SAIC’s Experimental Game Lab, Fall 2016

This past fall,  I taught undergrads and a grad student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) as the lecturer for the Experimental Game Lab class. There was a lot of luck in being able to get this opportunity (thanks William Chyr). I am teaching there for the near future and am in talks for developing a game music composition and critique class for the fall.

The Class

It was a studio-style class, meeting at nights twice a week for three hours. I could see this being nice during the summer, but teaching 6-9 PM is kind of drab once day light savings time kicks in.

I decided to make the first half a discussion/lecture, then the second half ‘studio’ time, or time for students to work on their projects/troubleshoot.

The class structure and content were up to me to design.  I decided it would be a mix of introductory game design with Twine/Unity and critique and critical play of games (to try and increase the variety of games students were exposed to.)

One issue with the class was that it took place on Tuesdays and Thursdays – so I had to figure out what games I wanted to assign by Thursday to have them ready for the next week. In practice I was really busy with releasing Even the Ocean (please buy it) till November so I ended up having to assign 3-4 games over the weekend and a few games on Monday/Tuesday. As you might expect most students had trouble playing the games assigned on Monday/Tuesday for the Thursday class.

Part of why this was the case was that students seemed overworked – most taking 4-5 classes a semester, requiring many hours per week in-class and with projects to work on. I wasn’t really able to assign as much work as I’d like to, but perhaps this was also to blame on assigning too many game projects (more on that later.)

Luckily for next semester it’s a once-a-week 6 hour class, so it’ll be easier to structure – just assign once a week and discuss all of them for half of the next class.

Overall I managed to assign around 50 games, which was about my goal. Including student critiques that brought the total number of games discussed to around 100.

Assignments

For each game I assigned, I gave some readings (often reviews or other criticisms), and then I wrote up some questions, which were usually short essay questions but I only required a few sentences. I tried to focus on questions requiring students to deconstruct how a game worked, or how effective a design decision was, or occasionally asking to think about the game’s presence (or lack of) sociopolitical themes.

Some students consistently gave good responses, others half-assed them. If anything I need to be clearer on the expectation and then enforce that in grading.

Question examples…

Yume Nikki: Did the presence of the ‘effects’ change how you perceived and made your way through the game’s world? How would the game have changed if there were no effects to find?

Lacuna III (An visually ‘spooky’ game): The NPC dialogue in Lacuna III is an interesting choice – although some NPCs may speak cryptically, a few speak in friendly, almost cute ways. What’s the effect of this on the player’s experience and perception of the game?

LSD Dream Emulator: In the dream-like games we’ve played so far, you transition from one place to another through doors, waking up, dying, or portals. LSD Dream Emulator adds a new way to the mix. What is the overall effect of colliding with any object functioning as a trigger to the next dream-world?

Now that I’ve generated around 50 games and written questions for them, that should buy me some extra time this semester to polish up questions, readings, and find new games to replace my weaker choices. I would like to include more short writings of my own on the games – I managed to do this for a few games, but for most I only had time to write summaries. I think it’s important to introduce why I’m picking a particular work. The past few weeks I’ve played ~80 or so games so I’ve found a handful I think are worth assigning.

I’d like to more strongly theme the games together. E.g. “newsgames”, “political”, “architecture”, “dreamscape 2d”, etc. I did attempt to do this for some weeks, but other weeks I had to do some ‘easy’ weeks like assigning some 3D games that weren’t Great but that I thought would be easy for students to emulate in their work, or even assigning my own games (which I’m still feeling okay about doing – though it does feel a little weird at times.)

Projects

We had four crits over the semester. I think this was too many. The first three required entire classes (of which I only had 28 classes in total), the last final crit took the last two days of class.

The idea was: Twine game, 2D Unity game, 3D unity game, Final project. It was an easy way for me to get a decent syllabus done, but it’s clear in retrospect that expecting four finished projects with the expectation of a crit was too much.

Instead what I’m shifting to for the spring semester will be a few shorter assignments focused on literacy with tools and design exercises, and then just a midterm and final project critique.

