Teaching my first gaming in education seminar

In May and June I taught a graduate seminar in gaming and education.  I’ve taught games and gaming for education before, but always as part of a program or class, never for a full semester.  Here I’d like to share some reflections on the experience.

tl;dr – it went well.

My initial conception of the class was twofold.  First, it would present two cases to students: that games and gaming and interesting and worthy of intellectual study; that games and gaming can enhance education.   Second, we would approach games by playing them, reading scholarship about them, and by making some ourselves.

some tabletop games

Some of the tabletop games I considered.

I also planned, back in the winter of 2019-2020, on teaching this in person.  By April I knew the class would be wholly online, which meant I had to revise how to teach tabletop games.  I initially looked into Tabletop Simulator, but worried that the cumulative price (you pay for the app, then each game hosted thereon) would be irksome, so I had the class play the computer version of a tabletop historical game, Fort Sumter.  Teaching computer games was easier, of course, as were role playing games.  Rather than sharing physical products we would exchange digital files and use cameras.

I expected that students would arrive with a range of gaming experiences, along with a variety of reasons for studying games.  When the class began I discovered that this was true, although with aspects that surprised me.  Several students were very skeptical of gaming as a field, not just its educational uses.  Some were very concerned that they had too little experience to proceed.  None had any wargaming in their past, which made me feel very old, as I was a teenage grognard back in the day.  The idea of educational gaming was a bit more foreign to them than I’d expected.  Overall, I had to structure and facilitate discussions and materials with care, so that all perspectives were admitted, and so that all students felt supported… which is what I always do, but it was trickier this time, because of my expectations.

The initial syllabus had a good deal of flexibility built in.  I left open some assignments from the start so I could choose readings and exercises especially suited to students’ interests and backgrounds.  Two class topics were to be determined by students, as they worked through the term.  (Check here for that partially open syllabus; scroll down for its final form.)

Since we only had eleven classes (summer seminars are fast) I tried to cram in as much stuff as possible into each session.  I also aimed to have as wide a range of activities as possible, being concerned about Zoom fatigue: discussion, game play (camera off), tech learning, making stuff, presentations by me, presentations by them, writing (camera off), and more, all on the table.

As usual I overbooked and overprepared.  We spent less time in role playing than I’d hoped for, and I massively underestimated prep time for Fort Sumter.  The leap from Twine to Game Maker 2 was probably too large, and needed more scaffolding.  Playing games together took some time for them to get into. Most importantly, students had a lot to say, once they settled in.  They wrestled seriously with readings and concepts.  Discussion drove the class, richly, and I gave that more time in the end than I planned on – which is fine.

It was fascinating to see how the class responded to different games.  When they started ones predicated on imagination, like The Thing From the Future, The Quiet Year, or role playing games, students were initially awkward, then rapidly dove in with energy and invention.  Games based on science or current events were more accessible than historical ones.  Storytelling through games was uncontroversial.

I was especially impressed by how thoroughly the class investigated games for education.  Students offered good design critiques and developed principles they stuck with, then applied well in their final projects (see below).

Students co-created the class, as per my usual pedagogical practice.  I asked them about structuring synchronous sessions, and they came up with ways to minimize video, as this was starting to gnaw at some of them.  Their class topics were bad games as a design issue, and social justice in gaming.  Both of those went well, being rich topics, and because the students had some investment in them. Bad games appealed to the design-centered class, and perhaps represented some pushback to my gaming evangelical attitude.  Social justice was, in contrast, a passionate cause, as that took place during the first couple of weeks after George Floyd’s killing.

For their final project students produced games with educational themes, in additional to an exploratory essay. They had a lot of latitude for the topic, and could use any of the game genres we’d explore (computer, analog, role playing, etc).  I encouraged them to be creative while linking up with their interests.  The results were diverse and impressive, including games teaching player how not to call the police, how to get to school in a racially unequal society, and how to solve crimes with forensics.

Sharpe walk to school screenshot

Always Carry a Bouquet screenshotOne taught about a major city’s neighborhoods while another instructed players on DNA.

Chicago neighborhood game

Two were versions of Bingo, but with very different goals: socializing remote students, identifying types of fish.

fish Bingo slide

Game platforms and stuff they used in making games included:

  • Game software: Twine (several flavors), Game Maker
  • Software, repurposed: PowerPoint, Excel
  • All kinds of paper and other materials for tabletop games

Overall I think the class was a success.  It was a delight to really dive into gaming at greater length than I’ve ever had the chance to do previously.  Above all I enjoyed and appreciated students thinking, pushing back, pushing themselves, getting playful, and being creative… all during a very challenging season.

I have all kinds of notes about what to do with the next iteration of the class.  Since Game Maker 2 was so challenging, we might preface it with a tool more complicated than Twine, like RPG Maker.  As historical context was a challenge, I might assign them to research a game’s period before and after play and/or ask them to play two games in the same setting.  The lack of wargaming experience makes me want to carve out a unit just for that genre.  I raised solitaire tabletop games as an issue and made a good contact with one publisher, but the idea didn’t catch on, so that might need expansion and better preparation.  And perhaps a unit on improv will help encourage more playfulness and risktaking.

Here’s what the syllabus looked like by the end:


May 18

  • introduction to the class: logistics; classroom democracy; cocreating rules of the road; meta design aspects
  • introduction to gaming: history and theory (introductory presentation)
  • games: The Thing From the Future
  • technology: download and install Steam
  • writing in Canvas: student self-description character sheets, 1

May 20 Tabletop gaming

May 25 – Memorial Day

May 27 Role-playing games

June 1 Computer gaming

June 3 Education and gaming

June 5: final project pitch due

June 8 Education and gaming

June 10 Gaming and design

June 15 Design for education and gaming

June 17 Storytelling and games

June 22 Student topic pick: bad games!

June 24 Student topic pick: social justice in gaming

July 3: final projects due

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4 Responses to Teaching my first gaming in education seminar

  1. Anthony Helm says:

    Bryan, I really enjoyed reading your post on the summer gaming course. It sounds like it was an enjoyable course. How would you characterize the skepticism of the students by the end of the term, those who questioned the value of games in general at the outset? I had imagined at this point in my life that I would have more time to return to gameplay, and was looking forward to that being offline among a small gaming community. Unfortunately, I feel like I’ve become busier in many ways at work such that my non-work hours are spent even more disconnected from others as I recharge. COVID-19 has not helped the situation. What gaming time I have had has been spent playing back catalog titles of fun, escapist, single-player narratives (like Tomb Raider and Uncharted) that are easy to pause and continue later.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Skepticism came from a few sources: concerns about games (video) and violence; concerns about games being gendered male; a distance from both games and players.

      I hear you about being too busy to play. I started up Stellaris a few months ago and…

  2. Great Article Bryan. I am also very much into the idea of learning through games but it is a delicate subject in several regards. The idea of an educational game has a tendency of turning some people off in that, as I believe Anthony Helm was alluding to, some view games as serving a specific purpose of fun and escapism, the opposit of work/education. Don’t get me wrong, I think we can learn directly and indirectly from games. I learn a lot directly through playing Oregan Trail and I also learned quite a bit indirectly from playing Battlefield, but the key thing was always that it was FUN. Was that an important focus of the instruction? How did students rate this class at the conclusion? What did they specifically say? Have you thought about make the class itself a game? Great info and thank you very much for sharing your syllabus.

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