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  • Teaching Game Design: Problems in Educating the Next Generation

    [07.15.09]
    - Michael Prinke
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    The Perspective Effect

    This challenge is by no means a simple one to overcome as the many positions that exist in the industry reflect multiple philosophical points of view regarding game design itself. These points of view are not necessarily mutually exclusive as the advancement of one is often contingent on the advancement of the others but nevertheless both developers and students color their expectations of games and of the type of projects they want to make based on a peculiar philosophy revolving around their backgrounds, skills, and personal preferences. The three main points of view are as follows:

    Games as Novelty

    This point of view holds that games are first and foremost games and that at the heart of a fun game is the novelty of the game itself. This often goes hand-in-hand either with a strong emphasis on creative play, as is the case with The Sims and other titles by Maxis, or with an emphasis on simplicity, enjoyability, and accessibility of a game's mechanics, as is the case with puzzle games like Tetris and a variety of online casual games.

    Games as Expression

    This point of view holds that games are a new form of expressive media like film or literature and that the heart of a good game lies in the fulfillment of players' fantasies and the power of the game's storytelling. Games like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy try to put players into the world of the story and involve them in a narrative directly.

    Games as Invention

    This point of view has been hard-coded into digital game design culture since digital games' beginnings in graduate student labs and holds that games and simulations are a way of showcasing the latest computing technology. PC-based games strongly emphasize this philosophy, taking advantage of the most powerful commercially available hardware before it's even released to the public. In this case the tools and techniques that are used to build the games are in and of themselves the object of focus.

    These different interpretations of games are not opposites, but nevertheless developers and team members of all kinds find themselves emphasizing one or another, which is understandable given the diverse skill sets involved. On a corporate basis this schism in philosophies is the fundamental issue that has resulted in the breadth of practices between companies. On an individual basis every team member has their own vision of what the purpose of a project and definition of a game is and, with those things, preferences for the kinds of projects that they want to work on -- the types of projects that exist in total are very broad, ranging from casual puzzle games to cinematic masterpieces.

    The divide presents not only challenges in preparation for work in the industry but in communication and cooperation between students; one may want to work on a cinematic game while another might not see the point, and these two people may find themselves on a team together in the classroom when they might never otherwise work together as they would likely apply to companies that better reflect their individual philosophies.

    From the instructor's perspective the challenge also exists to cater to the wide variety of expectations that students enter programs with and provide a satisfying experience in their curriculum for everyone. This poses the third great challenge in that there are so wide a variety of techniques and standards to go along with these philosophies that no single program covers all of them.

    Teaching resources -- hardware, software, and labor -- raise major budgetary concerns and, especially in the case of instructors and personnel in this area of study, may be extremely scarce, limiting the variety of courses that an institution may be prepared to offer and with that subjects that it may be prepared to teach and software packages that it may be able to prepare students to use.

    Social and Economic Issues

    Finally, let us not ignore the issues faced by gaming as a whole beyond any individual production. While growing stronger as a part of modern global artistic and economic culture games are still struggling to find some sense of legitimacy in the public eye and are having a more difficult time than their predecessors for the conflicting points of view revolving around them.

    Digital games, though they have made great progress as an expressive media, are still closely associated with toys, both in the minds of many designers and in the minds of many consumers. Meanwhile controversial matters like game violence and addiction issues keep the legitimacy of games mired in bad press both in the news and in politics. When this legitimacy as a form of entertainment is called into question so is the legitimacy of digital games as an area of study, such that only within the last 10 years have educational institutions developed programs surrounding digital games -- and only a handful are available.

    This, compounded with the other issues highlighted in this article and the high budgetary risks involved in exploring new properties and techniques on a significant commercial scale, has made digital gaming a very slow field to grow. The technology may be pushing ever-forward as processing cores in computers multiply, memory capacity and speed doubles, and the economic scale and power of games as a media grows with them, but the techniques have barely been explored, let alone documented, which puts educational institutions seeking to teach a new generation of game designers in a difficult place.

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