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A series about what and how I teach. In the prologue: an introduction, first principles, a rant against design fundamentalism, and a syllabus.

Eric Zimmerman, Blogger

September 16, 2013

11 Min Read

How I Teach Game Design. 
Prologue: The Practice of Game Design

an introduction, first principles, a rant against design fundamentalism, and a syllabus


Bona fides

Why should you read some blog post about how someone teaches? I started out wanting to write a series of essays in order to share my teaching techniques – syllabi and readings, concepts and methods, exercises and assignments. However, early on in the process I realized that I was not just writing about how to teach game design. These short pieces are really about how to learn game design. 

So don’t let the name fool you. These little essays I call How I Teach Game Design are not just for teachers. They are for working game designers, design students, game players, critics and researchers – anyone who wants to better understand the process of game design. And furthermore, you certainly don’t have to be in a classroom to make use of them: nothing is stopping you from applying these concepts to your current project or trying out some of the exercises with your friends or office-mates.

I am a game designer who also teaches game design. I have been working in the game industry for 20 years, and have been teaching for nearly that long, beginning in 1995 when Frank Lantz and I began team-teaching at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Since then, I’ve taught courses and workshops at dozens of universities, conferences, and organizations, from MIT to USC, from Helsinki to Beijing. All this time, I’ve been making games as my full-time job – digital games and paper games, on my own, with Gamelab (the NYC-based studio I co-founded with Peter Lee and ran for nine years), and with many amazing collaborators.

Now I find myself back at NYU, as a full-time Arts Professor at the NYU Game Center. When I started teaching two decades ago, game design was a strange and exotic subject for an academic class. To say that you were taking a class on game design sounded like a joke – like you were taking a class on how to eat junk food. 

Today it’s hard to find a university, art school, or technical college without game-related classes or degree programs of one kind or another. Even grade schools often use games in classes or host afterschool programs around game creation. A different take are the Quest to Learn public schools in New York City and Chicago (created by the Institute of Play, a non-profit I co-founded), that integrate games and play as a model for learning across the entire curriculum. For better or worse, games have penetrated education in many ways and at many levels.

But more important than schools and universities, all of us involved in games – designers, writers, players – can always train harder and become better. Game design is not about making games – about shipping finished products. It is more like a martial art or learning a musical instrument: a practice where we learn over time by taking on challenging problems. That’s what I believe. And that’s how I teach game design.


First principles

In weeks to come, I will detail specific exercises and methods I use to teach. But in this opening “prologue” post, I wanted to establish some groundwork first. Over the years, I have evolved an approach to teaching game design that has a number of key concepts at its core. Obviously, there isn’t a single right way to teach anything – it’s perfectly reasonable that an excellent game design course might be based on very different assumptions. But I list some of my own first principles below.

Learning by making. My game design classes are not lecture classes. They are hands-on workshop-style classes, in which the main activity consists of making games. Occasionally I may introduce some ideas with an informal lecture or discussion, but the primary thing that people do is to actually design games.

A game is a game is a game. In my game design classes, students generally do not make videogames. They create card games, board games, physical games, social games, and other kinds of non-digital games. We do discuss all kinds of games, on and off the computer. But by avoiding computer game creation, we can design more games in a short period of time, focusing on the fundamentals of game design, rather than getting caught up in technical and production issues.

The craft of game design. For me game design is a discipline, like architecture, graphic design, or other design fields. This doesn’t mean there is just one correct approach – there are thousands of valid approaches to architecture! – but it does mean that I engage my field with the focus of a disciplinary craft. In game design, we can learn and practice techniques, methods, and concepts with a high degree of rigor.

Multiple frames of understanding. Games are not one thing – they are many things. Games are not interactive stories; they are not formal systems of rules; they are not the personal expression of the designer – they are all of these things simultaneously and many more. A challenge for game designers is to appreciate that games are math, psychology, culture, aesthetics, narrative, politics, and any number of other things – all at the same time. Every frame we might put around games is useful at some moment in the design process. Designers need to learn when a particular frame of understanding can help them solve a problem and when it can be a problem.

Truth is utility. As a design field, game design is not science. The goal of game design is not to uncover the truths of nature. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have important definitions, concepts and ideas – and I do introduce many concepts in my classes. However, the “truth” of a concept in game design is its utility – its value in solving a problem. Some concepts are more useful for some designers than others, or for solving problems in certain kinds of games more than others. As Marvin Minsky has put it, a concept is “a thing to think with.” The measure of whether a game design concept is “true” for you is whether or not it helps you solve a problem.

Theory is clean; practice is messy. When we learn an idea in game design, it’s like learning a proper wrestling stance: 60% of your weight on the front foot, the back foot at a 45% angle to your opponent, etc. That kind of exact technique is fine for training, but in the heat of a real match – when you are wrestling with a game design problem – we almost never make use of concepts in a clean and orthodox way. The goal of game design is not to apply theory perfectly – it is to create successful games – however it is that you decide to define success. We should never get hung up in the “correct” application of theory – truth is utility, after all.

