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  • Lessons Learned From Teaching Game Design

    - Lars Kalthoff

  • Rule 2 - Connect to the students' past and future

    When planning a session, it's crucial to view it in context. Your students took courses before yours, they'll take other courses in the future, and at some point, they're going to look for a job. Whether or not a course is experienced as meaningful often hinges on how well it's aligned with what came before and what comes after.

    Connecting to the students' future means making a conscious effort to show how the taught material is relevant to what happens after the course, for example, how it prepares the students for an upcoming assignment, consecutive courses, or common tasks on a job. This connection helps people see why the content is important to them and carries with it a sense of relevance that makes it easier to pay attention.

    My session on player guidance was targeted at third-semester game design students. At the end of the third semester at the Cologne Game Lab, students form groups to work on a multiplayer game for several weeks. I connected to that upcoming project by ending the session with group discussions, asking the students to analyze the special requirements for player guidance that multiplayer games bring to the table and how these might be addressed.

    In my lecture on presentations, I began by listing key events in the career of a game developer like interviewing at a big studio, pitching a game to potential investors, convincing your colleagues to co-found an indie studio, and setting up a Steam page for your first game. I then explained how all of these events are essentially presentations before diving into the actual content of the talk.

    Connecting to your students' past means recognizing that students come into your session with expectations, misconceptions, and background knowledge about the subject. Finding ways to address these remnants of past exposures to the subject is a central element of successful course development. This is particularly important when it comes to background knowledge that your students may or may not possess. The research on learning demonstrates that prior knowledge is a major determinant of effective learning. For us teachers this means that assessing what students already know about the topic and connecting the new material to that knowledge base is a sure-fire way to take our teaching to a new level.

    When I prepared my course on player guidance in level design, I knew that the third-semester students had already taken other courses on different aspects of level design such as pacing or storytelling. To embed the new content in a framework that includes the content of the previous courses, I described player guidance as one of many lenses through which you can view level design. Then, I talked about how it relates to some of the other lenses that the students have learned about and what constitutes the opportunities and limitations of the player guidance lens.

    Further, I suspected that many of the students were already familiar with some basic guiding techniques but I had no way of knowing which exactly those were. To solve this problem, I decided to host a short brainstorming session on guiding techniques with the students right before the lecture segment in which I'd introduce six different methods and their special use cases. The brainstorming gave me a comprehensive overview of which techniques were well-known and which weren't. I could then use this information to adjust the lecture segment by spending less time on the familiar techniques and by connecting new information to ideas that had come up during the brainstorming.

    If you can't assess students' background knowledge through research, consider designing an exercise as a prior knowledge test in disguise.

    Showing your students how the material relates to their future grabs their attention and connecting new information to students' prior knowledge deepens their understanding. That's what it means to view your sessions in context.


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