Reflections on Game Design for Expression, Fall 2013

So last fall, I decided to step outside of my comfort zone — a statement that will be especially relevant later in this post — and teach a game design class. Now, for those of you who don’t know, while I work in the games domain, my background isn’t in design, primarily. I come from a mass communication and cultural studies background, so my work tends to be sociological in nature and more about players and games as cultural artifacts than about how to “make” them. One of the best things about working at this lab, however, has been a chance to engage with design as a process, to talk with students doing that work, and even be part of making a game or two. So I decided that I wanted to try and teach a design class that leveraged what I knew.

The question became: what kind of design class could I offer? We’ve already got excellent courses taught by others in the lab on game design, digital and not, so I didn’t want to try and retread that territory. A lot of my work focuses on LGBTQ identity in games, and I wondered to what extent that would be useful, when it hit me: what have a lot of queer game devs been advocating for? Making small-scale, personally-meaningful games using free tools. I’d even had exposure to some of those free tools, like Twine and Stencyl, myself — they were things I felt I could teach students. Perhaps most importantly, I had a lot of contacts with developers who had made those games. Could I teach a course about making personally-expressive small games?
And thus was CMS.S60, “Game Design for Expression,” born.

For the course’s structure, I drew on my own experience as a student with creative writing workshops, which was how I expected a small course on creative work to run. The first half of the course focused on exposing students to readings and games by creators I felt had been working in that domain. The second half of the course was almost entirely about workshopping student projects — getting them to play each others’ work, comment on it, and iterate until they presented the final result in December. While the workshopping started later, around week 7 of the semester, a number of small assignments were due in the first half of the course to help students prepare for their eventual final project. This approach worked mostly because the class was relatively small: fewer than 10 students. With a larger group, individual projects would have necessitated moving to group work, and I’m not sure that would have been as successful. The games that came out of this class were all quite personal and drew heavily on the students’ life experience in the end. The first half of the class focused on playing and discussing games. With the class meeting once a week, I had to make some tough choices on what I had students play, and I admit I went out of my way to try and feature queer creators as much as possible. We played a range of titles — Anna Anthropy’s “dys4ia,” Merritt Kopas’s “Lim,” Mattie Brice’s “Mainichi,” and Zoe Quinn’s “Depression Quest” are just a handful. The idea was to present games which exemplified an approach to creating a personal game, and then discuss with students what the game appeared to be saying and what design techniques — mechanics, presentation, etc. — got us there. I remember one really fruitful discussion about “Lim,” specifically a bug in the game that can eject the player from the maze entirely. The students not only wondered if this was intentional or not, but also had a really wonderful discussion about how it could be read given the game’s portrayal of passing and loneliness.

Beyond that, though, I was fortunate to have a number of guest speakers talk with my students over Skype, and when the class was done everyone agreed the chance to talk with creators directly about their work was really helpful and interesting. We spoke with Mattie Brice about “Mainichi,” Samantha Allen about “Alpaca Run,” and Will O’Neill about “Actual Sunlight” — all games the students had played for the class as well. I’m really grateful to those three for agreeing to speak with the class, because I think being able to see into their creative process was really valuable (so much so that students mentioned time and time again some point the speakers had made influencing their project in some way). If you are teaching design and have the ability to do this, I strongly recommend it.

The second half of the course, the workshop half, also featured a few small assignments in working with free game creation tools to help the class appreciate what was available for them to use. In retrospect, I wish I’d done them earlier, but I still believe they were useful. I was careful not to demand that students make a digital game for the course, though in the end everyone did (more on that in a moment), because I have very little programming knowledge and had no way to teach that to students beyond simple tutorials in Twine and Stencyl. For future iterations of the class, I might follow the advice one student offered in their course evaluation: have someone on hand as a teaching assistant who DOES know programming and can help students who choose the digital path.

But even the small games they made as prototypes impressed me. One student with considerable HTML5 knowledge turned a simple Twine game assignment into a hilarious “surgeon simulator” where the player performs brain surgery and preps for the procedure by checking for animated gifs of it on Reddit. In the case of Stencyl, instead of making new games from scratch, I had students make “meaningful changes” to the platforming tutorial the program offers… which one student turned into a Nyan Cat-based side-scrolling shooter (for the record, the “evil” Nyan Cats you destroyed were waffles instead of pop tarts). A third student made a Portal sendup as their Stencyl prototype. I think these small creative exercises were valuable though, as I said, in the final reckoning I should have done them far earlier in the course than I did.

Perhaps most important were the students’ personal projects. I’m really proud of the work they did, and the games that we got were really varied in scope and content:

* A game about a platypus who wants to make dams, like beavers do. The beavers snobbily inform the platypus that he can’t make dams, but a wise mentor beaver teaches him the secret to help him succeed. The game is a Tetris-alike, but when you first start the game is actually impossible to succeed at: some common tetriminos never appear and others explode when rotated. After meeting the mentor beaver, the game becomes playable.

