Notes on Teaching Game Design to High Schoolers

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I’ve written a handful of posts, now, about the high school game design classes I’ve been co-teaching with Kristana Textor. The brief history, for those just joining in: In 2011, I got the opportunity to teach a summer class at the Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick. Though it was a mild mess, we ultimately found some degree of success and I got invited back to teach at AUP during the Spring 2012 semester, this time with Kristana. Last fall we switched venues to McKee High School in Staten Island. (Yeah, that’s a long commute — about ninety minutes each way — but it’s also an almost entirely water-based transit, which is actually kind of a nice bit of relaxation during the day. I usually take the East River Ferry from Williamsburg to Wall Street and then hop the Staten Island Ferry the rest of the way. But I digress.)

We missed a few weeks of class in the Fall due to Hurricane Sandy, so we’re still wrapping up the semester this January. Going out there twice a week has been kind of intense, but ultimately I very much enjoy it and I think I’m beginning to see a little bit of light as far as understanding teaching techniques and having a good strategy for getting a group of most high school freshman and sophomores to create a functional, playable game together. Which is what I want to talk about, here.

Class Goals

The class that Kristana and I teach is structured like so: The class schedule has two parts of about equal length, a “game appreciation” segment and a “game design” segment. Kristana teaches “game appreciation,” the first half. For the class we’re currently teaching, this lasted from September through about November. I don’t attend these classes, generally, because I’m usually just kind of overwhelmed with other work, but Kristana has the kids talk about games and prompts them to think a bit more deeply about their own experiences and opinions about games and game culture while also exposing them to how games function as art, as business, etc. I think of is as the “liberal arts” part of the class. The kids play games. They talk about games. They think about games. And hopefully reach some fresh insights and understanding.

My half of the class, which kicked off in October and will last until the end of January (due to Sandy), is about getting the kids to apply this new thinking about games and to get them to actually produce something real. One of my current students had a shocked moment earlier this semester when I started talking about the game they would be making: “Wait, what — we’re actually going to have to make a game?!” Yes you’re really going to have ot make a game. As far as these kids are concerned, video games are mystical creations forged from magic by wizards and elves in far-off lands. They haven’t quite made the connection that game designers and game builders are, in fact, humans — many rather young humans — and that their craft is anything but magical. The demystification of this process is important.

But also, through this process, we get to touch on a ton of different topics. We talk about storytelling. Graphic design. Computer programming. Ethics. Interactive design. And, of course, straight-up game design. Game design encompasses so many other disciplines — I consider teaching game design an amazing way to sneak in all sorts of other content. The last class I taught at AUP, for example, we had a student with some learning disabilities who completely glommed on to the storytelling aspect of game design. He had a tough time working with the software to make game graphics or design levels, but he seemed to love sitting down and writing out page after page of scripts for the cut scenes in the game. (Sadly, we ran out of time and couldn’t actually implement these — but he did get up in front of hundreds of people and read through his scripts, presenting his ideas.) And this is not to say that I think storytelling should be the focus, but it can certainly be a focus.

And part of this, as well, is that I’ve found that different students will have different things they’re interested in. Some like graphics. Some want to make levels. Some want to write stories. And the format of coming together to produce a single project works great in that it allows students to play to their aptitudes and get some exposure to new stuff.

General Organizational Strategies

I have a web-based game-building tool I’ve created called Gametron 7000 (GT7K). But I’ve decided that putting the kids in front of the software tools too soon create problems. For one thing, they have no sense of direction and no idea what they’re supposed to make, so they just kind of vaguely poke at it and then get distracted by YouTube or whatever. So my strategy right now is to spend several weeks simply brainstorming game ideas with the students and doing as much pen-on-paper design work as possible. Then during the last half of the class we actually get into GT7K and do the actual production.

