you're missing the fundamental point of why you'd use examples in the first place. The goal of an example is to bring a new idea into a familiar context. The example fails if the context isn't familiar to the people you're talking with. We solve this problem by referencing modern games that our students have played, even if it entails more research on our part.

    An added benefit of that strategy is that you're indirectly proving the timelessness of the content. If you talk about an old idea like landmarks and then explain how The Last of Us Part II applies the same principles in 2020, your students can witness how a concept has been around for centuries, is still around today, and probably will be around in 200 years.

    In my second session, I analyzed how the action adventure Ghost of Tsushima (2020) approached player guidance in an open world. The game had been released four months before the session.

    I also made references to The Last of Us Part II (2020), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017), and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (2016). Case studies of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (2017) and Teamfight Tactics (2019) by Riot Games were core elements of my video lecture on feedback loops.

    "Teach timeless content with contemporary examples", that's all there ever was to my first workshop. Games of Thrones as a popular case of applying best practices that great authors have known for centuries. Old content, modern example.

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