How course design can mirror game design

This is the first of a series of articles regarding my personal experience designing a university course syllabus. It's a lighthearted story of how I integrated video games, game studies, and game design in traditional literature courses.

From the very beginning I wanted to integrate a video game component into my course syllabus.  Before the semester even began I was having dinner with a friend who was working as an indie game designer and he pointed out how our experiences were very similar and that designing a course syllabus was much like designing a game.  Both relied on refinement to ensure user engagement and proper challenge.  I had to make sure I kept my students interested and invested in the course materials while making the content enjoyable.  At the same time, I had to make sure that the difficulty curve was just right and that the skill of the students would progressively improve as they worked to master the course materials.

But how would I go about achieving this?  Going into my first semester my goal was just to get a feel for how the job worked, making sure I had a complete grasp of the basic principles of lecturing, engaging with students during office hours, and grading assignments.  I was fortunate to have an adviser who was extremely open and receptive to new methods of teaching and loved integrating 'new media' into his course.  During a long lunch meeting before the start of the semester, he was sold on video games as a legitimate artistic medium worthy of academic exploration.  He seemed more excited than I ever expected and it was extremely encouraging.

Before starting as a graduate assistant (and eventually moving on to instructing my own course), I worried that academia might be an extremely insular and rigid environment where off-beat and new teaching techniques would be frowned upon.  The reality couldn't have been more contrary.  My fellow faculty were all very interested when they heard my ideas and I was made to feel very welcome.  There was the occasional doubter who felt otherwise, but I felt at home in the academic community because of how open I felt I could be with my ideas and suggestions. 

Another big break came in the actual course I was assigned.  It was a classical literature course focused on Greek Myth.  It seemed almost too perfect; an area of literature loaded with heroic figures, fantasy, and imagination.  I started compiling a list of games that I knew featured heavy (and even minor) elements of classical mythology in their design including the more recently released God of War series to older PC titles like Age of Mythology.  Once the list reached a few dozen games I suddenly faced a more important question: how exactly do I integrate games into a seemingly traditional literature course? 

This is not to say that video games have no place in a literature course or that there are no intersections with the world of literature.  In fact, I've experienced quite the opposite in academia.  I'll elaborate more of that in a future article (I promise). 

Still, figuring out how to integrate video games or elements of gaming into the course was my first major hurdle.  Initially I considered making some small video game component a requirement for the course, but this seemed unfair as not all students would be gamers (let alone actually interested).  Making it extra credit was equally unfair as it would benefit some students while excluding non-gamers.  Perhaps an open and flexible extra credit assignment that incorporated elements of film, comics, television, and video games would be best... but actually bringing it to life was near impossible without having even taught a single class and without a grasp of what my students would be receptive to. 

Just because I would have loved to have a video game component as a student didn't mean this younger generation of students would be as receptive.  It was entirely possible that my students would be even more receptive to having video games as part of their course material, but there was no guarantee.  So I decided to refine the extra credit component throughout the length of the course and announce it sometime during the last month of the course. 

I knew that my first semester would be a learning process and that the students would be proverbial guinea pigs for future classes.  As a graduate assistant I was only allowed to lecture low level freshmen level courses, which worked for me as it meant I could take more risks without students questioning how aberrant assignments seemed.  Perhaps more importantly, I could shake up their preconceived notions that professors are mostly dull and serious.  My adviser suggested that I make it apparent that I'm only a few years older than the students themselves in hopes that they could relate to me and be more open with me.  So I let my geekdom shine.  Every single day I wore a custom shirt that showcased my love for science fiction, or comics, or medieval fantasy, or video games.  I constantly made pop culture references that they would get and always made analogies between classical and modern themes. 

It worked.  In our fifth class meeting, I felt I could survey the class and get an honest appraisal of their attitude toward video games.  I did it two ways, first via a vocal survey and then by a written survey.  I vocally asked students to raise their hands if they played video games, whether it be on their mobile device, Facebook and browser, or on a dedicated console or PC.  A great majority of students did.  Then I asked who among those students believed that video games are art and worthy of academic research.  About half of them did.  Then I asked if anyone thought games were just a waste of time.  Some of them did. 

I realized then that I'd probably get this varied of a response no matter what question I asked.  It also occurred to me that some students might not be voting simply out of shame as being gamers or letting their inner geek out.  I ended class ten minutes early and passed out a quick written survey, comprised not only of the questions I asked verbally, but more in-depth questions asking students what genres of games they liked, their favorite recent game, and if they could name a game that featured classical Greek elements.  The responses were eye opening and overwhelmingly positive, leading me to push on with my goal of integrating games into the course material. 

Then, much to my surprise, something very humorous and endearing started to happen.  Over the course of the semester all the geeks slowly started coming into their own.  They started revealing themselves, becoming more vocal in class and increasingly revealing themselves in brief after-class conversations and even office visits.  Considering that the entire class was held in a large lecture hall and comprised of about 125 students, having a few dozen students crop up like this was a big deal.  Among these were students who were into comics, science fiction enthusiasts, students who played D&D growing up, self-confessed anime freaks, an up-and-coming competitive Magic: the Gathering player, two former professional Counter-Strike players and even a current professional Starcraft player.  One student was an indie programmer who dreamed of working at Valve.  "This couldn't be more perfect!" I thought.

With the semester winding down and only four weeks remaining I announced the extra credit component, making it as accommodating as possible.  I asked students to look at any modern film, TV series, comic, manga, cartoon, or video game that features Greek myth and do a write up on how the new medium reinterprets classical themes.  On the day of the final exam I received a few dozen extra credit assignments including a group made student short film, an 8-panel comic book, and a custom graffiti art piece of Hercules slaying the Nemean Lion.

After the final exam a student approached me with simple board game based on the course materials for extra credit.  I was speechless.  It was more than I could ever ask for.  It was a dream come true to see a student who was already one of the best in the class and assured an "A" letter grade anyway looking for a way to creatively express himself and channel his childhood of tabletop experiences.  More importantly, it planted the seed for future course ideas I would come to utilize. 

That game was the foundation for how I would design the rest of the course using elements of game studies and game design.  There was no going back now and I couldn't be more excited.  Years later I realize how these trials helped me in the field of game design, but at the time I was simply determined to make my course as game-like and design heavy as possible.  In future installments of this series, I'll get into the actual course assignments my adviser and I devised to make this dream a reality.

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