How to Play: Learning Game Design with Travis

by Ken Rosenberg

Travis Ross, fifth-year doctoral student, has had plenty of experience both teaching and gaming. Over the summer, he worked at the intersection of the two as a game moderator for a group playing the tabletop role-playing game (RPG) Shadowrun. This semester, he is again combining both sets of knowledge to teach his first full-fledged class, T367: Theory and Practice of Game Design. The course was originally designed and taught by Professor Ted Castronova, who decided to integrate game design principles into the structure of both lessons and grading. To teach novel material, it is vital to adopt an innovative teaching style. Since games are an interactive medium, the most effective way to appreciate their design is to play them! Game rules are best learned through experience; game design is best taught through structured play.

Almost every one of the eight games featured in T367 is considered a “Eurogame,” a broad category of board and/or card games that have become very popular in recent years. Why board games, as opposed to digital games? Video games are more mainstream and most students want to develop software, not tabletop experiences. However, while video games offer flashier, more visceral fare, board games force players to learn design principles as they play. Video games naturally constrain players and create infallible rule sets; the only actions possible in a virtual environment are ones the developers allowed for in the design process. With board games, players must read through every rule and moderate their own experience; each action must be understood before it is performed.

Though some are enthusiastic gaming hobbyists, frequently visiting places like The Game Preserve (a local game shop), most students enrolled in Travis’ class have never played a board game more exotic or complex than Monopoly or Risk. There the most important course objective is to increase gaming literacy, to make students aware of titles, genres, and rule sets that more fully explore the potential of gaming. Still, though over half the class time is spent playing in groups, “it’s not ‘just come in and play a board game,’” Travis explained. Students are required to read – among other things – The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, currently the most comprehensive book on game design fundamentals. Furthermore, each play session is tied to a specific design principle, and to a related assignment that asks students to appreciate and manipulate the principle. Assignment prompts ask students what they would change about an game’s rules, what elements they might take from an existent game to craft their own game, or how they could change a game to reach a new audience.

Travis started them off with Wits and Wagers, a betting-based trivia game. Then, they proceeded to Dominion, a card game that doesn’t use a board at all. “One of the best games of all time,” according to Travis. Dominion is used to teach students about feedback loops and how to create a set of cards with tightly compatible (and balanced) abilities. Next, Pandemic, featured mainly to present fully-cooperative gameplay. In Pandemic, all players are working together to try and contain and cure the spread of disease across the globe; they compete against the negative states induced by the game’s trending-toward-worse system, which acts like an enemy AI.

With Settlers of Catan, probably the most well-known Eurogame, students are forced to think about the communication aspect of board games. Players can trade raw resources with each other, and it is often necessary to do so in order to continue producing properties and other victory-earning constructions. Effective traders are savvy enough to make seemingly fair offers, while simultaneously downplaying the advantages of what happens when someone accepts their superfluous Lumber in trade for some precious Ore.

Travis added a card game to the course’s list of games, the most popular trading card game in the world: Magic: The Gathering. Not only is it pervasively popular and fundamental to any game designer’s ludography for reasons of game design, the business model is quite notable, as well. Magic has been around for almost 20 years and, in that time, its creators have added hundreds of new cards while balancing them with existing cards and slowly phasing out older sets. Though it isn’t absolutely necessary to own the latest batch of cards, Travis explained that the game’s designers have effectively created an economy based on demand for new cards. Most students have not yet considered this meta-game aspect of the games industry, and Travis believes it is important to understand how and why players continue to invest – mentally and financially – in an ongoing game phenomenon.

Speaking of meta-games, Ted designed the grading system for the course, which uses a non-punitive system based on experience points – something that is familiar to anyone who has ever played a traditional RPG. Instead of a linear list of uniformly-prescribed tasks, a large set of potential assignments is available, with which students can earn the set total of points required to earn the grade of their choice. Yes, while students earn their own grade in any given class, T367 is explicitly a choose-your-own-grade course. At the beginning of the semester, students draft a list of assignments they will accept, then submit a signed contract – even going so far as to tell the instructor precisely the grade they intend to earn.

There are fifteen types of assignments, including exams, and each type can be completed multiple times. The point distribution across grades is multiplicative; it is harder to go from an A to an A+ than it is to get from a C- to a B, for instance. The two “big” assignments are to play an RPG and design a game – doing just these two will allow students to accrue enough points for a C-level grade, even without any other work. Exams exist, but are optional. Even so, this semester, most students’ contracts include all four exams– much to Travis’ surprise. “I thought they’d want to do more game-like activities,” he said.

Most importantly, completing assignments is an iterative process. Games involve task repetition to increase mastery, and game design needs plenty of play-testing and feedback. The course was designed with this in mind. “You don’t make the perfect game the first time you submit it,” Travis said. Nobody “fails” their task on the first attempt – the work is handed back, with feedback, for resubmission. Travis stressed how this model of grading required detailed rubrics and plenty of examples, so students know what they need to achieve and how to get there.

Travis loves the classroom. Most enjoyable for him has been the social aspect of connecting with his students. One of the lessons he learned while assisting with T101, another Telecom class, was to make time to interact beyond just lecturing. Travis says he teaches best in small group settings and one-on-one interactions; that’s why he memorizes everybody’s names at the beginning of each semester. Travis has been enjoying how the open course design creates a unique classroom atmosphere. “The great thing is that the games really help teaching,” he said. Lectures take a backseat to gaming, and Travis has found himself playing the role of helpful moderator, more than stoic pontificator. “A lot of the teaching comes in the form of helping them,” he explained. As the students play and discuss games, Travis makes rounds through the room to ask questions and suggest points of interest. He is excited at their insights; “they’re saying things I haven’t thought of,” Travis said, “pointing out feedback loops I haven’t seen. Then, I ask them why they think it works. It’s actually a whole lot of fun.”

Well, maybe T367 is just all fun and games, then – but, since everyone is learning and participating, perhaps that’s not such a negative description for a classroom, after all.

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