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Three Lessons for Narrative Game Design Students

Three general lessons for students interested in narrative and game design on communities, supporting people, and the role of practice in trying to improve skills over time.

I used to live in the middle of nowhere. Now, this isn’t technically true. We had all the expectations of traditional suburban life. The various big-box stores. A downtown. Even some local universities. But as it came to game development, we didn’t have much. Sure, there were some makerspaces that would hold events maybe once a year or have invited speakers talk about software development. But for anyone who leaned more into independent development or, gods forbid, wanted to work on or talk about narrative games, we really were the middle of nowhere.

The times I made the drive to the local game jam space (just two hours away!), I felt like I was finding people like me. Even though it was a long drive there, it was worth it to spend some time talking about the games we were playing, what new tools we were using or learning, and what projects we were working on at the time. We could share our struggles and celebrate our small victories together. It was like finally being around people who understood me.

For about a year, I also used to make a four-hour drive to talk about interactive fiction once a month. There was a group who had been meeting for years and, while surprised I would make the drive for it every time I did, were welcoming to me. We’d play a new game every month and talk about it. During the meeting, which could last for up to three hours, we’d talk through the monthly game’s story, any novel mechanics, and then settle on what new things or projects we had heard about. We shared things that excited us about interactive fiction.

As I’ve gotten old, I don’t always get to have those experiences anymore. I’ve had to move a few times, I’ve gotten older, and life too frequently keeps me busy or tired. But the lessons I learned in those groups are still important, and they are ones I try to impart to others starting with independent development and interested in making narrative games.


Join a community.

While I don’t find myself with the time to make the long drives anymore, wanting to have some sense of belonging still stays with me. I try to seek out those who understand my struggles, who can give me advice about the paths I want to take and warn me before I take on a dangerous journey. As I’ve slowly settled into a teaching role in life, I tell my students, both those in the classroom and the rare person who asks for my advice outside of it, to “find their people.” I advise people to seek out groups, if possible, that can help them grow in their careers, paths, and hobbies. I tell them to find people who excite you and drive you to try out new things, to learn. If you can’t get that in person, try to find online groups that can be there for you.


Support people who support you.

I’m an academic. I’ve worked for or attended universities for more than half of my life at this point. As part of that life, I’ve visited conferences and talked with people. I’ve sat in on committees and voted for things. There are lots of conferences and events for lots of things, but the best of them support their members. Good networks feed back into those who hold it up. I’ve told many people this exact same advice: find conferences, events, or meet-ups that support your interests. If you like interactive fiction, go to things like AdventureX and NarraScope. For your research, balance between local and regional meetings. Look at what people are presenting on and talking about around you in your field (for academics) or what games people are publishing (independent game development). Plug yourself into structures that will help you grow.


Make things.

Academics write. Developers code. People make. “What do you like to do?” is how I start conversations with people who ask me for advice on what to do next in their life. It might be that academia is not the best for people. Or that it could give them the structure they need to grow to their potential. The point always, regardless of place or situation, is to find at least one thing that you are passionate about. Maybe it is writing about games. Maybe it is making them. I try to warn some students that not everyone can get paid for passions, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t find passion in their work or hobbies. The only way, I’ve told game design students, to get better at game design is to do it. Professional writers, I’ve repeated to technical writing students over and over again, write every day. They practice and slowly improve their own work. You improve through doing.

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