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Background

In the summer of 2011, Northeastern University hired me to teach the laboratory accompaniment to its “Games & Society” course, an introductory elective run by the school’s Creative Industries program. The course, available to all NU students, presents a survey of game history and game studies; at the time of this writing, its teacher is videogame design veteran Brian Sullivan. The weekly lab meetings complement his biweekly lectures, letting students gather in smaller groups to study, play, and discuss specific games together.

Circumstances led me to leave the position after only one semester. During that time, however, I designed an entire game-lab course, beginning with a syllabus and ending with a certain amount of classroom material and personal notes and observations. Unsurprisingly, the true path of the course didn’t quite match the shape I set down in the syllabus, written before I had led a single meeting of this class. I therefore offer this collection of notes and materials, not as a model of exactly how to run a semester-long weekly game lab, but rather as a starting point or source of inspiration for your own course design.

Course goal

Along with its associated lecture course, the Games & Society lab endeavors to transform its students into critical thinkers about games, rather than passive observers or consumers. It primarily performs this by exposing the students, over a dozen or so meetings, to as wide a field of games as it can. Almost all the students will attend the first meeting with a narrow exposure to games, and a preconception of what “games” means – typically limited to a favorite genre or two of videogames. The lab takes it as its job to blow this wide open for them, showing them all the different forms games can take – in both digital and analog platforms – and the variety of contexts and purposes that go into their creation.

A mid-semester exercise, spanning two class meetings, challenges students to work in teams to design an extension to an existing game, and then playtest and critique their classmates’ designs. This gives the students perspective on the challenges and balancing acts inherent in game design, even for a project as “easy” as designing a single new rule for a well-established tabletop game.

By the end of the course, students will be far wiser about games than a typical videogame-magazine reviewer, and have more game-design experience to boot. They’ll see games in an entirely new and much more nuanced light, and will find themselves eager to continue exploring a space that is much larger and more varied than they had thought only a few months prior.

Structure

Comparative studies

My design for this lab takes a comparative-studies approach. As much as possible, given time and resource constraints, most weeks of the course pair games that are different on the surface but have deeper, often surprising similarities. Favorite examples of mine from this course include playing the tabletop game Forbidden Island during the same period as the videogame Left 4 Dead, and comparing the 1980 videogame Donkey Kong with 2010's Limbo.

The lab’s previous teacher had arranged its schedule by medium and genre. That class had spent one week studying board games, one week on card and dice games, and then several weeks on videogames, divided by popular genres – first-person shooters, sports, and so on – focusing almost entirely on well-known works published within the last year or two.

I opted not to adopt this structure. As far as videogames go, I found it more interesting to consider works from that medium’s full, decades-long history as valid for study. By not limiting classroom discussion only to the new and popular, we enjoy a significantly broader field of works to choose examples from.

The design exercise

Around the semester’s midpoint, students spend an entire period playing and studying Dominion, an elegant deck-building game with simple core rules. In the subsequent lab meeting, their play groups transform into design teams as they craft expansion cards for the game. The exercise concludes the week after that, when the teams playtest and offer critique about other teams’ cards.

You can find more details about how I ran this process under the Week 7, Week 8 and Week 9 notes in this document, as well as those weeks’ respective class materials on the course homepage.

I chose Dominion for this exercise because its design makes it very amenable to player-designed extensions. The start of a Dominion play session involves choosing ten stacks of “kingdom cards” from a much larger pool, making them available for players to acquire and play during that one game. Each kingdom card, when played, causes different in-game effects, so that the nature of a given game of Dominion can change dramatically depending upon which kingdom cards the players chose to lay out during setup. It therefore becomes easy to add cards of one’s own design to the game and play it according to the standard rules, observing the results.

The previous iteration of this course had student teams developing new cards for the card game Munchkin, a freewheeling and fast-playing parody of Dungeons & Dragons. While this game is fun in its way and quite accessible, I wanted to apply the exercise to a game that felt less trivial in both theme and mechanics. Where silly cards with wild effects feel appropriate to Munchkin, Dominion demands more thought and balance, allowing would-be designers to make surprising discoveries about the game’s delicately balanced design during playtesting.

Class meeting structure

Quizzes

My attitude about in-class quizzes changed as the semester wore on. They shifted in nature from strict tests of rote knowledge to more subjective attempts to gauge critical thinking and comprehension about each meeting’s topic. I definitely prefer that latter style, and plan to use it again the next time I teach.

