York College Summer Research Program

Welcome to the first in a series of posts related to rapid prototyping and game development with students. York College hosts the CUNY Summer Undergraduate Research Program (C-SURP) for high school students and undergraduates. The program is competitive, pays a stipend, and culminates in paper and poster presentations that can be applied toward college admissions or scholarship applications. I currently have nine students in my lab this summer, six of which are participating in C-SURP. All of the students are developing games of their own, but each student works on every game in the lab. The design process is collaborative, but students serve as project manger for their own game. To support this collaborative environment, I have adopted the principles described in the Valve Handbook for New Employees, which encourages collaboration without authoritative leadership. My goal is to create a sandbox where students can develop ideas without fear of criticism. I view my role as a facilitator who only intervenes to ask critical questions if a student is veering toward hazardous territory. If things are going well, I shouldn’t be talking at all.

The primary research objective of the lab is to study the efficacy of game-based learning in various disciplines. We incorporate principles from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, education, and game design to create effective learning systems. To that end, each student’s project is a study of learning in itself. Students are both the creators of a learning experience and students of the design process. My goal is to engage students in the subject matter of their choosing by involving them in design. By designing games, they must master the material related to their subject and then create a tool to teach those lessons to other students.

There is clearly no single best practice for educational game design. Even so, game designers have agreed that a certain number of elements are commonly found in successful games, and successful games are more likely to result from certain design processes. I’ve found that it’s critical to have frequent (but not necessarily daily) scheduled meetings and then allow students to break into groups as they see fit. Weekly meetings are not enough because students typically forget what they were supposed to accomplish by the time they get around to working. Cognitive psychology informs us that spaced learning is most effective, and professionals in the creative arts will attest that having a regular work regimen sets the stage for those “Eureka” moments in the creative process. Fortunately, for educators, this process is easy to implement in a class that meets two or three times a week.

During our group meetings, I ask students to review any progress they made or problems they encountered since the previous session. This practice is common to lab meetings. However, there is one critical difference. When solutions to problems are explored, it is important not to criticize any proposed solutions. Every member must be able to freely express any wacky idea that comes to mind if the appropriate solution is going to find it’s way to the surface. Reserve critical review of the game until after it has reached a stage where it can be prototyped and tested. As a facilitator, you run the risk of discouraging student participation if you start dropping logic bombs on brainstorming sessions. If you’re looking for a fun way to get this idea across to your students, play a round of “yes-and,” an improv game where students take turns building a story using the phrase “Yes, and” while avoiding the phrase “Yes, but.” It’s harder than it seems.

As a facilitator your primary job in the brainstorming sessions is to make sure the discussion is focused on the problem while remaining impartial. Having a dry-erase board in the room is critical for keeping track of all the ideas that emerge during the session and, more importantly, for making associative links between seemingly unrelated ideas. Student participation will run the gamut from incredibly-insightful-but-shy to extremely-loquacious-but-unfocused. The dry-erase board is a wonderful tool for focusing the unfocused. Ideas can be rapidly sketched as they come to light without the fear of running off the rails. Asking biographical questions is a great way of drawing out the shy students. Even the most reluctant students I’ve had in the lab will respond to personal questions about their interests, opinions, or experiences. You can use the answers to those questions to start a dialog about how to apply those attitudes toward the design of their game. At the end of each session, each student agrees on what needs to be accomplished before the next meeting. I’ve found that taking a picture of the dry-erase board is a quick and dirty means of backing up the day’s efforts without having to take additional notes.

There are a couple of challenges you will undoubtedly face when working with students in game development. First, students will come to you with an idea, together you will work to refine that idea into something tenable, and then they will come back to you the next day with a completely different topic. Many students are not academically resilient. When they encounter a problem that results in an appreciable amount of effort, it is easier for them to choose a new problem to solve. This is not a failure! This is a fine example of lateral thinking. Normally, I would encourage students to explore all the possibilities. However, most projects are under a time constraint so, you must help them not to exceed their “time budget.” Students switch from topic to topic because they are blissfully unaware of the vast amount of information they must absorb to complete the project (aren’t we all?). In my experience, when left alone, students who can’t settle on an idea will switch topics until they run out of time (sometimes this lasts an entire semester). As a facilitator, you have to intervene. I recommend introducing game elements to keep them on track. Give them a task list so they can monitor their own progress. Introduce a boundary that will hasten their work and make it more game-like. In game design, boundaries are used to limit a particular behavior, but it’s the act of limiting that behavior that makes the game fun (e.g., not using your hands in soccer). For example, to keep my students from spending too much time on an idea, I might give them a time limit for each stage of the process. As an alternative, you can also introduce friendly competition between students in the form of a race, or provide rewards for completing stages on time.

Students will also get frustrated at the difficulty of the readings and the amount of time it takes to sift through a seemingly endless pile of literature. Do you remember what it was like to read your first peer-reviewed journal as an undergraduate? Imagine being given a stack of readings like this as a high school student! As a facilitator, one of your other important jobs is to cull the reading list. However, it’s critical that you let the students discover information on their own. No matter how well we curate and scaffold the reading list, students do not like being handed a pile of papers. It makes them feel like they are being forced to do work. Let them start with searches on the Internet, even if it leads to dubious sources. When they find sources they like, augment those readings with a highly refined list of your own. Explain outright that you are giving them this list to save them time. Now that they have done some work on their own, they will appreciate the list. I typically prescribe a chapter from an undergraduate text, a good review article, and less than three peer-reviewed articles that are directly related to the subject matter.

Finally, the students might not understand or identify with the logic of game-based education. Fortunately, this is an easy lesson to teach. Start by having students talk about the games they’ve played, what games they like, what games they didn’t like, and what they may have learned from the games. You’ll probably have to step in and stop the discussion! Then, have them play some state-of-the art educational games at Gamesforchange.org. Explain that these games may or may not be the best examples of how to teach a lesson. They should have fun playing the games, but also encourage them to review the games with a critical eye for improvements. Follow the game playing session with a crash course in game design. Explain the critical elements like objectives, win-loose states, resources, boundaries, and reward-punishment contingencies. I try to explain these elements from the perspective of behavioral psychology because, ultimately, all behavior in games can be explained using well-tested models of behavior from psychology. Try to keep in mind that we are using games as tools to shape behavior. If we do our job, our games will produce measureable changes in behavior that can be quantified. When you have finished, introduce a few readings on game design, particularly Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop or Jessie Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.

Now that I’ve introduced my method of introducing game-based learning to students, I’ll follow up with a few posts on the games we’re working on and the day-to-day progress on those games as they develop.


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