Lecturing Life: Week 5

Self-exorcism, reflection, and a cry for help: help me to prepare students for a career in the games industry (and don't ask why). All advice and thoughts welcome.

The fifth week of the semester is over. The first-years are (just about) house trained: they are coming to lectures ahead of time; they are coming to lectures prepared; some of them have found the library; one of them has read a book.

Expectations have been rewired. Some students have left. A few more have elected to avoid lectures, hide in the shadows, and squander as much money as they can for as long as they can.

Applicants to our BA (Hons) Computer Games Design course must submit a personal statement. The personal statements look like this:

‘I have been interested in games since I was five/six/seven/very small. I have happy memories of Pokémon/Super Mario/Minecraft/Final Fantasy VII. I am interested in story/art/3D modelling/characters/environments/animation. I am creative and I have lots of ideas and believe I would be an asset to any games company. I wish to take this course because I want to learn Photoshop/3DS Max/Unity/coding. Thank you for your interest.’

Incoming students come to us with ‘ideas’. They expect us to teach them to use ‘tools’ so that they can realize their ‘ideas’. Incoming students have no concept of ‘design’, or of ‘player experience’ – or of any player that is not them.


Tuesday Morning: 3D Modelling for Games with the first-years

‘If your viewport is unresponsive, look at the padlock at the bottom of the screen. If it is yellow, you have pressed the space bar. Press the space bar again to unlock the viewport.’ I give this advice to students early in their 3D Modelling for Games module, and every week for two academic years a hand goes up and I give the advice again. Advice rarely registers until the moment of impact.

In preparation for their semester on narrative design, I invite the first-years to read Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them). It is a cordial introduction to the fundamentals of narrative design, more general than Vogler and less intimidating than McKee and Truby. Many lecturers chase up their students: ‘Have you gone through the readings I set you?’ Those lecturers are bald. I no longer do this – horses and waters and all. My hair may be prematurely grey, but at least it remains in place. In my student days, I read – I painted – I pestered my lecturers – because I was interested. I still am. If students are not interested, or if their aspirations do not tally with those we might encourage, that is their prerogative. I will, though, continue to take their hands and lead them to the oasis and push them out in baskets of woven papyrus. Bickham laments the ritual of the light bulb moment. When a student was finally in a receptive place, a piece of the puzzle which Jack had inexorably been presenting finally dropped into place and the student glared at Jack and exclaimed ‘Why did you not tell us that before?’

To usher our students to that receptive place, we set them group projects from the moment they have found the cheapest local source of alcohol, and we provide a safe environment for them to make mistakes in the hope that, when they arrive at their final year project, they will be adequately equipped to explore and experiment with all they have learned. ‘All we expect of you is that you have a go,’ we tell the students. Sometimes we dare to hope for much more.


Wednesday: Group Project tutorials

Two groups did not turn up for their tutorial. Several individuals did not turn up. We receive something in the order of thirty instances of ‘sorry’ or ‘apologize’ per week, either verbally or through e-mails. We have suggested to the programming lecturer that he generates a weekly word cloud from the emails.

The mixed first- and second-year groups have been tasked with designing and developing a game which employs learn-practise-master loops and generates fiero in a player. We have identified the components associated with fiero. We have watched a Chinese man crying after successfully navigating a ferociously challenging Mario level, and we have experienced piloerection as we listened to excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and the students are now able to pronounce Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s name correctly. However, until they are able to iterate rapidly, play-testing and analyzing player responses, shaving fractions of seconds off their twitch mechanics, they are unlikely to successfully meet the expectations of the brief. One group is developing a poorly-observed imitation of the first level of Donkey Kong. In thirteen seconds of game-play, the player jumps twice and moves a bit. We compared this to a speed run of Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV and the absurdity of their convictions became self-evident.

Whilst the majority of games are fundamentally flawed as a result of an indifferent approach to studies, other games are flawed because students are struggling to unify a wealth of components. Superficially – or from a player’s experience – there is little to distinguish these two sets of broken games. However, the students who have armed themselves with knowledge have, at least, given themselves a chance of eventually tapping into powerful and memorable experiences. I call this the blue banana phase.

