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  • Lessons Learned From Teaching Game Design

    [03.23.21]
    - Lars Kalthoff

  • Rule 4 - Keep breaks, cut content

    One of the trickiest aspects of course development is scheduling. Should you spend 20 minutes or 40 minutes on the introduction? How much time do you reserve for assignments and group discussions? How many breaks do you need and when do they make sense? These are complicated questions, especially because they come with an element of uncertainty. How do you know whether your introduction will take 15 minutes or 25 minutes? Maybe you have to repeat some points because the students didn't get them the first time. Maybe you come up with a better example than the one you originally planned. Maybe the students' discussion is quite productive and you don't want to bring it to a sudden end.

    The reality is that whatever schedule you come up with, you can be certain it won't turn out that way-no plan survives first contact with the enemy. First contact with your students in this case. A good rule of thumb is that lecture segments often turn out shorter than expected, whereas interactive segments consume more time than expected. However, being aware of this guideline doesn't make scheduling much easier, your time estimates will still be off by quite a bit.

    Planning is hard. You'll probably end up having prepared more content than you can teach in the arranged timeframe. When encountering this situation, inexperienced teachers default to one of two workarounds: cutting breaks or talking faster. It's an understandable reaction. You put a lot of time and effort into the preparation of the course, cutting content would mean that you wasted valuable resources for nothing.

    The problem is that the two alternatives-cutting breaks and talking faster-come with immense costs that lower the quality of the whole course.

    Getting rid of your breaks means exceeding the cognitive limitations of your students. As a consequence, they become less energetic, active, and attentive. They'll zone out to empty their capacities. It's shocking how little our bodies care whether or not a professor has given them permission to take a break. Teachers aren't much different from students in that regard. They need breaks just as much as any other person and if they don't get them, the quality of their teaching takes a significant hit.

    Talking faster leads to a shallow comprehension of the entire material. Every presenter knows that a slow, loud, and clear way of speaking is the key ingredient to a convincing delivery. Just ask yourself what you'd prefer: a teacher who rushes through five different topics in less than ten minutes or someone who takes their time to explain a single essential point, illustrates it with several examples, and repeats it to facilitate memorization.

    As we can see, cutting breaks and talking faster aren't viable options. They drag down the quality of the entire session. It seems like we have to find another solution to the scheduling problem, one that doesn't rely on workarounds with undesirable consequences.

    To start with, we must treat breaks as central elements of our sessions and integrate them into the scheduling process. It's much easier to skip breaks if you've never planned them to begin with. In The Workshop Survival Guide, Rob Fitzpatrick and Devin Hunt even advise to "add the breaks before designing the content." Put in the breaks first and arrange the content around them. People need a break roughly every 60-90 minutes. If you're teaching a three-hour session, you could aim for two content segments and a break of 15 minutes in the middle or three shorter segments separated by two breaks of 10 minutes each. No matter which option you choose, designated breaks are now an integral part of your session and your students' mental capacities will thank you for that.

    We can also account for the unpredictable nature of teaching by adding what Fitzpatrick and Hunt call schedule springs. These are flexible segments in your session that can easily be shortened or stretched depending on how much time is left. Q&A is a good example of a flexible segment. You can reserve 20 minutes of your session for Q&A but if you end up running a little late, you can simply make it 5 minutes of Q&A to finish on time. And because you never planned the content of the Q&A in advance, you're not losing something that took time and effort to create.

    The final trick to save our schedule is to prepare optional sections. These are parts of the course that are related to the subject matter but that aren't necessary to understand the material. They're nice to have but the course doesn't fall apart if they're missing. With an optional section prepared, you can decide on the fly whether there's enough time to cover the material or whether it's better to skip this segment for the time being. Optional sections work best towards the end of the session, that's when you can tell whether you're still on time or whether some parts have to be cut. If you include optional content at the beginning, you run the risk of having to skip more important topics later down the road.

    When I prepared my session on player guidance, I knew that a lot of time had to be dedicated to the group assignment-about 80 minutes in my estimation. Putting in the breaks first, I ended up with the group assignment framed by two breaks of 10 minutes each. That gave me two additional segments: one from the start of the session to the first break and another one after the second break until the end of the session. With two smaller breaks instead of one big break, it was clear that each of the additional segments shouldn't take longer than 60 minutes. After splitting up the longer parts into multiple subsegments and moving them around until I was happy, I ended up with the following schedule:

    As you can see, the session ends with 20 minutes of discussion. This includes 10 minutes that I reserved for a Q&A as a flexible segment. In fact, I had to shorten the Q&A drastically to finish on time, but that's precisely the purpose of a schedule spring.

