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  • Pulling the Plug: In Defense of Non-Digital Teaching and Learning

    - Lewis Pulsipher

  •  Iterative Nature
    Successful game design is iterative and incremental. The iterative process is much easier for students to understand when they can quickly make and modify playable prototypes, which they can do with non-electronic games.

    Play testing is sovereign. The playable prototype is what really counts. The problem with any electronic production of a game is that it takes so long compared to making a non-electronic prototype that students fail to do the most important part of design: repeated testing, and modification in light of that testing. The students get a working prototype, play it a few times, and think they're done -- rather than thinking they're just getting started.

    Unfortunately, the emphasis in the video game industry, and in video game design books, is on planning a video game in order to obtain funding to produce the prototype. This obscures the primacy of testing once you have that prototype. No prototype is a really good game when it is first played.

    The refinement process mainly consists of play testing for modifications, not for bug finding. It's important to nix any feature of a game that doesn't contribute to good gameplay. A non-electronic game designer can simply wave his hand and change a rule or remove a feature of a game, whereas the video game designer faces a lengthy period of software modification -- and as a result, tends to be reluctant to make changes.

    The iterative approach to game design is a natural one, and it's still used in the video game industry by some professionals. A playable prototype is produced as soon as possible. It is played, revised, played, revised, played, revised, seemingly forever, until a stable and good game has been produced.

    Sid Meier did this with Civilization. He programmed; he and (mostly) Bruce Shelley played; they decided what needed to be changed; Meier programmed; they played, and so on.

    In a 2005 interview on Slashdot, Meier was quoted as saying, "My whole approach to making games revolves around first creating a solid prototype and then playing and improving the game over the course of the 2-3 year development cycle . . . until we think it's ready for prime time. My experience in this area helps me to know what to do and where to start. I definitely spend a lot of time playing the game before I let anyone else look at it."

    In a classroom, we don't have the time (or the skills, usually) to create video games rapidly. But it's easy to create non-video games rapidly.

    Furthermore, in a classroom context, it's easy for students to redesign and experiment with traditional games like chess, perhaps one feature at a time. Because the games are quite simple, technologically speaking, it's easier to discuss and predict the actual result of the changes. Most importantly, students can actually play the changed versions and see what happens.

    And while students can redesign electronic games, they can't put the redesigns into practice to see the results -- it would take too long, even if it were otherwise practical. Students tend to miss the point that design almost never turns out the way you intended, when you actually play the game.

    Non-electronic games let students start out with small steps rather than attempt a big project that may fail for many reasons other than poor design.

    For more information about iteration see "Iterative Design," by Brandon Van Slyke, (July 22, 2008).

    Eliminate Graphics
    Non-electronic games force students to concentrate on gameplay, not topical features or slickness, which have no staying power.

    Many students equate good looks with a good game. If they're making electronic games, they'll spend a lot of time trying to make them look good, trying to reach AAA quality even though that's impossible in any reasonable amount of time.

    With non-electronic games, students quickly see that there's no point in wasting time worrying about visual polish until the game is actually done. Paper game designs are, by their nature, utilitarian, though published paper games can be full of eye-candy and slick parts.

    Students nowadays often have only played "traditional" non-electronic games such as Monopoly and LIFE that are, in fact, somewhere between mediocre and downright bad game designs. Discussion of traditional games opens their eyes to what good design really is and helps them think critically about gameplay.


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