The quizzes used to be at the start of every class, as the syllabus describes. I filled them with multiple-choice questions regarding the rules of the games we’d be playing that day; my intent was to use them to enforce students’ reading the games’ rules ahead of time. After a while, however, I began to see this as unneccesary. Students picked up quickly enough that learning a little about the games ahead of time meant more time to actually play in class. Even if half the students came in totally unprepared, the half who cared more would take it upon themselves to quickly teach the game to their less-motivated tablemates.

Moving quizzes to an end-of-period activity, and refocusing them around short essay questions, made everyone happier, me included. It seemed far more relevant, given that the class's stated goal involves developing critical-thinking skills about games — not merely learning game rules.

The weekly summaries inlcude links to the quizzes I used; you can click through them and observe their development yourself. As such, I don't necessarily recommend following the pattern I set down there, but I offer them nonetheless as a starting point for developing your own quizzes or study questions.

Play groups

I chose a policy of randomizing play groups before every tabletop session, under the philosophy that this would prevent the students from getting too comfortable with one anothers' play styles, helping them focus on the dynamics of the game instead. (It would also rescue students paired with incompatable fellow-players, knowing that at least they'd probably draw someone different next time.)

Before every class that involved tabletop games, I set up placards on nine tables, labeling each with a number from 1 though 9. (The placards were simply index cards, folded over to stand upright, and marked on both sides with black Sharpie.) I would then randomly assign numbers to the students, determining what table they’d sit at that week, and therefore who they would play with.

Initially I carried out this assignment by shuffling a deck of cards while the students took their start-of-class quiz, then having each student draw a card from the stack and return to their seat with it. When all the quizzes were in, the students “reshuffled” themselves to the table whose number matched their card. (Aces sat at Table 1.)

While this was fun and thematic, the overhead (and the cost of inevitably lost or mangled playing cards) wore on me after a few weeks. Latter classes saw me directing the students to simply count out from 1 through 9, repeating, and then reseating themselves at the end. (Sometimes I'd mix this up by having them count backwards from 9 through 1, or whatnot, just in case they were getting wise to me...)

Briefing

In-class time is precious, so we kept pre-play briefing to a minimum. As much as possible, I gave students access before class to rules, instructional videos, and free digital adaptations of the games we’d play in class. (All links and other resources I prepared for each week’s games are available from that week’s webpage, as linked from the course homepage.) I would restrict briefing only to special rules that we’d be adding due to the classroom setting, such as announcing time limits for play; I note all these under Week-specific notes, below.

Play

During tabletop play, when every single student was engaged, I would fall back to a passive role. While I would remind students that they could call me over to ask questions about the game, I found that walking around the room would also help things along; students would often wait for me to approach before turning to ask me something. Feel free to ask or comment about games’ progress as you pass by tables; this will sometimes lead to short conversations that you can re-use during the debrief. You can offer advice against any obvious newbie errors you see, but avoid the temptation to tell students what their next move should be.

Videogame play worked differently, as I describe further below. I note here that my lab sections were rather large, containing up to 38 students. Logistics prevented me from letting every student play in-class videogames in parallel, the way we did with tabletop games. Smaller lab classes may be able to take the parallel approach that I could not; I’d be interested in hear about other setups.

Debriefing

I never really settled on whether debriefing and discussion worked best in several small doses after each gameplay session, or as a single event towards the end of class. I suspect that mixing up the styles on a per-class basis, depending on the subject matter at hand, works fine. In classes where you wish to emphasize comparison between different games, it would be appropriate to blocking out a longer discussion session after all the play is complete.

The instructor’s job during debrief involves stirring up discussion about the games the class just studied through play. At minimum, you should have some prepared, provocative questions to ask the students; I provide various examples specific to the games I chose in the weekly notes. Please do allow the students to go “off script”– let them steer the conversation into expected areas, so long as they seem relevant. (And steer it back yourself, if they don’t.)

I found it helpful to prepare short slideshows on some weeks, such as this one I created for the Poker debrief. I began with the questions posed by the second slide (How is it possible that a game driven by a a deck of cards, a random-number generator, isn’t entirely luck-driven?), and let the conversation take its own course. When the time seemed right, I went to the next slide and asked more questions (Why did Daniel Craig’s sexy-cool James Bond play Texas Hold ’Em and not Five-Card Draw?). These slideshows serve both to remind you of the questions and to give the students something relevant to look at, so keep them very visual, and very short; three or four slides in total is fine.

Who plays?

When studying tabletop games, you should always have enough copies of the game to allow every single student to play a game with an expected number of players. Don’t force six students to play a game that only plays well with four, for the sake of economy; they’ll all come away with a lesser experience for it. I also can’t advise having students “double up” in tabletop game-play roles. Few things are less engaging than watching someone else play a board game.