I spend a good deal of time recollecting my early student exploits, attempting to weed the time-ripened fictions from the realities. Several weeks into my foundation course, I was confronted with a bowl of fruit, a sheet of paper, and a tin of colouring pencils. Once we had realized the red apples and yellow bananas, our lecturer asked us to look closer – to see what was actually before us, rather than what we imagined was before us. In that life-changing moment, I saw pinks and violets and fifty shades of blue radiating from the skins of the fruits. I wondered if they had been there all along. We took a new sheet of paper and went again. This time, my bananas were anointed with the tears of a Nyan Cat, and it was a considerable time before I was capable of wielding any sort of control over my colours. What struck me then was the reluctance of many of my classmates to take this leap. Such leaps are scary. They demand courage, faith, and a temporary dulling of the frontal lobe – a part of the brain that advises us not to hold a chilli pepper sauce bottle to our forehead and cry ‘Exterminate’ when we find ourselves seated at a table adjacent to Peter Davison in a Mexican restaurant. Thirty years on, I have a better sense of the power of denial, and the pleasures of curling up in one’s comfort zone. And I have spoken with a great many creative people who speak of risk, and we have all witnessed the hatred that flourishes in the primordial ooze of faceless critics.

As Dégas put it, ‘Painting is easy when you do not know what you are doing, but very hard when you do.’ Perhaps the majority of students prefer to remain oblivious to the countless difficulties and embarrassments inherent in the design of powerful experiences. For those that are prepared to lay their appendages upon the chopping board, I offer my support, my sympathies, and a clean bandage.

The third-years are wrestling with two years’-worth of information. This is good: humans like characters that suffer and struggle to overcome their suffering. One particularly diligent trio of students sat with me and described their ideas for an ‘art style’ – or, more pragmatically, the ‘diegesis’ of their universe. They winkled out the usual suggestions: heaven and hell; robot factories/laboratories; cyberpunk/steampunk/Lovecraftian/dystopian worlds. (Students are also partial to mines, forests, castles, dungeons, and mazes. I refer them back to Jesse Schell’s second lens.) After their ideas ran dry, they turned to me. I asked them what their goal was. ‘How,’ I wondered, ‘can you determine a diegesis for your universe if you do not have a goal? How can you judge the merits of your ideas if you do not have a goal?’ I reminded them of T.S. Eliot’s assertion: ‘When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.’ A moment of contemplation ensued.

I asked the students if they were, for example, intending to generate fear, or if they were intending to generate awe and/or wonder. I asked them if they knew the difference between awe and wonder. I asked them if they were aware of the constituent components of awe and wonder, or of the telltale physiological effects of awe and wonder which they might look out for in their usability tests. I asked them to describe their target demographic and to present their research into their target demographic. I asked them to describe the experience they were intending to create. This time, the ensuing contemplation seemed to be dressed in the preternatural light of the bulb. Two years of preparation had paved the way for this moment.


Thursday morning: Design Methods with the first-years

I showed the students how to use some tools. One day they will evolve into galactic foetuses. They can now use the text and colour tools in Photoshop, and they can download and install fonts. They are now also familiar with colour theory, colour psychology, the anatomy of a typeface, and typographic terminology. I tried very hard to make the lecture simultaneously exciting and relevant and laced it with examples. They opened this week’s brief, put on their headphones, and set about realizing a set of poster designs based on themes I had devised, designing iteratively, experimenting with blocks of colour and dummy text, exploring the effects of leading and tracking and kerning, justification and alignment, monochromatic, complementary, and analogous palettes, hex colour values and droppers, hue and saturation and value, contrast and brightness, layer styles and adjustment layers, squinting and squatting and mirroring and reflecting and searching for the essence of each theme and using the essence to inform their decisions. Last week, I evangelized the importance of understanding the brief, or goal, in the first instance, and researching and analyzing in the second. Today, around ninety percent of the students were incapable of adhering to the brief. None of them could tell me what the goal clearly stated in the brief was. When students encounter an unfamiliar word or instruction, they ignore it and do their own thing. (I will introduce them to the gorilla shortly and familiarize them with the concept of inattention blindness.) They are vague and indecisive and ‘sort of’ use a complementary scheme, and they use ‘simple colours’ and one of them spelled Spitsbergen incorrectly, imbuing his poster design with a quixotic absurdity. As is their nature, they find it very difficult to leave their comfort zones: they would rather stay true to their imaginary truths than to work with reality; difficult is bad and easy is good. Students imagine something will appeal to a player and, when a player has not been appealed to, they summon the Lord of confirmation bias and convince themselves that the player has had a thoroughly entertaining experience. ‘In reality, there is nowhere to hide but the sewers.’ I was once told this by Pettifer the back-to-front ragworm, in a dream.

