Teaching Game Design in Non-Game Design Programs

A letter to my colleagues everywhere

Hello fellow Interaction Design Program Faculty! (and UX and all you other variously named programs!)

I’ve been incorporating game design into my classes for awhile now. I have found there are a ton of reasons to have students make games.

First, they are always happy when you tell them they are about to make a game.

I’m pretty sure we don’t learn as well when we are stressed and tired, and let’s be honest: our students get stressed and worn out sometimes. But as soon as I announce we’re going to make a game as our next project, they become cautiously optimistic and soon are engaged and excited. Making games is inherently compelling and satisfying for most students. So, consider adding a game project to add variety and to refresh their interest and excitement.

Second, Game Design and Interaction Design are fraternal twins. They share almost all their DNA, so teaching game design reinforces all your objectives. S. Lungren has written more on this on Chalmers University Website.

A good game design project covers affordances, messaging, feedback, task flows, concept models, player types (behavioral personas), playtesting (usability ++), interface design and more.

Where the two disciplines differ offers huge learning opportunities as well. Teaching Game Design lets you talk about progression and mastery, economies, skill building, randomness/chance, theme, metaphor, mechanics, flow and more topics that make your students better designers.

Third, making games is ridiculously hard while being engaging. In a recent interview with Stephanie D’Abruzzo, puppeteer extraordinaire, she complains that people think because muppets are often done for kids show, they must be easy. Because doing things for kids is easy right? But actually it’s much harder to balance learning and entertaining than just be entertaining.

Games are like that. Everyone thinks because games are easy to play, they must be easy to make. The challenge of a making a game is significantly harder. When we design a utilitarian tool, we have to make a complex set of requirements simple and easy to use for the user. But when making a game, we have to take equal amounts of complexity and make it simple, easy to use and fun. If a game is not satisfying to play, people will put it down. If excel is not satisfying, people will soldier on because math is more unpleasant than excel.

To make a complex, challenging, evolving, engaging experience is non-trivial, and requires constant testing and tuning.

As you play a game, it has to become harder to keep players in a state of fun, so they tend to bounce around in the fun/flow channel. This is a hard design challenge.

Strangely, even though making a good game is harder than making a good word processing tool, students will dive in. Students embrace the bigger challenges because, after all, it’s just a game. ← sarcasm 
Sometimes they even learn that harder is funner. ← truth

So: you teach everything you would in an interaction design class, but you both make the design challenges harder, the learning deeper and the experience more appealing in one fell swoop.

W00T!

Moreover, many of the best game design programs start by teaching analog games, i.e. BOARD GAMES. You can teach all the core concepts and quickly prototype them using cardboard and dice. If you have a designer-only class and want to do a short unit, you don’t have to necessarily design with software (though I’ve heard great things about Gamemaker.) You know, unless you love grading buggy projects. I know I do. ← sarcasm.

So assuming you are interested, where to start?

Textbooks

If you use only one book as your textbook, use Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. This covers key fundamentals in a way that is designed for teaching. Tracy Fullerton is the OG of teaching game design.

Challenges for Game Designers should be your next purchase, as it is your secret weapon. This book is for you, the teacher (though makes a great textbook also.) You want exercises? You want project briefs? This book is a gift from heaven.

A Theory of Fun for Game Design is your secondary text. A Theory of Fun goes into why games are fun, how the brain works and how designers can make meaningful gameplay. It’s a great complement to Game Design Workshop’s more how-to approach. The 2nd edition is just out. Check out Raph’s blog.

The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses is the book I recommend to UX and Interaction Designers if they want to understand game design. It makes a terrific bridge between the two crafts, and covers many many key UX practices. It’s worth considering as an alternative to Game Design Workshop, depending on your goals for the class. (or you can read it to get your head around game design. I won’t tell.)

See also

Puzzlecraft: THE book on designing puzzles, often necessary to game design. Clever, fun to read, accessible.

Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals and The Game Design Reader Honestly, I found these a bit too heady for a studio class, but it is a staple for syllabi so I wanted to point toward it if you are teaching a course with more theory in it.

Kobold Guide to Board Game Design TONS of terrific essays on key concepts that are perfect to pull out as supplementary reading. Board games are the best way into game design, do NOT discount this gem.