In the future I’d like to incorporate more interesting design exercises – perhaps when I get more confident with teaching. Robert Yang, Jake Elliott and Paolo Pedercini’s teaching work have been good reference points in this regard.

Critiques

I was initially nervous about these at first, but then I realized it was basically a feedback session and it got a lot easier. It helped I had taken a few art classes in undergrad. One problem is that it got a little awkward when it was unstatedly obvious the student wasn’t satisfied with their work or, maybe, knew they turned in something of poor quality. But I never really brought this up and insisted on investigating the work anyways, and that seemed to have been fine and perhaps contribute to class goodwill.

I made sure to take notes for each student… which helped the discussion get going when the student had trouble talking about their work.

Because we are dealing with games and not traditional artworks, students must play the games ahead of time. Which is fine but this ends up having to shave a few days off of each student’s development time for a given project. This should be less of an issue since next semester will only have two crits.

General lessons on teaching

I didn’t anticipate how much of a distraction electronics would be. It feels a bit absurd to do this, but I’m planning on banning all electronics during class discussions, unless a student specifically requests to use something for note taking. Which I would then grant permission for (under the threat of a grade reduction if they take advantage of the policy). I’m not really the most confident when it comes to punishments but it seems like a necessary thing for discussions to be productive. Some students were producing music, chatting, etc.

Additionally, I’m implementing a no late work policy. I had a few students who couldn’t keep up with the work and ended up missing many assignments. I think this will help to prevent work from piling up for those students. In terms of projects the no late work thing sure sounds stricter – but I think it is also necessary. I had students turning in things a few days late or even on crit day and it really fucked up the crits sometimes since only I and a few others would have anything to say about the work.

If anything I want to emphasize that it’s okay to turn in unfinished work/WIPs. But it’s hard, and I assume it’s something students don’t feel as proud of doing.

As for discussions in class, I only did this a few times but taking notes during the discussion is really helpful over a 90-180 minute discussion, in order to reference back things people said. Should have done this more often. Might have been anecdotal, but I felt like discussions were livelier when I sat at the same big table as students, rather than project the game onto the screen during discussion. I’m still for live play, but it seems better to have another student play the game – I think students may see it as easier/more ok to be distracted if I’m up at the front of the class.

Unity (3D)

For 3D, Vanilla Unity is a hard thing to teach to non-coding students. It’s an extremely powerful tool and as  you might expect if you’re not used to coding it can be hard to track down problems.

From the students, I mostly ended up with little/no-interaction first-person games. I tried to teach coding for a few days but this was pretty much a failure. I think teaching coding would be too difficult alongside the other goals of the course – I’d probably have to axe game assignments – so I’m focusing on looking into scripting tools this semester.

This semester, I’m requiring (non-programming background) students to use Playmaker if they want to use Unity 3D, hopefully that will result in better games as it (I hope) helps abstract away some of the coding and get them more into design, rather than worrying about randomly downloaded libraries not having namespace collisions or figuring out C# syntax.

2D Unity

Unity 2D wasn’t much better. For getting student to just make a simple game, there are so many caveats that make this a nightmare… objects disappearing because their Z coordinates change for whatever reason, it’s hard to get pixel-perfect set-up, the sprite animation system in Unity can quickly become tedious.

So I’m using Stencyl instead. Game Maker feels a lot more ideal and documented, but I’ve managed to figure out enough with Stencyl that I feel comfortable teaching it. It also has drag and drop coding, which, while tedious, is less error prone.

And, it works natively on Macs, which is necessary  because my students are only guaranteed to have Macs.

Reception

Despite shortcomings with the course the students seemed to all be satisfied. On a few accounts I heard that it was one of their more well-organized classes. Evaluations will come out soon so I can see some more feedback, hopefully. Using different tools should help – I would rather leave the students in a place where they can go further with the tools rather than being stuck at a coding roadblock.

In general…

Teaching is pretty fun, especially when getting a good discussion going or when a student produces interesting work. It’s nice to stay up to date on aspects of youth culture.

I was pretty lenient with grading this time around – not sure how much I should change that.  I think for the most part, students did put in good effort and their projects will be improved by structuring the class slightly differently, and changing up what tools we use.

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