* A game about expanding your personal comfort zone, drawing heavily on personal ancedotes from that student’s past as narrative vignettes that drive the game forward. Conceived first as a Risk-like board game, it made the jump to Twine midway through the process.

* A game about one student’s relationship with a sibling, and how they constantly egged each other on in friendly competition, with the final result being a game of escalating “will you or won’t you?” with funny challenges.

* Another student also created a game about a relationship with an older sibling, specifically how that student felt like they were sometimes following that sibling’s life trajectory uncritically. The game was a platformer that expressed this by having a “ghostly” sibling that ran ahead of you, taking paths that the player would be unable to access.

* A game about the impact of forgetfulness, specifically on schoolwork. The player has to balance their stress level, academic achievement, and even their relationship with friends as they progress through a school year, managing situations that arise as they forget important assignments.

* A series of short games about one student’s experiences abroad, particularly how that student managed to make it through an extended (and unintentional) stay in a city where numerous cultures clashed. The games included a matching game about saying the same word in different languages and a game about identifying a person’s nationality and background solely from their appearance.

* A game about how people can bring inadvertent harm to others, and how doing what we think is appropriate or right can actually backfire. The game focused on encouraging players to take a certain action that feels like it’s the “right” action for gameplay, but which is actually having a negative impact on an in- game character. By realizing this error and “intentionally failing,” the message becomes clear.

Finally, I believe the story of one student’s game deserves special mention. Their project, for most of the semester, was a paper/table game rather than a digital one. The student wanted to express the challenges of dealing with your “inner critic,” the voice that many of us hear in our heads that tells us we can’t do things we want or need to. The original design focused on giving players a task to complete while another player effectively forced them to stop and perform a “coping mechanism” of some kind, be it taking a deep breath, saying something self-affirming, or the like.

The idea itself was really interesting, and — if I may so — one I personally found a lot of resonance with. If you’ve never struggled with self-esteem, it’s easy to underestimate the extent to which having to take time and cope/deal with that inner voice can impact your everyday life. As the semester progressed, the game evolved in different ways, changing from being single player to multiplayer, to involving different types of “coping” actions. I recall struggling somewhat with the student’s choice of origami folding being part of the process; I understood that they wanted an activity that was deeply engrossing (and thus where the intrusion was particularly jarring) but there was one playtest where the folding being so engrossing kept one player from engaging the “coping” part.

Flash forward to the final day of the class, where the students were presenting their work. This student got up to do their presentation, and I was all prepared for us to play through the final paper version… and boy, was I in for a shock.

What we actually experienced was a platformer, made in Stencyl. The game had a simple look: a picture of an MIT student’s desk covered in problem sets, with line-drawn art on top of it. As the game auto-scrolled the level, the player is tasked with stomping blocks marked “[P-set]” while your grade is shown above your head numerically. Miss a p-set and your grade drops. Simple, right? However, as the game progresses, huge text boxes with self-deprecating phrases like “You’re never going to be any good at this” and “Why can’t you get off your butt and study?” pop up, obscuring your view of the action and making it harder to play the game. You can drag these boxes off screen with the mouse to get rid of them, but since you need to move with the arrow keys and jump with the space bar, it’s likely you’ll miss a set or fall off a platform while your hands are on the mouse, and dying is awful: the screen fills with those self-hurting quotes over and over while a voice intones “Why are you so dumb?!” over and over.

I was, frankly, blown away by this. It was an amazingly clever little game — it drove the point home with mechanics and fiction, and it clearly came from a very personal place in that student’s experience. Floored, I asked them how long this took to produce, given their work on the paper prototype, to which they responded, “about four days.” The whole class gasped at that.

And the creator saved the best part for last: as the presentation ended, they pointed out that if you have a partner who’s willing to hold the mouse for you, they can handle dragging away the blocking text boxes so you can focus on platforming. I hesitate to say this in such an internet-y way, but? Mind: blown. It was a really great, simple, clever little twist that added a lot to that game’s already strong message.

I love all the games that came out of that class, but that story will always have a special place in my heart. I was overjoyed that somehow it all “clicked” for that student because the resulting game was really amazing, and clearly incorporated the feedback that was part of making the paper version up to that point, too.

I think this first foray into teaching a design class was a success, though it was also a learning experience for sure. But I really owe a lot to the students in the course, who taught me even as I was teaching them. It was really wonderful to see how their ideas evolved, moving through the stages of creation. If you teach design already, I highly recommend taking the time to encourage students to try and express something personal through games. What they end up producing may surprise you, and in so doing, they might even surprise themselves with what they can eventually produce.

Todd Harper is a researcher at the MIT Game Lab with a background in mass communication and cultural studies. His current research focuses on both competitive communities and their cultural norms, as well as queer and gender representation and issues in gaming culture. A game made as part of his research, "A Closed World," was an IndieCade finalist in 2012 and his book on competitive fighting game players, The Culture of Digital Fighting Games: Performance and Practice, was recently published by Routledge.