Buy-In

Getting 15- and 16-year-olds to sit down, be quiet, please pay attention, please turn off the computer monitor and listen to me, turn off the monitor, please, right now, thank you, NO FOOD IN THE COMPUTER LAB, and you’re going to have to leave if you keep being disruptive — it’s a huge pain. Oh, lord. They’ll come into class hyperactive to begin with and then sometimes totally jacked on shit like Rockstar Energy Drink (no joke) and often on cookies or candy or whatever. And they’re kind of spazzy gamer kids to begin with, so they want to play with the computers and tend to bounce around with short attention spans.

So the first thing I try to do is get buy-in. I want them to feel invested in what we’re doing. We’re going to make a game. It will exist on the web for anyone to play — including your friends. So let’s put some thought into it.

I have all of the students work together on a single game, so we start with forming a “game studio.” I ask them to name some game studios they know (Valve seems to be the most well-known) and we talk in a basic way about how those companies are organized. I also introduce the concept of independent game studios, which they’re less familiar with. Then we pick a name. The kids throw out ideas and we vote. And then no one’s happy with the result, so I repeat the process the next class. We throw out names and vote. And wind up with a much better result since everyone’s kind of had a few days to ponder the issue.

I’ve found that just having this name gels the class to a certain degree. It’s an after-school class, so attendance varies. But my core game designer students seem to lock in to the process a bit after this step. I think it’s the same sort of feeling of making a club that makes high school kids want to form rock bands or other little creative groupings. And because they named it, I think they feel a sense of ownership. Which is good.

Because my role is facilitator. I do a lot to smooth out the whole process, but major decisions I want them to make and own. And, to be frank, these kids know games. So they will make good decisions if there’s a good process. A lot of it is simply having systems for surfacing ideas and letting them respond to one another, incorporating the good ideas and dropping the bad.

Sketching

Once we have our game studio set up, I have the kids do several rounds of game idea brainstorming over the course of several days. I get a stack of paper and some pens and I instruct them to quietly draw out ideas for any kind of game they might be interested in making. What does it look like? Is there a story? What’s the main game mechanic? Is it top-down? Side-scrolling? Platformer? Something else entirely? (I explain that GT7K is fairly basic, allowing mostly for 2D early Nintendo Entertainment System-era types of games: think Zelda, Mario, Metroid, etc. Which is actually fine by them, since retro-ish stuff like Super Meat Boy and Minecraft seem to be quite the thing with the kids these days.)

They hate this. Sitting down with pens and paper. At least to start. Getting the kids to stop talking, focus and actually think is a pain-in-the-ass. Sucks, but true. This current group at McKee has some issues with focus, so the first half of any brainstorming session involves a fair amount of scolding. Which I’m getting quite good at. I’ll even yell at the little monsters, on occasion, which I suspect most people who know me will have trouble specifically envisioning. (Maybe not.) I’ve found that the surest way to command the room is to be the loudest thing in it, and thankfully I’m a big dude with a big voice when I feel like using it…

They will, though, eventually break down a bit, quiet themselves, and brainstorm. The bitching and whining about not having any ideas will give way to scribbling down one idea, and then the floodgates will open for some of the students. A few in this current class seem to willfully shut themselves off a bit, taking a sort of “I’m cooler/smarter than you, so this is kind of below me” attitude, and a few others just might be too shy or scared or whatever and can’t relax and think. But many of the kids will suddenly find themselves having a lot of fun thinking about game ideas and seem like they’ll do it all day and into the night if I didn’t eventually have to get home myself. Part of my challenge is shielding these students who are engaged from the ones who want to distract them.

After a few days of this, though, we do wind up with a stack of game ideas. Some bad. Many quite good. These kids have mostly played a ton of games, so they have fairly good intuition about these things.

I have each student explain each of their game ideas to the group. We talk about them. And then we vote. And then no one’s happy with the result, so I repeat the process the next class. We talk about their game ideas. And then we vote. And the two times I’ve done this process, we reach consensus pretty darn quickly. Both times all of the kids have eventually voted for and been most excited by one idea, so that’s what we’ve rolled with.