When the degree show comes around and non-imaginary people sidle into the games labs to steal from our wine supply and cover their tracks by trekking from student game to student game, pressing a button or two before wandering off to steal from the graphic designers’ wine supply, I witness the dismay that leaches the colour from my students’ faces. Even the sober attendees will sacrifice no more than a few seconds of their life-force on the student games. Nice textures? Maybe. Nice splash screen? Perhaps. But does anybody gasp, punch the air, or fall under the spell of a hyper-stimulated nucleus accumbens? No. And a student will sorrowfully turn to me at the very point when they have burned through every module and nugget of wisdom, and I have nothing more to offer them than some sort of consolatory expression which I have learned from Professor Paul Ekman’s Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings, one of many exquisitely selected books on the core reading list which might have gifted the student with some degree of control over the player experience.


Thursday afternoon: Non-scheduled stuff

The diligent third-year team met with me in the labs. They had been thinking long and hard about our Wednesday tutorial and came armed with questions. We went through some of the first-year presentations again and this time, two years on, the students found answers in the slides. We watched videos of players having experiences and we determined where those experiences were coming from. The students confessed that, because the first-year assignments play no part in the final degree grade, the associated lectures are not deemed ‘to count’. Students have a tendency to become obsessed with grades. They demand a checklist which might allow them to ascertain the minimum amount of effort required in order to secure a pass grade or higher. I have invited this third-year team to speak to my first-years next week. I hope that Jack Bickham is smiling down on me.


Friday morning: Prep and misc

Having spent five years circumnavigating the globe, devouring his life savings, one of the photography lecturers has had his first book published. I dried my hands and held the book as though it were a leprotic infant, turning the pages with care and awe. He spoke of the decisions he made and of the times he doubted himself and the times he despaired. He spoke of courage and conviction. We discussed his control over the narrative and the conversation he was having with his audience. I asked him why he had left so much space for interpretation, and I considered the effects of leaving so much space in a video game. I wondered what any given demographic might make of so much space. I thought of Minecraft and the Uncharted series and David Cage, and I thought of ambiguity, fantasy, customisation and metanarrative. I considered my approach to meticulously crafted experiences, and wondered if I might still be able to elicit certain responses, or degrees of responses, whilst opening up the dialogue to the player. I think the experience changes as control is progressively relinquished to the player. I think different experiences do not inherently equate to better or worse experiences. I thought about difficult novels I have read, and the complex responses they ultimately generated within me. I compared these to easy novels I have read.

A decade ago I became fascinated by space and by reader preconceptions and interpretations. If I opened a story with the words ‘The girl’, what, I asked, would the reader make of this? What can we rely on? What do we need, or want, the reader to understand? By allowing the reader to fill in the gaps, we invite the reader to make the world personal and more meaningful. I remember how Philip Pullman subverted my mental picture of Lyra at such a late point in Northern Lights that I was reluctant to relinquish the girl I had befriended. (If memory serves, he specified Lyra’s hair colour long after I had already defined it. Or, perhaps, I had failed to register an early cue designed to foreshadow Lyra’s heritage.) Over the years, I have asked many people what their default girl looks like and it would appear, anecdotally, that she is a hybrid of friends and once- or twice-removed family members.

I like my colleague’s book, and I like the questions it poses. I wonder if I will have the time or inclination to consider them appropriately.

In the afternoon I stood in for a sick colleague. His lectures take place in the posh building and I enjoyed the bendy microphone.

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