Using Game Development in the Classroom to Critique the Development and Industry of Games

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As many contributors to this month’s survey have indicated, games can be productive contributions to the classroom setting. As computational systems themselves, digital games are ideal for simulating and critiquing social and cultural systems, something theorist and game designer Ian Bogost has called “procedural rhetoric,” the ability of digital games to make arguments with their structures and mechanics. Thus, used in the appropriate context, digital games can be powerful analytical tools for students to learn from, both through play and production. Furthermore, the familiarity many students have with the generic structures of digital games can strengthen lessons and help ground sometimes abstract theories or concepts. 

As a young media and cultural studies scholar still cutting his teeth on curriculum design, I made it a point to include game production as part of my first original course at UC-Santa Barbara’s Film and Media Studies Department last summer. Inspired by digital humanities courses from Alan Liuand Amanda Phillipsthat emphasize digital production as legitimate scholarly output, I modeled a course with the purpose of bridging game studies theory and the practice of game development. Calling the course “Countergaming: The Video Game Industry and Its Discontents,” I introduced students to a variety of scholarly and popular criticisms of the video game industry and culture (sexism, racism, homophobia, labor abuses, environmental impact, military-industrial-entertainment-complex) and then tasked them with designing original digital game prototypes that communicated one or more of these critiques.

Course objectives like this are now entirely possible for academics that might only consider themselves amateur developers, thanks to free and accessible game-creation tools that are easy to teach and learn. Some of the most popular game creation programs to use for first-time game creators are Twine, Inform 7, and GameMaker. While all of my students had laptops, similar courses can also be taught in dedicated computer labs or, if technology is not available, students can equally be asked to produce board games, card games, or pen and paper-based games where computers are not necessary.

After introducing the majority of critiques and game creation options, I asked students to form small groups, select one or more critiques introduced in class, and build a game that communicated that critique through game design. This assignment forces students to collaborate and think critically about the course material and then translate those critical thoughts into a playable prototype. While engaged with the production-portion of the course, I spend time with each group during the class period and monitor their progress, ask questions to steer the project in more critical directions, and talk students through particular problems in the game development process. Such an approach also provides students a space to teach me new things about these programs and game design, a mutually-instructive combination that excites me as much as them.

Of course, implementing video game play and production into course design is not without some headaches. A few significant issues arose during game production in class. The first is simply the difficulty of game development and the many, many things that can go wrong, despite the best of intentions or efforts. To anybody who has ever attempted it, game development is hard, and students quickly learn to appreciate this, especially when using a more complex creation program like GameMaker.The second concern to keep in mind is that, in their enthusiasm to create a digital game, many students need to be reminded that their goal is to create a critical game, not simply a “fun” one, although the two are certainly not mutually exclusive. Finally, in addition to reading about, discussing, and building games, I also have students play games in class, provided they are available for free online. While one would think students would enjoy this, they actually tended to grow bored during these play sessions, perhaps because the games we played were simpler than they expected or perhaps because they are not used to critically examining the design of games they play. One way around this problem, as colleagues have suggested, is to include students in the game selection process.