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

By Lewis Pulsipher [09.02.08]  Why should we use non-electronic games to teach and learn electronic game design?

Learning and teaching game design with non-electronic games is much more effective for beginners than having them try to produce electronic games. It's a much more efficient use of the students' and the instructor's time, and it teaches students more about game design.

In this article, I describe what happens when beginners learn game design using non-digital versus electronic games (I use the terms "students" and "beginners" interchangeably):
  1. Prototyping is faster and more efficient.
  2. The iterative nature of game design becomes evident.
  3. Graphics and other visual effects are absent and thus cannot obscure the game design.
  4. More ideas can be generated.
  5. Gameplay becomes the focal point of creation.
  6. Computers can never be the scapegoats.

It's much more practical for beginners to make non-electronic prototypes than digital ones because they don't require specialized skills and knowledge, such as programming and digital artistry. Additionally, less time is required for preliminary design of the non-electronic game.

By their nature, non-electronic games are simpler than most video games, if only because there is no computer to control complexity. Students can have a playable paper prototype even when they haven't figured out all the details, whereas with an electronic game, the students must have a much greater amount of their game idea configured before they can program a playable prototype.

With a non-electronic game, as long as the designer is present, he can make a ruling anytime a question arises that isn't covered in the rules -- the rules may not even be written, yet. But that isn't possible with an electronic game. The program must be fully functional, which means the game "rules" have to be complete, detailed, and coded.

A playable prototype of a paper game can be made in an hour or two. A playable electronic prototype, even a simple one, will take new game development students dozens of hours on average for even relatively simple video games.

If you're familiar with how movies are made in the 21st century, think of the storyboards and "pre-viz" electronic versions of the title that are made before actual filming. Storyboards are just another kind of prototype, in effect. It's much easier, cheaper, and quicker, to make storyboards or even pre-viz versions of a movie than to shoot the actual piece. The same is true for non-electronic games.

Many professional game designers recommend making - and say they themselves use --- non-electronic prototypes to test their ideas while still in the preproduction phase.

For tips on making paper prototypes, see "The Siren Song of the Paper Cutter:
Tips and Tricks from the Trenches of Paper Prototyping," by Tyler Sigman (September 3, 2005, Gamasutra.com).

 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, GameCareerGuide.com (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.

 It's Good to Generate More Bad Ideas
When game design students make non-electronic games rather than video games, much less time is wasted on poor ideas, and most ideas are poor ideas.

Students tend to think their first idea will be the best game ever. And if that doesn't pan out, the next one will be great. Experienced designers, on the other hand, know that they should have many designs in the works at any given time. They know that to get a few really good ideas, you need to generate dozens or hundreds of ideas and accept the fact that the overwhelming majority of them will be bad.

There's no reason for educators to expect students to come up with excellent game designs when they're starting out, any more than writers or artists or composers start out with excellent ideas or results. John Creasey, who ultimately published more than 600 novels (mostly mysteries), was rejected more than 700 times before he made a sale. Science fiction novelist (and Byte magazine computer pundit) Jerry Pournelle says you must be willing to throw away your first million words (about 10 novels) if you want to become a good novelist.

Why let students waste huge amounts of time producing one or two electronic games that are fundamentally bad designs? When they design non-electronic games and very soon thereafter play their prototypes, they quickly discover that their "great ideas" are not very good, in practice, which helps them critique their ideas at an early stage, and discard the obviously bad ones before spending a lot of time on them. In a sense, it teaches them humility, something that every designer must learn.

These are especially important lessons for the millennial generation in the age of instant gratification. Some people think they're in The Matrix, where a quick pill is all they need to be an expert and starting out with electronic games obscures the nature of these illusions.

Focus on Gameplay
The greater simplicity of non-electronic games forces concentration on good gameplay.

Students tend to identify "games" with AAA titles, rather than simpler casual games or games of 20 years ago (Tetris, Space Invaders). These AAA games are often terrifically complex, but they represent the kind of game most students want to produce. However, as a practical matter, most of them actually won't go on to work for companies producing AAA console games; nor in an educational setting can they make such complex games requiring dozens of work years of professional effort.

All this complexity obscures the actual game design in the games. That obscuring complexity rarely exists in non-electronic games; furthermore, the students aren't likely to design complex non-electronic games because they cannot expect the computer to take care of the details. Gameplay is a much more obvious element of non-electronic games than it is of video games. The result is that the student is forced to concentrate on the most important part of the game: gameplay.

For example, beginners designing electronic games tend to concentrate on story rather than gameplay, which is usually a big mistake. When there's no computer, they're less likely to do this, because they don't have a computer to describe and depict the world for them.

Design Problems vs. Computer Responsibilities
When students work on non-digital games, they cannot hide behind the computer.

Student game developers tend to design overly-complex electronic games, assuming that the computer will take care of certain problems that are in fact game design problems. I call this "hiding behind the computer." Unfortunately, this is easy to do because only at the end of a very long design and modification cycle will it become obvious that the computer cannot solve the problem, that it is a design problem.

People make computer games complex because they can, because the "computer will take care of" things that would never be possible or tolerable in a non-electronic game. But often, the resulting game is too complex despite the computer.

Designers, especially novices, should live by the following advice from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a French engineer and early airman: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

It's much easier to learn to do this effectively with non-electronic games because there is no "easy button"; when there's no computer, there's nowhere to hide. When a student designs something that results in a crappy electronic game prototype, she can blame it on the code, or the art, or the sound, or something else. When a student makes a crappy non-electronic game prototype, he's out there on his own. It's the game designer's fault, so students are forced to figure out what they need to do to get better.

Designing non-electronic games is actually more challenging, for most people, and more educational for beginners.

Additional Benefits for Educators and Students
If game education begins with electronic games, in the end, neither the teacher nor the student ever actually teaches or learns game design --they teach and learn game production, which is quite another thing (and it's being taught and learned in an exceptionally half-baked way).

If a class uses a simple game engine, even something as simple as Gamemaker, it limits not only what games can be made, but also the effect of the effort put in. That is to say, most of the effort goes into making the prototype work, not into the designing, testing, and iterating phases.

When a class creates electronic games for learning purposes, it spends almost all its time on game production elements that are not related to game design.

Many video game experts (for example, Adams and Rollings in Game Design Fundamentals) say, "Game design is game design," whether electronic or not. Although that is a topic for another article, I can point out the most important difference. First, the obvious difference is scale, but this isn't so much a design difference as a marketing difference. Big time video games are produced by dozens of people, cost millions of dollars, and in rare cases sell many millions of copies. "Big time" non-video games are produced by a few people with budgets in the thousands, with only a few titles such as Settlers of Catan and Risk selling as many as a million copies.

More important from a design perspective, electronic games tend to be one person (or group) versus the computer; non-electronic games tend to be two or more players against one another. "Multi-sided" games -- games having more than one conflicting human entity (individual or group) -- are the norm in the non-electronic world, but the exception in the video game world. (Except where player versus player is allowed, even an MMO is not multi-sided even if there are 70 people in a raid.) We are seeing more multi-sided video games, and there is a lot to be learned from board and card games, but that's another discussion entirely.

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher comes from the non-electronic side of game design, and teaches video game design at Fayetteville Technical Community College, NC. His most well-known game, Britannia, is among the games described in Hobby Games: The 100 Best, edited by James Lowder.

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