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.
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.
One taught about a major city’s neighborhoods while another instructed players on DNA.
Two were versions of Bingo, but with very different goals: socializing remote students, identifying types of fish.
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:
- 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
- introductory presentation
- readings: on the history on Monopoly; on the sociology of tabletop gaming; on the affordances of gameplay
- games: Fort Sumter: The Secession Crisis (on Steam); The Quiet Year
May 25 – Memorial Day
May 27 Role-playing games
June 1 Computer gaming
- introductory presentation
- technology: Twine (download and install)
- readings: Patrick Jagoda, “Videogame Criticism and Games in the Twenty-First Century” (“Worlds at Play Space and Player Experience in Fantasy Computer Games”; de Zamaroczy, “Are We What We Play? Global Politics in Historical Strategy Computer Games” ); Toft-Nielsen,
- interested in violence and computer gaming? one study
June 3 Education and gaming
- reading: James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. (1-69; Appendix)
- games: Spent; pick one from Molle Industries; Chair the Fed (or Economia); A Game of College; Quantum Game
June 5: final project pitch due
June 8 Education and gaming
- reading: James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, (71-219).
- games: Reacting to the Past; Bondbreaker
June 10 Gaming and design
June 15 Design for education and gaming
- reading: one university ARG; Resonant Games chapters 5 , 6, and 8 (if you want more theory, check out 2; for more game examples, look into 3 or 4)
- videos: making one Mario level; designing Space Invaders
- game: Reacting to the Past;
- technology: Game Maker 2 (download and install)
- Students collectively determine next week’s topics and work
- optional: a Renaissance LARP; an expanded student RTTP book with primary sources,
June 17 Storytelling and games
- readings: ; Alexander, “Gaming: Storytelling on a Small Scale” and “Gaming: Storytelling on a Large Scale”, from The New Digital Storytelling, pp 97-127
- games: The Thing From the Future ; September 7th, 2020
June 22 Student topic pick: bad games!
- readings, games, technology collectively determined by students:
- readings: “Notoriously Bad”; “Power, Play: On Subjective Experience And The (Re)Construction Of “Fun”” (pp 121-135); “Bad Game Design (By Example)“; “Bugs that were turned into features“
- games: Unstable Unicorns; Alien Addition; Spiderbot;
June 24 Student topic pick: social justice in gaming
- introductory presentation
- readings, games, technology to be collectively determined by students: social justice games ( )
- student project presentations (Google Form for feedback)
July 3: final projects due