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

    - Lewis Pulsipher
  •  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,


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