Game Design for High Schoolers, Class #1

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I wanted to write a few words about the game design class I’m teaching over at the Academy of Urban Planning, a high school in Bushwick. We have our next class tomorrow and I should get get out some thoughts about the first class before things get jumbled.

So, yeah. We had our class. And it went very well, happy to report. We had about nine kids turn up altogether, and they kind of trickled out over the course of our two hours so by the end we had four present. Apparently it’ll take another class or so before they get into the rhythm of staying the entire time. The class is a bit of an elective — and it’s from 4-6pm on Tuesdays through the summer, which is… odd for kids of that age. And that class schedule really feeds into my feeling that I’m teaching a graduate school class for 15 and 16-year-old. Or, at least, an ITP class for kids that age: The first class was definitely very conversational and I’m trying to let the kids guide me as much as possible towards what they want to learn. And like an ITP class, everyone’s going to have a group project due at the end… We’re going to make simple games with YoYo Games’ GameMaker software, a fun little casual game-making tool I’ve been playing with for the past few days. Perfect for building some early-era Nintendo-style 2D creations. (And which Brad Hargreaves over at General Assembly actually recommended to me — good call on that!) I think the kids will have fun with that.

Anyway: More about this first class. Before we started, one kid introduced himself and mentioned that he’d googled me and watched my Ignite talk — a good sign. And during the class he talked and talked about games — very engaged, and even a little self-conscious that he was chattering too much. I was pretty excited at the engagement. And to see that the other kids were mostly into it, as well — especially the ones who remained as the class went along. Everyone talked. Everyone seemed more-or-less comfortable, although these are high school kids and prone to goofy awkwardness (something I’ve tooooootally grown out of). But I felt a good vibe and nice energy as we went along.

So what did we do? Well. I had very neatly picked out a few casual online games for us to play together a lead-in to some conversations about different kinds of games. (See my last post on the matter.) Two things happened, though:

1. Fun fact: Schools have content blockers. And those content blockers block games. (And Twitter. But not Facebook or YouTube, which surprised me.) So my game selections we a no-go.

2. Honestly, after getting to know them a bit… These kids mostly seemed to have XBOXes and Wiis. Or, at the very least, they had spent a fair amount of time playing games online. My game selections felt kind of dinky and a bit below what they were already used to. I don’t need to introduce teenagers to video games. They pretty well know them.

I had to do something, though, so Lisa (the woman who helped me teach that day) and I clicked around trying to find some games that the blocker had missed. Found some terrible ones clearly for elementary schoolers which just sucked. But during this one of the kids found an HTML 5 version of Lemmings that someone had created, so we wound up playing that, each kid pulling it up on their computer screen and playing for 10-15 minutes. And then discussion. Which led into the meat of the class:

What is a game?

This is when things got interesting. I started doing my thing, prompting them to think about games they’d played and what made them different from a non-game. And it really didn’t take them any time to hit on the key things. Goals. Rules. Strategy. Etc. We went through and talked about the features of games and I tried to push the boundaries of their thinking a bit, toward things like: What makes a game bad (which one kid entertainingly hijacked into an elaborate rant against ET for the Atari 2600, which came out when he was, like, -14)? And we talked about level design. Like, when playing Lemmings, how were the levels ordered? You have all of these powers and controls… Did you start out with access to all of them or just some? That kind of thing. Again, they got it very quickly. They play games all the time. They know about increasing difficulty.

And this was one of the major takeaways, I think. And why I think this is an important sort of class. These kids do play games all the time. And they put a fair amount of thinking into them and I’m sure that almost every kid there has had moments when they’ve mentally stepped back a bit and considered in a more abstract sense what they’re doing when they’re playing a game. But. I don’t think they ever get to talk about this stuff, at least not in a way where they’re allowed to think about it and get a little bit of direction from an adult. Or validation that it’s not a flat-out waste of time. Almost certainly not at school. At least not in an official sense — I bet there are teachers who play games and talk about them a bit with the kids. Maybe? I don’t know. At any rate, I felt like I had a subject at my disposal that the kids both wanted to talk about and were already, to a certain degree, experts on. Just without realizing it.

And in a broader sense, I want to see more classes like this taught in high schools because I know that kids have different sorts of brains and I feel like game design (like computer science) appeals to a kind of systems thinking which brains like mine do very well with. I happened to be smart enough to skate by and do reasonably well in high school, but I felt like my classes very rarely connected with the way my brain really liked to learn. Most of the stuff I really enjoyed learning about I kind of just did on my own. I definitely kind of created my own personal curriculum during high school and definitely college, not limited to technology by any means, but certainly that’s where I picked up my mad computer skills. I’m good with computers.

Anyway: I think there’s room, here, to appeal to some kids who might not’ve connected to a subject yet at school and get them excited. And slip in some computer programming, geometry, and art talk while we’re at it.

Big picture stuff.

Tomorrow is class #2. Werewolf day. More reports afterwards, I’m sure.