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How course design can mirror game design [part 2]

The second of a series of articles regarding my personal experience designing a university course syllabus. In this assignment I ask my students to create a hero, much like they would with a video game character creator.

Zoran Cunningham, Blogger

December 12, 2012

5 Min Read

The second of a series of articles regarding my personal experience designing a university course syllabus. In this assignment I ask my students to create a hero, much like they would via a video game character creator.

Once I had a grasp of how creative most of my students were and how receptive they were to the idea of geek culture elements like comics, science fiction, medieval fantasy, board games, and video games I felt like I could refine my course syllabus in a way that put students in the role of player and creator, rather than just student and receiver.  The foundation was already there: my adviser already had great writing assignments as part of the original course syllabus and was very open and interested to reworking these assignments going forward. 

The first of these writing assignments dealt with the concept of the hero figure.  What makes a hero, what is heroic, and who decides these virtues were some of the key components of what we wanted our students to think about.  Originally, the assignment just tasked students with naming a person they viewed as a hero and explaining why.  It was a neat exercise but it ended up being rather boring to grade.  I won't pull any punches here; there were too many papers focused on dads who were heroes simply because they provided for their families or older siblings who were heroes for mentoring with particular instruments/sports/etc.  It seemed to me that the meaning of hero was being diminished if a person was ascribed the title simply for being a good and honest human being.  After that first semester I asked myself, "if these people are all heroes, then what title do we ascribe to people who are exceptionally heroic and selfless in the face of hardship and recognized on a large scale?" 

So instead of just asking them to look around their personal lives and report on their observations, I turned them into creators in hopes of unlocking their imaginations.  Asking my students to design a hero, along with their power set became a standard for my syllabus.  At its most basic core, it was like a highly interactive character creation editor in a video game, but in this assignment the only limitation was the student's imagination rather than a custom in-game tool set.  Their creations didn't even have to be limited to the classical or mythological.  Their hero could exist in any place or time. 

When I first revealed the assignment I saw a genuine sense of excitement among most students.  I also admittedly saw a look of bewilderment on the faces of a few students but soon realized that this was just a reaction of surprise at how open-ended I was allowing this assignment to be.  I wanted each hero's back story and how they became a hero.  I wanted to know their power set if they had one and how they used said power set.  I wanted to know the hero's motivations.  I wanted an example of a major trial the hero has faced.  I wanted to know what the hero's community thinks of them and whether they are an anti-hero, villain, or paragon. 

When the students finally turned in the assignment a week later, they seemed almost as excited as I felt.  Many of them openly admitted that they couldn't wait to know what I thought of their creations.  It seemed I managed to engage them in a way that the best games I've ever played did.  They became emotionally invested in the challenge.  For many of them, it wasn't just an assignment; it was personal and meaningful.  I knew right there and then I was onto something even though I had yet to grade a single paper. 

When I sat down later that evening to grade the papers I had a million curiosities in my head.  For the first time I felt I was being entertained by my students' writing.  It was like reading 120 pitches for new superheroes for comics or video games.  It was fun.  Some of the heroes were similar to avatars a player might create for a fantasy MMO (a few students even admitted to this in their papers).  I had everything from top-hat and monocle wearing badger magicians to world dominating megalomaniacs.  They created worlds with steampunk, fantasy, and cyberpunk settings.  So many creative ideas flowed from these papers that I couldn't even begin to list them because somewhere deep down I still hope a few of those students will eventually bring their ideas to life through art or narrative and share them with the world. 

More importantly, these papers provided a great deal of insight into what each student found heroic and valuable in life.  Many of the heroes were personal self-empowerment fantasies of the students themselves.  Each paper was a glimpse into a student's beliefs and dreams.  It was like asking a focus group, "what kind of hero would you play in a fantasy game?" and watching the creativity unfurl.  It was an unparallelled peek into what the current crop of college students in their late teens value in life.  Dare I say this could allow a developer to make a more appealing hero or lead character?   Maybe not a lead character that will appeal to everyone, but at least someone who will resonate with a specific audience. 

I had succeeded in accomplishing what my indie developer colleague told me to aim for the previous semester: user engagement.  The assignment gave the students a better understanding of the main principles of what makes a hero while putting me even further down the path of making my students players and creators rather than just receivers.  But with this success came another challenge: could I possibly make the next assignment even more engaging while challenging them in all the right ways?  It wouldn't be easy and in my next installment I'll reveal the second major class assignment that would become a staple of my syllabus for years to come.

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