Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Games from Scratch Session - Instructor Reflection

If you read Paul's posts about the first two sessions of our Custom Workshop on creating games from Scratch, you'll notice he points to a third, and final post...

Originally, I was going to do an update on the 3rd day of Games from Scratch. What I would rather do, considering the lateness of this post, is to update with a reflection on how the class went, and my recommendations and urging for others to help take this class into a more fruitful direction.

First off, as inferred in Paul's blog entries on this class, games are easy to create, good games are as difficult as any engineering project. Computer programming can be easy, anyone can take five minutes and print "Hello World" on the screen with a few simple commands. Making computer programs that are able to detect human behavior, constantly assess performance of the players and create an enjoyable environment is extremely difficult. Asking students to try to make good computer games using more advanced programming techniques in three classes, I found out, is borderline impossible. Not for lack of try from the students, as they were all incredibly engaged and passionate about their projects, but because of the time it takes to individually assess each student's performance levels in programming and design, and making a lesson plan that can work accordingly to their needs.

For those who are unfamiliar with Scratch, I urge you to take a look at this website and register. Take a look at a few of the games and the other programs make through Scratch. For those unfamiliar with basic game design, have a look at these interactive programs from Kongregate. Much of what you're seeing in these two instances were shown to the students as part of their curriculum. When we finally had the students modify, not design, their own games, the results were good...but to make them great, we will need to do the following.

1) More class sessions. I've taught this class before, and it has taken well over 12 sessions just to get students thinking about making board games. To get students to make a transition from thinking about games to making games, it will take more than three sessions.

2) Paper prototyping. Many of the best video games have been done previously using paper prototyping. This method of game design helps designers make cheap replicas of their virtual space without the cost, and gives them a vivid representation about what works and what does not work. This video may help provide insight into what I am talking about:

3) Promote the value of failure (reflection). I know that sounds strange, promoting failure amongst the students...but let me propose using a different word for failure that may make you feel better...reflection. You see, unlike standard testing practices in schools, when a student fails, they receive little opportunity to make up for their work, and therefore reflection is rendered unnecessary in the eyes of the student. Why reflect on what they could have done if they can do nothing to change it? Failure as a game designer provides insight into things that are not working, and if the designer is serious enough about their final project, they will change those mistakes because they want a better project. In many of the game design workshops that I have taught, one of the first things you have to do is promote constructive criticism, and teach that failure is not final, but is part of a continuing process to help make that project and that designer stronger.

I know this may sound like an unusual post. But I do take game design, this class, and the idea of collaborative learning quite seriously, and wanted to give you, the reader a honest insight into this process. Please, if you do have questions about game design, this class, or anything in my post, just send me an e-mail at or leave a comment below!

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