In my case, this meant ordering nine copies of several board games, in order to cover the largest of my sections. That's a lot of closet space to commit, but I don't regret it.

Videogames are another case entirely. Unlike board games, watching someone play a videogame can be quite engaging, and when it’s part of a directed and time-limited activity it can lead to lively classroom discussion, both during and after play. Sometimes we had group-play events where we passed a controller around, and sometimes we had volunteers play together, with the rest of the class as audience. Some digital games even have ways of letting a large group play all at once, even with only one screen and input device. In my week-specific notes I go into more detail about these activities.

Notes on the syllabus

Class schedule

The class and topic schedule on the syllabus diverged from reality by the fifth week of class, when I'd already started to rethink and reshuffle my initial game selections. I added and dropped various other games, merged two weeks together, and moved the design exercise up to much earlier in the semester so as to better accommodate Thanksgiving break.

Fortunately, on the advice of teachers far experienced than me, I had given myself an out with the "this schedule is subject to change" line written above the syllabus's game list. I strongly recommend that other teachers in this positin take the same tack.

Grading

I carried over the percentage-based grading rubric directly from the course’s previous iteration. I have no strong feelings about it, and encourage other teachers to adjust to taste.

In-class behavior

I take a stern attitude about hate speech and hurtful language in my syllabus. My inspiration was a colleague’s syllabi from his own game-lab classes, which he’d let me use as a model. I noticed that he had added several paragraphs of language about inappropriate classroom behavior (and its consequences) between his fall and spring semesters’ syllabi. I took this as a cue to state similar rules right up front, which I read aloud during the first class meeting. (I borrowed the summary phrase “this ain’t Xbox Live” directly from the other syllabi.)

Whether by these rules, by a surprisingly civil student population, or some combination thereof, I faced no attitude troubles from any of my 100 students during classroom play. Some students got worked up or loud during particularly tense moments of some games, but never strayed into truly hateful speech – I do not count the many variations of “Oh, you jerk!” – and in every case I let it ride. (Occasionally I would request a student in some stage of game-reaction freakout to tone it down a bit, so as not to distract from the other students’ games, and had no trouble receiving compliance.)

Accessibility

This section came with advisement of another friend, a part-time university teacher who is also a gamer with a disability. Every university has an office where students with special accessibility needs can register, and which can in turn give instructors any additional information or resources they need. Learn what this office at your school is called, and adjust this section appropriately.

No student came forward with a play-affecting disability during my semester, but the topic came up later in the fall for other reasons, and I was glad to not be caught flat-footed.

Gender balance

During the semester I taught it, the class suffered from problematic gender imbalance, both among the students and within the course material. One section had 34 male and two female students enrolled, and the others were only somewhat more even. This may be unsurprising, given the narrow perception of “games” that many of the students enroll under.

I hope that my refocusing of the course away from only popular (and male-audience-dominated) console videogames to a much broader scope will encourage more women enroll in future semesters, but that remains to be seen.

The other side of the gender-balance issue involves the names on the syllabus. Throughout the course’s materials, I made a conscious effort to attach creators’ names to games, a subtle reinforcement of the fact that these are works of art and craft that come from people, not from a faceless machine called “the industry”. I didn’t take creators’ gender into account when designing the course, however, and the near-unanimity of male names – I believe there was a single exception – didn’t strike me until the course was set to start.

Since I ended up shuffling the game selections around anyway, I was able to amend this oversight to a small degree after the first week. While the practice of game design undeniably has a strong male majority, there are plenty of notable works by female creators, and I intend to keep their visibility in mind as a factor the next time I assemble a list for a class like this.

Things I did not do

I set up a Twitter account for the class, made a couple of posts in the first week, and then essentially never used it again. I don't think this was due to any inherent weakness of Twitter (which I use daily), but rather to the simple fact that I was already so occupied with the work of designing, adjusting, and running the class that I just had no attention left for it. I can see myself trying this again in a future class.

There are, of course, many games and indeed whole game genres I would have love to have studied, but which didn't make the cut due to time and resource limitations. I searched around for classroom-appropriate role-playing games, and while such things aren't unheard of, squeezing such a thing into an 100-minute period with nearly 40 students just isn't logistically feasible. Our access to videogames was similiarly limited due to the class size, as well as the fact that we couldn't assume that all students had home access to game consoles. These would be rectified through smaller section sizes and a student-accessible game library, respectively.

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