Two Classes on Game Design

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Yeah, so it looks like I’ve got an exciting week coming up. (I also think I sort of broke the “s” key on my laptop’s keyboard — it sometimes doesn’t trigger when I hit it. And until I have evidence to the contrary, Iím going to blame the cat. But thatís an issue for another day.)

So. Iím leading two classes next week, in two very different educational contexts. On Tuesday, I’m doing my first day of a class called “Play” — an eight-week summer class for high school kids about game design. Then on Thursday I’m doing a talk over at General Assembly on my usual subject of the past year-or-so, game design and social media. A couple hours with 9th and 10th graders. A couple hours with industry people. I’m expecting that by Friday I will have another interesting blog post rarin’ to go…

Anyway. Let’s take these one by one.

Tuesday. Iím honestly most nervous about this one. Iíve done professional talks before, and theyíre fairly nerve-wracking (especially Ignite — yes). But. I essentially know my audience, I know what they want, and I can at least predict how I think theyíre going to respond to me. For example, I know I can go and talk for about an hour straight on a fairly esoteric topic and people will sit there and politely lend me their ears (I hope). I will be confident that I can just blab whatís on my mind and people will be basically on my same page a far as context. Weíre all social media players, we know what the big issues and common complaints of the day are, we know most of the same memes. We all spend our days sitting in front of the same internet.

But. I do not think this is going to be the case on Tuesday, with this group of kids. Now, I expect them to be reasonably tech-savvy. In fact, I sat in on fifteen-twenty minutes of Andrew “Mr. Drozd” Drozdís computer class last Wednesday and got a taste of what their level of sophistication is. Just saying this makes me feel like grandpa, but: Theyíre already well beyond where the average high schooler was when I was in high school. Granted, thereís way more stuff for them to explore — Iím not saying my peers were tech-dumb. But I think these kids will have a basic knowledge of what, say, Facebook is and how social networking online works. They might even have some programmer-mindset sorts of mental stuff going on — Iím sort of convinced that if you enjoy using technology at a young enough age thereís almost no way you canít develop a programmerís mentality about computers. As you explore and push the boundaries of Facebook, for example, youíll get to understand computer logic and flow and how things fit together conceptually. I think. Maybe Iíll be wrong, here. Which is part of the reason Iím so excited to teach this — I just want to see how kids use technology. I know how tech nerds use technology.

Iím also hoping that this “programmer mindset” thing is happening with some of these kids simply because I think the game designer mentality is very, very similar. Game design is all about creating complex and purposeful systems and making sure those system work as intended, while making sure there are no holes or exploits that will break them or make them un-fun. You may not need to explicitly know what a for-loop is, but you do need to be able to mentally run through many, many “what ifs” and think about how the players are going to interactive with whatever you create.

So, yeah. I think this first class on Tuesday will be a couple of things. The biggest: Simply me feeling them out so I can get a read on what their mindset about gaming is already. They play games. That Iím confident of. They doubtless play many more games than they even realize, and I think game design is also a very interesting subject to talk to kids about because itís quite possible that they play more different games for longer periods of time than almost any adult does. They probably play sports. Basketball or baseball or whatever. And some Xbox. (Maybe too much Xbox.) And they seem to have Facebook accounts, so Iíd be surprised if some werenít into social games like Farmville. No doubt they get distracted while online and find casual games to mess with, as well. They might play board games. Checkers? Chess? Thereís probably some casual gambling of some sort happening. Who knows. But this is the kind of stuff I want to get a read on. Before I do, I donít think I can make any sort of concrete plan of action for the coming weeks.

Iíve also found a handful of online games for us to play together (with special thanks to the fine folks at ask.Metafilter for their many suggestions). I donít think weíll get through them all, and Iím really hoping that theyíll have some games in mind to play in class — but Iíll list Ďem here, anyway. Maybe youíll find something you enjoy. These are, by the way, games Iím hoping they can play in five or ten minutes and get the essence of the experience.

Casual games:

Strategy games:

Games as art or personal expression:

Cooperative games:


  • notpron. (Although, jeez — a name like that makes me nervous about using it in class.)

Anyway — you may know much better examples of these kinds of games (or other kinds of games Iím missing altogether). Hit me up in the comments, please, if you have ideas. But you get where Iím kind of going. And I hope to take the class through a few of these games during our couple of hours.

One final comment: The part that makes me the most nervous is simply the possibility that some kids just wonít care. That Iíll have to fight to get some to pay attention or that Iíll be exhausted just keeping conduct in line or whatever. Iím going into this assuming that the topic will be enticing enough that I can rely on the kids being fairly interested. If nothing else, if I sense that Iím losing them, I can totally switch gears. Itís nice not having to teach against a prescribed curriculum. But weíll see.

Itís all a big experiment.

And then, yeah: Thursday. At General Assembly.

So Mike Dory put Brad Hargreaves over there in touch with me (thanks!) — they wanted someone to come talk about game design, Iím always willing to talk about game design, so here we are. The talk has been put together quickly, but Iíve been pondering this topic long enough that I kind of had a nice set of points I knew I wanted to make.

Iím talking about how game design impacts social media design. My grouchy pitch: Iím really tired of all of this “gamification” crap because itís vastly oversimplifying why game design is so important for people who design other kinds of interactive products. So many people seem caught up in their points and badges — 90% inspired by Foursquare, it feels like. And thereís been this happy-hippie GAMES WILL SAVE THE WORLD thread of conversation which Iím getting tired of because itís letting people who donít really have much to say grab everyoneís attention simply and get everyone all excited by just listing all of the things that we can now suddenly fix with a few simple game mechanics: Global warming! Solved. The economy! Fixed. Social inequality! Easy-cheezy. Education! Fixed over my lunch break.

Obviously Iím kind of overstating the case, but I do thing thereís tremendous room in here for a much more nuanced conversation about game design and interactive design. Iím hardly a ground-breaking genius on the subject of either games or social media, but I think I have the right attitude and Iím hoping that I can at least try to point some people in the right direction. Itís all about opening up peopleís minds to possibilities. My own, included. I love doing talks mostly because of the amount of research and thinking I am forced to do leading up to them. Even if they cancelled the actual talk, it would be worth it for me.

Brad had me tone down some of the bitchiness in my talk description — with good reason. I promise: My talk will not full of complaints. And even though I get snarky about some game designers when they get all starry-eyed about this sort of stuff, Iím very pleased that this line of conversation has become popular. I do think thereís a lot to learn, here, and I appreciate the idea of people having this conversation amongst themselves — even if theyíre sometimes amateurs or just people shooting the shit.

Anyway. More on that later, as well. Iím going to post my talking notes online as I did with my SXSW 2010 talk.

Itís 2am.