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  • Teaching Game Design: Problems in Educating the Next Generation

    - Michael Prinke

  •  The university setting itself, meanwhile, draws from a much larger pool of students with a much broader variety of skills and interests than skills-based art schools. On one hand this introduces students to a great many more perspectives on game development than does a more skills-based program and broadens their horizons considerably. On the other it mounts the worst-case scenario previously described wherein one student may not respect another's ideas and vice versa, and it can prove challenging for students to develop cohesive projects, particularly of the types that are consistent with their expectations and goals.

    What's more, though an academic program at a university draws from a larger pool of students it is difficult to predict what type and number of students will enter a game design program, and coordinating their skill sets in order to be conducive to making a game project can be very difficult. For instance, one year a class may consist almost entirely of artists with only a handful of programmers while the next it may be a more even distribution, but for that one year a considerable burden falls on both groups -- programmers because only they can make the game function and they may find themselves completely alone on a team, and artists because they may find their programmer unable to work to the needs of their project and have a failure on their hands regardless of how much effort they put into it.

    Cross-disciplinary programs like that found at MSU in particular tend to compound these issues very easily. Budgetary concerns further aggravate problems as the instructors do not always exist to fill desired positions and there isn't always enough of a budget at a University for all of the desired labs or equipment. This makes it extremely difficult to cater to students' expectations for an academically-oriented program despite what actual value it may hold. Meanwhile the coursework itself may face significant limits, forcing instructors to concentrate and condense content and making it difficult to digest important facts such as the mathematical intricacies of design.

    On one hand all of these issues result in, to put it flatly, lower standards of quality from the projects that students produce as opposed to the ones seen from more skills-oriented programs, but there is a distinct advantage here in terms of the problem-solving ability and versatility that students in such a program develop. The challenges posed to students in this setting involve time management, self-sufficiency, and cooperative challenges that students in smaller, more skills-oriented programs do not face.

    With so many issues it can be difficult to recognize this value or the approach that programs like these are taking -- which is to introduce students to as broad a set of ideas as possible and prepare them for a wide variety of challenges, roles, and types of production. While the industry values specialized skills this is becoming recognized as a valuable set of traits. The intellectual standard that universities bring with them also has the potential to push the philosophy behind games forward as these academically-oriented programs do often strongly emphasize the theoretical side of making games as well as the practical side.


    The challenges that academia faces with teaching students to make games are vast. The game industry's own issues snowball with the issues of teaching, presenting educators with the puzzling matter of trying to teach a single, cohesive field where no single philosophical definition of its product exists and where no single discipline is the absolute path to success. Both traditional academia and more focused institutions have developed ways of dealing with these problems, but in many cases both require some refinement.

    The skills-based route does present a more cohesive program that is closer to industry standards, but they're very expensive for it and skills-based programs are sometimes so intensely focused that it's difficult to say whether or not they can truly be called "production-oriented." They seem to prepare students more for individual roles in game development than the whole of it.

    The academically-based route, meanwhile, is a rockier path to tread but gives students insight into a larger view, presenting the whole world -- not just within game design but around it, but only if they're willing to see it. In either case there are always exceptions, but in order for gaming to expand and grow one side will have to accept the values of the other, whether it's a programmer deeply invested in games-as-invention who has to see and accept the value in what the team writer is doing or whether it's a rogue art student among staunch academics who must learn to understand the value in what's being taught to him as opposed to focusing on what isn't being taught.

    It's here, at the crossroad of disciplines and ideas, as with games themselves, that students and instructors alike can find greater strength.


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    Bogost, Ian and Assoc., 2006, "Game Design Education: Integrating Computation and Culture," IEEE online journal, 2008 December. Available here.

    M. Masuch and M. Rueger, 2005, "Challenges in Collaborative Game Design: Developing Learning Environments for Creating Games," IEEE online journal, 2008 December. Available here.

    Hilleman, Richard, 2008, October 8. "The Game Designer as Change Agent" keynote speech, Meaningful Play Conference 2008. East Lansing, Michigan.

    Fullerton, Tracy, 2008, October 11. Personal interview regarding teaching methodology and focus at USC. East Lansing, Michigan.

    Carson, Jamie, 2008, July. Personal interview regarding program at the Art Institute of Illinois and its intellectual standards. Schaumburg, Illinois.

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    Hietahlati, Juuso, 2008, July 4, "Producers of the Roundtable: Structuring Your Team," [Online Document], Gamasutra 2008 December. Available here.

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    Guttenburg, Darren, 2006, April 13, "Student Feature: An Academic Approach to Game Design: Is It Worth It?" [Online Document], Gamasutra, 2008, December. Available here.

    Yim, Roger, 2001, February 26, "Taking Game Design Back to Basics: A Provocative Essay Calls for Innovation," [Online Document], 2008, December. Available here.

    Deutsch, Claudia T, 2002, April 1, "Some Colleges Take Games Seriously," [Online Document], 2008, December. Available here.


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