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One game design exercise during a seminar

Vaseline 2 months ago

Last week I tried a new exercise during my gaming seminar, and wanted to post about it because it went well and might be useful. I would also like to build on the exercise.

To summarize, at this point in the lesson we have explored a range of game formats. We started with tabletop games, moved to role-playing games, then jumped to the digital world and then adopted gamification. Throughout, we explored the higher education implications for each through practice (playing games), science (reading research), and design (making things). Now the students are working on their final gaming projects, a process that takes weeks and involves a lot of iterative work.

At this point I wanted to try to synthesize the content of the lesson. One of my goals was to make sure they were able to apply the entire semester’s work to their projects. Even if they produce a game in one format (e.g. tabletop), they can apply many design and pedagogical lessons from the other. A second goal was to increase their knowledge of gaming and education in general so that they have a better chance of getting that out of the semester experience.

Other thoughts turned to my planning. The event must be creative, focused on design. It should encourage them to delve into their memories and classwork. It also needs to be light enough that we can do it in one class session without crashing their project processes. It should also not focus on a topic we have already considered (e.g. storytelling, historical or scientific simulation). Theoretically, it is a constructivist effort because they can create meaning and understanding by making and producing things.

So I gradually came up with and tried out an exercise. The pitch: I told it to the class “I would like you to design a game that represents a national election.” I didn’t specify which country. I didn’t give them any educational parameters or constraints (i.e. curriculum, budget); I wanted them to bring out those dimensions themselves. One requirement: they had to turn their game into a role-playing game. When designing, they should consider the main themes from our class so far: information limitations, empathy, randomness, the balance between simulation and playability, storytelling, etc. etc.

One contextual detail: electoral politics had not come up in the class discussions thus far, nor had any student described themselves as seriously studying government or political science. I chose this topic because it would be fresh and unfamiliar and would hopefully lead to new reflections. Furthermore, no single student would dominate the discussion based on academic qualifications, so they should all feel equal toward the problem.

Furthermore, I didn’t specify a nation because I wanted to keep their imaginations open. Moreover, it was a very international class, and I hoped that the students would bring in details from different countries.

Essentially, it was a whole-group exercise, with students sitting together at shared tables. Several remote students Zoomed in, projected on two large screens and also available via chat via individual computers. I didn’t bring any physical props or resources because I wanted this to be discussion oriented. I took notes on a projected/shared Google Doc.

So how did things go? For starters, the students grappled with the challenge admirably. They asked a lot of good questions. Who would players play against: candidates, government officials, the average voter, constituent groups? What would go into a character sheet: persuasiveness, government experience, finances? What could the game master simulate and represent: voting, polls, regional interest groups?

DALL·E imagines a college classroom in which students and a professor are working on a simulation design.  The room is equipped with computers and large

DALL·E imagines “a college classroom in which students and a professor are engaged in a simulation design exercise. The room is equipped with computers and a large…”

Should the game be more competitive or collaborative? How many pre-election political features can appear in the game? Some students suggested random events, such as scandals, marriages within character families, and expressions of support. Others thought about non-player characters (NPCs) and how much to set up in advance. More questions emerged, such as: can we simulate an electoral mandate to set up a government? How can electoral coalitions and corruption be structured? Can we allow candidates to challenge the vote count?

Once the class had put forward a significant amount of ideas, I changed things up: “Now how would you design a tabletop game to simulate a national election?” I reminded them of the games we had played together and the scholarship we read, and the fact that some of them were building tabletop games.

The students gradually built up some ideas, often in the form of questions. Should the game represent a specific election (real world or hypothetical) or an abstract one? Like the RPG, should players play candidates or voters? What should be on a sign, a geographical map or representations of statistics? (I showed images of this American election game). Some students explored using a map to represent the campaign. One of them raised the idea of ​​representing only swing states. We discussed ways to engage regional states, with examples from India and the United States. People showed various metrics such as polling and campaign finance. There was some discussion about using multiple cards to create resource or action combinations.

Once that discussion reached a good point, I switched back to video games. How can a video game simulate a national election? At this point I think things were getting a bit repetitive, as we already had a lot of ideas on the table, and the question became how to translate them into digital formats. Students suggested ways to place electoral strategies within a branching narrative structure. One way to do that would be for the player to answer questions and ultimately find out if he won the election. Other students thought about generating a set of candidates in advance, or generating them randomly for each game.

I then shifted the discussion to gamification. How would they gamify a national election? Some started by talking about rewards for voting, like stickers, but making them more attractive through a limited release, or even the ability to give early voters more weight. At this point I concluded the exercise and the class moved on to other topics, namely gaming and storytelling.

Overall I was happy with the way it worked. Students immersed themselves in their learning process and converted it into design ideas. They tested their understanding of different game types. They thought about educational applications. It was a good review process.

Things to do next time I repeat the exercise: I can provide supplies for students to work with, such as drawing paper and writing utensils, blank play materials or toys, such as Lego. Extensive digital materials can also be good, such as involving all students in writing the Google Doc, or using another tool such as Miro.

I still think about the surprising nature of the exercise. I liked that it got people thinking quickly, but would it be better to announce this in the syllabus from day one so students could prepare for it? I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure what to do about the length of the exercise once it starts to get repetitive. Should I hold this event earlier in the semester, perhaps as a kind of midterm evaluation, when they have less of a focus on gaming? Or should I keep it at this late point in the semester, but change things up somehow to get more ideas?

Since it was a mixed class, remote and undergraduate students participated equally. Because the Google Doc is virtual, I think online learners have gained a sense of equal access.

Building on the exercise, I wonder if there is a common name for this kind of thing. I did a similar session during my technology seminar, asking students to creatively apply their seminar learning so far in a creative, live activity. What should we call this, a synthetic design exercise? A synoptic design activity? Surely someone else has done this kind of thing and theorized about it.

My thanks go to the brilliant LDT students who worked hard and constructively with me.

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