For the record, the current class settled on a top-down game of underground labyrinths. The player plays a character with a flaming head that’s the only light source in the game, leaving room for plenty of surprise moments and scary puzzles. The more health the player has, the brighter the flame and the more you can see. The less health, the less bright. So you play this flaming-head-guy character and have to navigate through a series of mysterious labyrinths. It’s a legitimately good idea!

Establishing Rapport

Okay. So I’ve done more yelling at teenagers the past few months than ever before, like I said. It’s a brave, new world. An opening up of vistas. I hope to eventually move on to yelling at young children and old people. Then waiters who don’t bring out the water promptly enough and compound the problem by bringing tap water when I clearly asked for sparkling, and where is your manager, anyway? No tip. Etc.

So. Learning to communicate with these buggers — the students — is obviously very important. I have a bit of a leg-up, I think, because I’m not exactly a teacher in the same way their other teachers are, and (despite the scolding) I try not to present myself as an authority figure. “I do this kind of stuff in the real world. People pay me (fairly well) to do it. If you want, I would love to help you go through this process and learn a bit about how it works. If you’re not interested, I don’t care — but you’ve got the leave the room so the rest of us can work.” And I’m honest about that: They can leave. I will try to get shy kids involved, but I won’t force anyone to participate.

But these are mostly boys on the nerdier end of the spectrum and I do think they look up to me and see me as one of them. Christin hates my Valve video game t-shirts, but wearing them to class seems to help. We have normal conversations. We talk about what games we’ve been playing. Even when bitching at them, I try to always maintain the tone of “hey, we’re all working together, here — let’s keep it together so we have something cool to show.”

And it does seem to work. I think I have a good rapport with most of them. A couple come in and just kind of tune out and won’t do anything I ask — those I essentially ignore. Again, if they’re not interested in participating, then they get left out of the club. Sorry. (I do feel like I’m aware of distinguishing shyness from disinterest, and I will go out of my way to figure out how to get shy kids to open up.)

Anyway, I feel like this has been working. The kids seem excited to be there, for the most part, and I do feel like they’re fairly comfortable around me, for the most part.

Fleshing Out the Game

After we’ve got a game idea that we want (the flaming-head-guy-labyrinth game), we repeat the sit-down-with-pen-and-paper sketching process, but instead of drawing whole new game ideas, I have the kids draw screenshots from the game we’ve picked. I pose it like so: Imagine you’re reading reviews of this game after it’s been made. What do the screenshots they use from the game look like? The idea is to get them to visualize specifically what the game will be like to play, and in doing this brainstorm all of the various elements of the game. What might the labyrinthine mazes look like? What does the player look like? Are there bad guys? Obstacles? What are they? What do they look like? How to do they move? What do they do? We do this for a few class sessions and I try to create a list of all of the ideas for what might be in this game.

I also take this opportunity to talk about theme and story in the game. When pondering what kinds of bad guys might inhabit their game, for example, it could be helpful to think of what the story could be. Is the main character rescuing someone? Defeating someone or something? Collecting things? Why? To what end? Or: Are there any fun ways to play with the theme? On student in our class, for example, started pondering the guy with a flame for a head — and it dawned on him: Why not make all of the bad guys out of water? And suddenly there’s a sort of light-weight game story behind the mechanics of the game. Fire guy versus the water people. Or whatever.

This stuff is tough, but I think it’s really satisfying. These details are what turns some random idea into something that feels like it could be a real game. And, to be honest, we get to talk about the terrible blandness and repetition in many game stories and scenarios. Feeling like they’ve got an idea that might actually be better than many of the game ideas they’ve experienced is a big deal.

Production: Creating Assets

So now we have a game, a story/theme, some ideas for levels and a sense of what else might be in the game. Now we have to make it. This is where I’m currently at with my class. We’re making assets.

GT7K is nice because it makes it incredibly easy to reuse any assets already in the system, so I can start them out with a basic game framework and it’s very easy for me to have the kids make accounts and then show them how to make a level and test it out.