Game Feel A truly great book about everything that creates an game experience from controllers to feedback speed. A bit advanced for an intro class or a single project. But awesome.

Syllabi Worth Stealing

Oh C’mon. Like you don’t do that. ;) Life is an extended dance remix, you have to start somewhere. Preferably on the shoulders of giants. These giants are kind enough to share their knowledge. Just remember to cite!

Videos

Teaching Game Design with Games, a GDC panel in which educators explain exercises they’ve used to teach game design. 2014, 2015, 2016 (free content)
GDC Vault also has an education summit that is worth rummaging around in.

A Playlist of Game Design Lectures — Will Wright, Sid Meir, Brenda Romero and more!

Movies to Assign

Indiegame: The Movie A new breed of independent auteurs have taken the game industry by storm.
Terrific clip here

The King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters. A humble novice goes head-to-head against the reigning Donkey Kong champ in a confrontation that rocks the gaming world to its processors!

Rock Paper Scissors: The Documentary. Diving headfirst into the subculture and evolution of RPS, culminating with the World Championships.

Supplies

I don’t think you need much beyond pen, paper and dice (and dice is optional) but things go better if you have a few more items…

a kit for play
  • The flipchart pad itself.
  • Three sizes of Index cards. The little ones, often sold as blank flash cards, are cheaper and better to use than “blank playing cards.”
  • Dice. Sure you can just use six sided, but you might want to play with variable probability. 
    Blank dice you can customize is a definite luxury, but hardly needed.
  • Game Bits. Figures for pieces that mark the players progress, plastic chits/poker chips to represent values or create economy. Sometimes people just use coins. You might prefer wooden people to plastic. Meeples are optional.

One thing I’ve learned from teaching game design is that everything sparks the creative mind. If you offer frogs as chits, people will use frogs in the theme. If you have black and white die, that will take meaning… maybe the black is worth 2x the white. Having a bucket of oddities inspires new ideas. Collect old games at goodwill, or post to Nextdoor.

Getting Started

I have used this exercise from Brenda Romero: The Easiest Game Design Exercise Ever (Really) to start the game design unit, and it works amazingly. If anyone starts out daunted by the idea of making a game, this quickly cures it. Because the site where I found this exercise is not up, I reposted it here:

Create a “Race to the End” Game.

Step 1
Understand the pattern. We have all played race to the end games. Think Candy Land (BGG) or The Game of Life (BGG). Basically, you start at point A and get to point B. That is all you need to know. Draw a straight line on a long sheet of paper. You are now over 1/4 of the way finished. You can make the line squiggly if you want, but it probably won’t affect gameplay.
Step 2
Find a narrative. What are you racing toward or what are you racing from? You can go as simple as Candy Land and say, “We’re racing to get to the end first” or something a bit thicker like:
A bank heist (catch the robbers or get away if you are the robbers)
To freedom from X
To the pot of gold
Toward the partner of your dreams
Toward the top of the corporate ladder
The first one there wins. There are about a zillion more ideas from real world races to any contest in which one person tries to excel above another. If you cannot think of a narrative, pick one here or just keep going without one.
Step 3
How do you race? What’s the game mechanic that allows you to move forward? You could use an element of chance (dice, random draw or whatever) or you can use an element of strategy (though this takes it out of the easiest design exercise ever) or skill (i.e. one point per foot a person can jump… though that would just be weird). Keep it easy and go with dice.
Step 4
Add conflict. The easy as toast version of “adding conflict” is as follows. As a designer, you need to figure out a way to make the race interesting:
Speed people up
Slow people down
Make people change places
Make people lose a turn
Give people an extra turn
Once you figure out how you will do this, let players do this to each other. So, I get to make you miss your turn. I get to change spots with you, etc. Add a few players so they have to decide who to affect or who to reward. The simplest way to do this is to put spaces on the board that force these actions. A modified version of this uses spaces where a player gets to draw a card. They may use the card on themselves or on another when they choose. So, I draw a “Skip a turn” card, and I play it on you or someone else whenever I want to.
Step 5
You’re done. Will it win awards? Never, but you will have actually created a game, and the process will be satisfying enough that you just might want to make something else a bit more complex
For Brenda Romero’s commentary on why she made this posted this exercise, please follow the link.