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Opinion: Don't train students on game design - educate them

Designing games is about critical thinking and why you are doing things, rather than learning the rules for a particular outcome and repeating them automatically without thinking, argues lecturer Dr. Lewis Pulsipher.
[Designing games is about critical thinking and why you are doing things, rather than learning the rules for a particular outcome and repeating them automatically without thinking, argues lecturer Dr. Lewis Pulsipher.] As I was thinking about a time when my department head came to my game design class unannounced to evaluate my teaching, I had a "eureka" moment. When she visited, I wasn't "lecturing" to the students. They were working on game projects. (This was not an introductory class.) She seemed surprised that I wasn’t lecturing, but that may be because she typically taught introductory computer literacy style classes such as how to use Microsoft Office. Classes that teach use of specific office software can be taught more or less by rote: if you want to make something bold you highlight it and press control-B or click the Bold button. If you change margins you do thus and so. And so forth. These intro software classes don't have to be taught entirely by rote but commonly they are, complete with what I call "monkey books". These books have students follow steps to accomplish something, but students tend to focus on getting through as rapidly as possible, and when they’re done they often don’t know what they did and haven’t learned much. Like the monkeys who, if they randomly type long enough, will type Shakespeare's works, you can learn from monkey books, but only if you want to learn and make the effort to learn. Designing games is not and can never be taught by rote. Teaching by rote is training, not education. Education is about why you do things, why some things work and others don’t, about understanding what you’re doing. Training is about exactly how you get a particular thing done. (I recognize that not everyone follows those definitions but I find it very useful to make this distinction, and other people with other purposes when defining education and training may make different distinctions.) Designing games is about education, not training. Designing games is about critical thinking, and much of it is thinking, which is the antithesis of training. You're trained to do things automatically, without thinking. (Reiner Knizia, designer of hundreds of published tabletop games and some video games, on Twitter recently said, "To summarize my experience: Design is a way of thinking!") Video game production (not design) at the outset can be taught by rote because people are learning how to use particular software, for example Maya or 3DS Max, or they’re learning how to program. In the long run there is a process of education there, especially for programming, but in the short run for introductory classes a lot of it is simple, straightforward "this is how you do it". There just isn’t much of that in game design. But where the eureka moment occurred was when I realized that an analogy can be made from this to games and puzzles. A puzzle is something that has a solution, or perhaps several solutions, with the defining characteristic that once you figure it out the solution(s) always works. So you can teach someone by rote how to beat the puzzle by teaching them the steps required. Possibly those steps require certain skills such as hand-eye coordination levels that the person may not have attained, but once they attain those skill levels they can follow the solution and complete the puzzle every time, or as it is said in video games, "beat the game". This is why so many hardcore video game players despise randomness in their games, they want to be able to find a solution that always works, and some of them (after becoming familiar with the game) then do their "speed runs" where they apply a solution very rapidly. They have "beaten the game" and probably stop playing it soon after. A game does not have these kinds of solutions, and cannot be "beaten." To be good at the game requires something much more akin to education than training. You have to understand why you're doing what you're doing, and when that isn't the best thing to do, when something else is the best thing to do. There is certainly problem-solving in games, but there aren't solutions to the game as a whole that will always work. Frequently this is the difference between having human opponents and having no opponent, or a computer opponent, though computer opponents continue to become better players over time. Frequently this is the difference between, on the one hand, perfect information or uncertainty that can become predictable, typical in puzzles, and on the other hand uncertainty that cannot be predicted or accounted for by simple mathematical processes – the kind of uncertainty that comes from having several human opponents. You can teach someone, by rote, how to win at Tic-Tac-Toe, or even Tetris, and you could for chess if anyone had completely solved the extremely complicated puzzle. The checker program Chinook, as I understand it, plays by rote, playing what it knows to be the move most likely to lead to a win from whatever the current position is – no reasoning required. You cannot teach someone by rote how to win at Civilization or Warcraft III (when played against other people), Britannia, or Dragon Rage, Diplomacy or even Risk, they have to understand how it all works and then think as they actually play. Where is this especially relevant? In social networking games. Run-of-the-mill social network games are so easy to play by rote that few people need to be taught -- or the game tells them what to do. (I'm thinking of games like Farmville, Cityville, Empires and Allies, Yoville, and so forth.) More importantly, the people who play them are happy to play by rote, they don't want to have to understand, to think about what to do. It is the "mass market", the same kind of terrain occupied by Monopoly, Sorry, and Game of Life. Even many of the most popular "hard core" software entertainments can be played more or less by rote, if you have the hand-eye skills and perception skills. Some of the best require a strong understanding, but they're not the ones that sell best. [Dr. Lewis Pulsipher is the designer of half a dozen commercially published boardgames, and has over 17,000 classroom hours of teaching experience. His book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" will be published later this year by McFarland and Company.]

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