But I try to add some structure, because we’re on a timeline and we have to ship a game at the end of the class, so after they’re a bit familiar with the tools I sit them down again and try to break things down a bit.

Last week, we started with visual assets. What kind of art do we need? A player graphic. Some walls. Bad guys. Coins. Doors. Etc. We listed some things and then each student got to pick one and make it. (For the record, this Flash-based pixel art tool called Piq proved a huge hit — they really enjoyed using it, for the most part. Some kids also used the iPad, though the aesthetic is quite different.) So over the course of our couple of hours, they make their graphics. And this is tough — they’re not used to creating graphics that will fit into a game, so we have to talk about it. And they’ve been kind of tentative, for the most part. But I feel like simply getting them to do anything and then seeing that thing actually in a game moving around will be significant.

I’ve been trying to communicate my philosophy that the first time you do something creative, it will suck. You’ll be tempted to compare your first try with some profession game designer’s twentieth try — and that’s an unfair comparison. Your game isn’t going to be perfect. Your art is going to be kind of weird. Your levels might not be that fun. But, y’know what: Everyone’s first game sucks. But after you’re done, you’ll be better at making games. And maybe your second game will be awesome. Or your third. Keep trying and eventually it’ll start to click. That’s how art works.

So part of this process is simply getting them to produce anything that I can then take and glue together into a semi-cohesive game.

We’ll do this process with levels this coming week. It’ll be more of the same thing. They’ll be sort of confused and I’ll try to get them to push through and create something that I can stitch together for them.

Gluing it All Together

Finally, like I said, I will take everything they’ve created and bring together their game. There’s a lot of technical stuff which they can’t really do on their own, and I’ve decided that I’d rather them spend their time being creative than spend their time learning to do technical stuff.

My thinking: If they’re inspired to create games, they will eventually have to figure out how to use computers and progra on some level. So get them excited about designing games, they’ll have to pick up the computer skills somehow. And I think in many ways creative thinking skills trump technical skills. And I’m someone who codes most of the day — I love technical stuff. It’s obviously important. But I also know how it can affect creative thought in a negative way. It’s something I battle against almost daily.

So, we haven’t reached this point with my current class, but if all goes well I’ll glue together their game, built from all of their ideas, and we’ll do some play-testing and let other students take a look. We’ll make some tweaks, and then launch! I’ll put it up online for the world to see and for them to be proud of.

The Princess is in Another Castle

One more thing.

I’ve left this subject towards the end because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but — yes — my class at AUP was all guys and my class at McKee is mostly guys with one or two girls coming by occasionally. I don’t know what to do about this. I try my best to engage and include girls when they do show up, and I feel I’ve had some success, but it’s tough in the context of the class because they don’t attend regularly enough to really be up-to-speed with what we’re doing. There’s a group of four or five boys who really drive the class — which I think is great. They get excited and they want to participate, making it a little tougher for any students who doesn’t regularly appear. The lack of gender diversity, though — I am not yet ready to call it a problem, exactly, but it’s something I want to know more about. If girls aren’t interested in this particular game class and are happy doing something else, well, I’d rather not have a bunch of uninterested people lingering around, male or female. If girls want to be there but aren’t showing up because they’re feeling intimidated or out-of-place or like they don’t want to deal with noisy, stinky boys… That’s a bigger problem. But I still don’t know the solution. If anyone has better thoughts on this, please advise.

Another quick diversity observation: Almost all of my students in both classes have been minorities. I think we’ve had just one caucasian student attend semi-regularly in the current class. Just interesting to note.

Onward

So that’s my thinking at this point. Learning how to teach game design is an ongoing process for me, my techniques and opinions may change wildly each time I do this. But I figured it’d be useful to document my thinking right now. Hopefully it’ll be useful to someone else. And I do think it’ll be very interesting to look back on this and reflect upon how my attitudes have changed over time.