For several years I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a class titled Cheating, Games and the Ethics of Play Media to both graduate and undergraduate students. The course examines the role of cheating and ethics in and around videogames. As part of the course, students play a game (we’ve moved from a list of potential games, to Dragon Age, to The Walking Dead), interview other players about their play activities, and finally make a game that explores some question related to cheating or ethics. To do that we’ve used ChoiceScript, a variant of Java created by the folks at ChoiceofGames.com. In choosing this platform I wanted to ensure I found a tool that was affordable or free, available for both Mac and PC, and simple enough for non-programmers to use. Another added bonus was that is it a text-based “choose your own adventure” style engine, meaning that the graphic-design challenged among us would not feel stigmatized.
This year I had about 20 undergraduates working on games, which I plan to post to the TAG site soon. But first I wanted to reflect on the assignment, what went right and wrong, and how this is useful for thinking about game studies classes as well as how to venture into the world of game design for non-designers, and non-coders.
What went right:
1. Everyone created a playable game.
There was definite variation in terms of depth, length, creativity and sophistication, but every student could point to a game that worked and say “I made this.” Indeed, in many of their own post-mortems, students expressed great pride in making their game. For the majority this was their first time coding anything, and they were quite nervous about the process. These were humanities students, and this was an upper-level class, meaning they all had experience writing term papers, summarizing articles, and making verbal arguments. But game design, and technical coding, was new to many. This made them nervous, but ultimately they rose to the challenge and created stuff. And they rightly took pride in their accomplishment.
2. Everyone tackled the challenge of working statistics and variables into their games.
This next component was a bit more of a mixed success—not everyone got this part right, or went into a lot of depth, but everyone thought about the process, and tried to conceptualize how players might have their choices weighted; how certain actions might trigger repercussions, or lead to different reactions or pieces of the story. For students who had no coding experience, it was wonderful to open their files and see (*if likability > 40) as part of their game.
3. I became more comfortable working with ChoiceScript myself.
This was my second time using this assignment in a class, and in the first I was only a few days ahead of the students in terms of learning what to do. I had wanted to make a game of my own, but ran out of time. This term I was more familiar with the structure of ChoiceScript and how to both make simple games and distribute them easily among class members. I also found an interesting fiction of my own that I wanted to explore. Over the term and since that I have continued to work on a larger game myself using those same tools. My own struggles with the code, game development and story design have helped me troubleshoot more thoughtfully with the students, as they work through similar issues. One example: a student had a game with some interesting choices, but no real goal for the player; I had already encountered the same issue in my own game, and in class we discussed ways to introduce goals, and what potential goals for her game might look like.
4. Post-mortems were incredibly helpful for assessing games.
I played each student’s game several times, studied their code, and read their post-mortem. The post-mortems revealed to me the process each student had followed. I had given everyone a set of questions to answer in that document, although students could go beyond those questions if they wanted. I learned who was new to coding, who changed their game completely based on earlier feedback, who did play-testing on their game, and how they felt about the assignment. I think that the act of writing about the frustration involved (for many) was helpful in and of itself as a way to vent; it also under-scored for me how seriously they took the assignment (yay!) and how much time they spent on it. They also talked about the questions they wanted to answer with their game and how successful they were in doing so. This was definitely a great thing to have them include.
5. Mixing creativity with technical precision and analysis = fun.
It’s one thing to say that The Walking Dead doesn’t really offer players meaningful choices; it’s another to have to create a game that does so on your own. Likewise, it’s fascinating to see how we can be creative with ethical and moral systems and guidelines. Students experimented with alien morality, animal ethics, superhero dilemmas, time travel, carnies, the NHL lockout, and lots of other interesting topics.
What went wrong:
1. Not everyone play-tested their game with other people.
Due to time constraints, nervousness, or whatever, not all students tested their game with friends and relatives. This was not a requirement, but I believe it will be for the next run of this course. Not only did it help them see how people were playing, but it also gave them pride to see someone else enjoying something they had created. Most parents won’t read your final term paper, but many will play your final game.
2. High levels of anxiety seemed pervasive.
Only a few students had contacted me about problems they were having coding their game, but from reading the post-mortems it’s obvious that many of them had quite a bit of trouble. The weighting for each game assignment was less than some papers in order to keep students from feeling excessively anxious, but apparently that did not help. I’m open to suggestions on improving things.
3. Games drawing from existing IP struggled to feel original.
Students drew from many sources for their ideas, and a few wanted to riff off existing pop culture products. I say okay but in retrospect I think that hurt those games. Whether or not the students wanted to, they felt constrained to stick to the fiction of the storyworld they had chosen, and I was left wondering how much of the work was their own and how much was reliant on work other writers had already done.
4. Even more iterations would have helped.
There were actually three assignments: a first playable (with two chapters of the game complete), a second playable (with four chapters plus at least two statistics) and a post-mortem of their experiences. The second playable and post-mortem were also the final assignments in the class, when students were already stressed about the end of term. It might be more useful to introduce stats earlier as another milestone, and then move from there to more chapters. Likewise, having a story outline as an earlier goal would help students better plan their game structures.
5. In-class coding workshops could have been better structured.
I held a few sessions explaining the ChoiceScript code and gave handouts and references to wiki guides, but in retrospect I should have required all students to bring laptops on those days and had more structured assignments for us to work through. Without everyone having their own laptops, it was impossible for them to practice the processes I was explaining, and although they said they understood the concepts presented, I’m sure when they went home and tried them on their own, it was a different story.
I’m very happy with the games that my students created, and I’ll be even more excited to share some in the new year. This assignment has confirmed for me that game creation can be more than a tool for learning how to make games- it can also be an exploration of theoretical or philosophical topics, it can teach logic and precision, and it can confront us with new challenges that push us outside our comfort zones. I don’t think any of my students now want to be game designers (except one, but he was already interested), but that wasn’t the point. The point was to engage critically with games and see how game platforms enable and constrain choices.
I’ll be taking that idea even further with a future class (thanks to these successes) as I tackle having students create games via multiple platforms, to see how those systems each push us in certain directions and away from others.