One gaming design exercise in a seminar

Bryan Alexander 2024-04-22

Last week I tried a new exercise in my gaming seminar, and wanted to post about it because it went well and might be useful.  I’d also like to build on the exercise.

To recap: at this point in the class we’re explored a range of gaming forms.  We started with tabletop games, moved on to role-playing games, then jumped to the digital world, and followed up with gamification.  Throughout we’ve explored the higher education implications for each via practice (playing games), scholarship (reading research), and design (making stuff). Now students are working on their final game projects, a process taking weeks and a lot of iterative work.

At this point I wanted to try synthesizing the class contents.  One of my goals was to make sure they can bring the entire semester’s work to bear on their projects.  Even if they’re producing a game in one format (say, tabletop) they can apply many design and pedagogical lessons from the others.  A second goal was to firm up their understanding of gaming and education overall, so they have a better chance of taking that away from the semester’s experience.

Other thoughts went into my planning.  The event should be creative, focused on design. It should encourage them to dive into their memories and class work. It should also be light enough that we could do it in one class session without bogging down their project processes.  It should also not focus on a topic we’ve already dwelled on (for example, storytelling, historical or science simulation).  Theoretically, it’s a constructivist effort, as they can make meaning and understanding through making and producing stuff.

So I gradually came up with an exercise and tried it out.  The pitch: I told the class “I’d like you to design a game representing a national election.”  I didn’t specify which nation. I didn’t give them educational parameters or constraints (i.e., curriculum, budget); I wanted them to surface those dimensions themselves. One requirement: they had to make their game a role playing game.  In designing, they should bear in mind key themes from our class to date: information restrictions, empathy, randomness, the balance of simulation with playability, storytelling, etc. etc.

One contextual detail: electoral politics hadn’t appeared in class conversation to date, nor had any student described seriously studying government or political science.  I chose the topic because it would be fresh and unfamiliar, hopefully spurring new reflections.  Further, no student would dominate discussion based on academic credentials, so they should all feel equal before the problem.

Additionally, I didn’t specify a nation because I wanted to keep their imaginations open.  Also, it was a very international class, and I hoped students would raise details from different nations.

Materially, it was a whole group exercise, with the in-person students seated together at shared tables.  Several remote learners Zoomed in, projected on two big screens and also available by chat through individual computers. I didn’t bring any physical props or tools because I wanted this to be discussion-oriented.  I did write up notes on a projected/ shared Google Doc.

So how did things play out?  To begin with, students wrestled with the challenge admirably.  They raised a lot of good questions.  Whom would players play: candidates, government officials, the average voter, constituent groups? What would go into a character sheet: persuasive capacity, government experience, finances? What could the game master simulate and represent: votes, polling, regional interest groups?

DALL·E imagines a university classroom setting showing students and a professor engaged in a simulation design exercise. The room is equipped with computers and large

DALL·E imagines “a university classroom setting showing students and a professor engaged in a simulation design exercise. The room is equipped with computers and large…”

Should the game be more competitive or collaborative?  How many pre-election political features could appear in-game?  Some students suggested random events, such as scandals, marriages within character families, and endorsements.  Others thought about non-player characters (NPCs) and how many to set up ahead of time.  More questions cropped up, like: can we simulate an electoral mandate to set up governing?  How to structure electoral coalitions as well as corruption?  Can we allow candidates to challenge vote counts?

Once the class surfaced a significant body of ideas, I switched things up: “Now, how would you design a tabletop game to simulate a national election?” I reminded them of the games we had played together and the scholarship we read, as well as the fact that some of them were building up tabletop games.

Students gradually built up some ideas, again, often in the form of questions.  Should the game represent a specific election (real world or hypothetical) or an abstract one?  As with the RPG, should players play candidates or voters? What should be on a board, a geographical map or representations of metrics?  (I showed images of this US election game). Some students explored using a map to represent campaigning. One raised the idea of only representing swing states. We discussed ways of including regional states, with examples from India and the United States.  Folks aired different metrics to display, such as polling and campaign finance.  There was some discussion of using multiple cards to create resource or action combinations.

Once that discussion progressed to a good point, I switched things again, over to computer games.   How might a video game simulate a national election?  At this point I think things became a bit repetitious, as we had a lot of ideas on the table already, and it became a question of how to translate them to digital formats. Students did suggest ways of locating election strategies within a branching narrative structure.  One way of doing that would be for the player to answer questions, and ultimately learn if they won the election.  Other students thought about pre-generating a suite of candidates, or randomly generating them for each game.

Next, I turned discussion over to gamification.  How would they gamify a national election?  Some started by talking about rewards for voting, like stickers, but making them more desirable through a limited release, or even the possibility of adding weight to early voters.  At this point I wrapped up the exercise and moved the class on to other topics, namely gaming and storytelling.

Overall, I was happy with how it worked.  Students dug into their learning and turned it into design ideas.  They tested out their understanding of different game types.  They thought about educational uses.  It was a good review process.

Things to do next time, if I repeat the exercise: I might make stuff available for students to work with, such as drawing paper and writing implements, blank game materials, or toys, like Legos. Expanded digital materials might be good, too, such as involving all students in writing the Google Doc, or using some other tool, such as Miro.

I’m still thinking about the surprise nature of the exercise.  I liked the way it made people think quickly, but would it have better to announce this in the syllabus from day one, so students could prepare for it?  I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure what to do about the length of the exercise, once it started becoming repetitious.  Should I hold this event earlier in the semester, perhaps as a kind of mid-term assessment, when they have less gaming to bear in mind?  Or should I keep it at this late time in the semester, but somehow change things up to spur more ideation?

As a blended class, remote and in-person students participated equally.  The Google Doc being virtual I think helped online learners feel equal access.

Building on the exercise, I wonder if there’s a generic name for this sort of thing.  I’ve done a similar session in my technology seminar, asking students to creatively apply their seminar learning so far in a creative, live activity. What should we call this, a synthetic design exercise?  A synoptic design activity?  Surely someone else has done things like this and theorized about it.

My thanks to the brilliant LDT students for working hard and constructively with me.