Learn to think like a designer. For me, the single most important outcome of a game design class is the ability to “think like a designer.” I use this phrase to encapsulate a number of different skills. These include the ability to think systemically, to give and receive thoughtful criticism, to create games through an iterative process, and to collaborate well with others. 

This is only a partial list of ideas that structure my approach to learning game design. In blog posts to come, I will elaborate on some of these concepts, and will add others as well. 

Sidebar: Against fundamentalism

Let me highlight for a moment one idea that informs several of the “first principles” I listed above. I am very much against what I call design fundamentalism. This is the notion that there is a single, valid approach to creating or understanding games. Design fundamentalism comes in many forms: “Games are about storytelling!” “Games are NOT about storytelling!” “Good games are immersive!” “Good games mirror reality!” “Games are essentially rules!” “Games are about the author’s expression!” “The author is dead!”

Anytime someone tries to convince you that games are just one thing, be skeptical. No one would say that literature consists solely of the history of the printing press, or the politics of gender representation, or the evolution of plot structures. Depending on why you are studying or creating literature, one or more of these approaches might be useful to you. But to say that one of them is THE single, valid approach to literature cheapens the enterprise of literature as a whole. 

In games, these kinds of reductive statements usually come about as overcorrections to a perceived problem. In the early 2000s, there was a reaction against heavily authored cut-scenes and puzzle-like adventure game structures in videogames, and many designers made statements like “Player expression is everything – in a good game, the designer should be invisible!” Today, with the rise of smaller-scale experimental games, we sometimes hear the opposite overcorrection: “Creator expression is everything – a good game exposes players to a new kind of authorial voice!” 

Of course both of these approaches can be valid, depending on the kind of game you want to make and the way you want to make it. As an expressive form still finding its identity in culture at large, game designers often feel obligated to stake out terrain with bold statements that radically define all of games. I love contestation of ideas, and productive argument and debate. But I think a healthy skepticism about design fundamentalism would help designers make use of more ideas – even blending contradictory ideas together – as they solve design problems and try to better understand what games are and how they function. Don’t be a design fundamentalist: embrace contradiction. Games are not one thing – they are many things. 

A syllabus

To finish this first blog post about teaching game design, I wanted to share an actual syllabus from my teaching. (Click here to view or download the PDF.) The syllabus is for Game Design 1, a masters-level class that all of the Game Design MFA students at the NYU Game Center take their very first semester. The syllabus is also nearly identical to Introduction to Game Design, the undergraduate version of the class. I find that thinking about game design in a rigorous way is new to everyone, whether they are graduate or undergraduate, and the course works well for both. 

If you are teaching a game design class or workshop, you may be teaching the only game class in a larger department or program – in which case it is hard to have a class so focused on just design. I have the incredibly luxury of teaching within an entire department dedicated to games. So the NYU Game Center students that take my Game Design 1 class are also taking at the same time classes on the history of games (Games 101), on the scholarship of games (Game Studies 1), and on the production of digital games (Game Studio 1). I know that many game classes and workshops need to address all of these areas and more at the same time – believe me, I’ve been there! So please don’t feel bad about slicing and dicing my syllabus as meets your needs.

The syllabus is structured in three units. The course explores games as formal systems of math and logic, as experienced human systems, and as designed culture embedded within larger cultural contexts. This is the same Rules / Play / Culture approach that Katie Salen and I use in our textbook Rules of Play, a structure which came out of the classes at I taught with Frank Lantz at NYU in the 1990s. This idea of providing a variety of schemas for understanding games is linked directly to the notions of “Multiple Frames of Understanding” and “Against Fundamentalism” that I wrote about above.

And that’s the end of the prologue. The rest of the this essay series will unravel the syllabus, taking a closer look at a particular topic or activity. Future posts will take the form of “lessons” and each will focus on a single assignment or exercise that I use in my classes. 


This series is dedicated to my co-teaching collaborators and other game design instructors who have taught me so much, including Frank Lantz, Katie Salen, Nathalie Pozzi, Naomi Clark, Colleen Macklin, John Sharp, Tracy Fullerton, Jesper Juul, Nick Fortugno, Marc LeBlanc, Stone Librande, and Steve Swink.

I also want to thank some of the many many teachers that have inspired me throughout my life, including Gilbert Clark, Enid Zimmerman, Weezie Smith, Susan Leites, Gwynn Roberts, Pat Gleeson, Janice Bizarri, Sensei Robert Hodes, and Sifu Shi Yan Ming.

Special thanks to Frank Lantz, Nathalie Pozzi, John Sharp, and Gamasutra editor Christian Nutt for their input on this essay series.

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