    The final lecture segment of the course also included a case study of the action-adventure game Ghost of Tsushima and its unique approach to player guidance in open worlds. I always thought of this part of the session as a nice bonus rather than a critical part of the course. When I finally got to this segment, there wasn't enough time left, so I skipped it completely to focus on other topics that were more relevant to the students. Later, I recorded a version of my session for documentation and included the optional section. Students who felt like they missed out on something important could simply watch that part of the session on YouTube.

    If there's one secret to time management, it's good preparation. Plan your breaks carefully and resist the temptation to skip them when you're running late. Skip content instead and even better, add flexible segments and optional sections that are designed to be cut if the need arises. Keep breaks, cut content.

    Rule 5 - Provide directions for self-study

    Too much content to teach, too little time to cover all of it. That's one of the eternal problems that educators have to grapple with and it's even worse in higher education where teachers are given a handful of semesters to cover complex topics in sufficient depth.

    Expert game designers know that it takes years to internalize the basics of the discipline and that there's always something new to learn, even after decades of experience as a professional designer. If that's the case, how are you supposed to give students a comprehensive explanation of game design-or even a smaller subfield like level design-in a 90-minute session? The short answer is that you can't.

    Fortunately, university doesn't only consist of lectures and classroom discussions. Students are expected to engage in self-study and deepen their understanding of certain aspects of the subject matter on their own. However, self-study without any guidance can quickly turn into a tedious and even counter-productive learning experience. For example, students might seek out resources that confirm their existing misconceptions or they might encounter material that's incompatible with the information presented in class.

    Even though these dangers are significant, teachers are perfectly equipped to cope with them and turn self-study into a productive process by providing directions to the students. Research is a large part of course development and good educators are well-versed in the literature on the subjects they're teaching. They can help students formulate the right questions for self-study, point them toward useful resources, and make sure they encounter different ideas in a logical order.

    If you want to provide your students with directions for self-study, start your preparation in the research phase of course development. Think about all the resources you went through and mark the ones you found particularly informative and comprehensible. Compile your favorites into a list of recommended resources and consider how they build on each other. Then, when it comes to teaching your course, reserve some time at the end of the session to present your recommendations, point out who'd benefit from them the most, and explain how the material relates to what you've covered in class.

    In my video lecture about feedback loops, I started with an explanation of the basic idea of a feedback loop and the distinction between positive and negative feedback loops. After talking about the opportunities and dangers of each type, I described the common effects that feedback loops produce in digital games. In addition to that, the lecture also included two case studies to show how specific games use feedback loops and which dynamics they create during gameplay.

    I finished my lecture with a list of recommended resources for self-study: a chapter from Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Salen and Zimmerman, two chapters from Advanced Game Design: A Systems Approach by Michael Sellers, an appendix to Future Ready: How to Master Business Forecasting by Morlidge and Player, and How Games Use Feedback Loops, a video essay by Game Maker's Toolkit.

    Then, I pointed out how these resources connect to the structure of the lecture:

    Rules of Play has a chapter on games as cybernetic systems that explains the concept of feedback loops and the two types in a comprehensible way. It dives deeper into what I've covered in the first part of the video. The book appendix complements some of my thoughts on the dangers of unregulated feedback loops and stresses the importance of a balance between positive and negative feedback. The third part of the lecture-the description of the common effects of feedback loops in games-is supported by the content of the video essay. Lastly, Advanced Game Design has multiple chapters that examine the influence of feedback loops on game dynamics and game economies. The ideas in the book are closely linked to the case studies of popular games that were central elements of the lecture.

    Connecting the recommended resources to different parts of the course also allowed me to point out who'd benefit the most from any given material. I could simply say something along these lines:

    "I bet there are some of you who've grasped the basic idea of feedback loops but still struggle with identifying them in video games. In that case, take a look at How Games Use Feedback Loops by Mark Brown. He gives several examples of well-known games that make use of feedback loops and also talks about the problems they might cause and how to fix them."

    No matter how good you are as a teacher, you won't be able to explain everything there is to know about a certain topic in 180 minutes. That's okay, it's not something we should aim at in the first place. Perhaps it's our job to pique the students' interest in a subject, introduce them to some of the fundamental ideas of the field, and provide them with enough guidance so that when they decide to dig a little deeper on their own, they don't end up more confused than they used to be. Maybe that's what teaching is about. It's a realistic goal at least.

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