Monday, July 16, 2012

Why I'm no longer Skeptical about SISTA's new Game Design Workshop

[This article explores some of my fears and predictions about the workshop. To find out how it actually went, click here!]

Starting tomorrow, the University of Arizona's School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts (SISTA) will be launching its first Game Design Workshop. It's a one-week program designed for kids between 6th and 12th grade, and it's being run for two consecutive sessions. I volunteered to be one of the two teaching assistants helping to run the workshop, and our latest assignment is to write a reflection on how we think the workshop might go. One purpose of this reflection is to produce a more visible representation of the work I've been doing so far, which makes this assignment a perfect fit for a blog post!

Given how busy I've been all summer, I was starting to think that I wouldn't be able to update this blog again until fall, so I'm glad that I was able to use this assignment as an excuse for a new post. Plus this gives me a good chance to practice writing posts with smaller scopes. Most of my posts tend to start out with a vague plan that I'll just talk about everything I want to say on a single topic, and then I'll figure out how to merge them all into a coherent thesis later. It is an absurdly slow process, and it's about time I stopped doing that.

For instance, this post started out as a list of predictions about how the workshop might go, plus some descriptions of the interesting aspects of the workshop's design woven in. Fortunately, I had enough sense to realize that the workshop would probably be over before I could even finish such a post.

My Biased Perception of SISTA

Anyway, when I first heard about this workshop a few months ago, my most immediate concern was that it was going to have the same low level of quality as everything else I've seen SISTA do. I've taken only two of their courses so far, and they both suffered from the same problems: they were brand new courses being taught for the very first time, and the teachers had little to no prior experience teaching. Because SISTA is such a new department, it hasn't yet had the luxury of having its courses refined throughout the years by experienced professors. Even the department's website is pretty badly designed, which makes it an ironically fitting portrayal of how the department is still setting itself up.

Is that a marquee?
Last semester SISTA held its first game design course, and while they have plans for more advanced game development courses in the future, the department is severely limited by the fact that they don't have any experienced game designers on staff. So in order to meet the demand for these courses, the department had a recent PhD graduate teach himself game design in a few months and then attempt to pass on the knowledge to students. Because there was clearly not enough time for him to truly understand the field, the only feasible strategy was to somehow take a shortcut by trying to figure out how to teach game design without having to deeply understand it.

The alternative, however, would have been to simply cancel the class, which probably would have deprived the department of some of the funding that it needs to expand. From what I understand (and I'm not a very credible source about this), the University of Arizona funds its colleges based on how many credit-hours they teach, so if a department needs more funding, they can get it by providing a greater number of courses, rather than improving the quality of existing ones. The sad part is that SISTA's strategy to "expand now, improve later" is probably causing serious damage their reputation. The low quality of their inherently popular elective courses simply reinforces the perception that ISTA isn't a real major.

What Causes a Class to be Bad?

I've taken some amazing courses at this University, but I've also taken enough bad courses to make me wonder what kind of system could produce such a wide disparity of results. I wondered why departments and schools seemed to continue to hire bad teachers and why they didn't seem to be doing enough in terms of quality control. And while I still don't have a solid understanding of those problems, working on this workshop has helped me realize a much more important problem: most teachers follow a terrible design process.

In my previous post, I talked about the typical design process and the pitfalls of trying to apply it directly to a game development process. It's wasteful to wait until the game has been significantly implemented in order to start assessing your design, so to avoid that problem, game designers build crude prototypes that can allow them to quickly test certain design decisions without much time or effort. The idea is to decrease the amount of time between your iterations, which allows you to fit more iterations into your development, which in turn leads to a better end product.

This is what my last blog post looked like.
Most teachers seem to perform a similar mistake, except it's much worse because they seem to wait a full year (or a semester, if they're lucky) in between their most important iterations. There's this frustrating notion that I sense from teachers that it's okay for a class to be terrible on its first few runs. Few of them seem to realize that they can literally save years worth of time if they were more strategic about how they tested their courses.

Unfortunately, this is most likely a systemic problem, because as far as I know, it doesn't seem like teachers even get paid for all of the hours it would take to properly prototype a course. Furthermore, teachers get surprisingly little amounts of feedback on how they're performing, which just makes their iterations even more worthless. I'm disturbed by the fact that every time I hear about feedback in the educational system, it's presented as if it's some kind of novel idea.

These are all very deeply entrenched problems that are much more complicated than I understand at the moment. Even though I don't have any large-scale solutions to these problems, I wanted to at least point them out, because the reason why I became so optimistic about SISTA's new Game Design Workshop was because we actually managed to avoid many of these problems.

Why this Workshop will Work

It's been over two months since I first learned about this workshop and since then we've been planning, researching, and discussing aspects of its design through emails and Google Docs. But I feel like none of that was as productive as the full week of in-person prototyping that we just finished.

Prototyping was made easier by the fact that we had four people dedicated to this project. Not only was it essential to testing all of the group activities, but having this many perspectives allowed us to find several problems that we wouldn't have noticed otherwise. We were also fortunate to have been able to learn from the mistakes of last semester's game design class, which everyone on the team attended, in one form or another.

I'm also surprised by how solid of a team we've managed to form. The fact that I've been using the term "team" should be evidence enough about how dedicated everyone is to the workshop. Even though Jane was clearly the one leading the whole thing, we never felt like we were "just TA's". Perhaps it was because this was the first iteration of the workshop that our roles felt all the more important, especially since there wasn't a well-established template to follow as with the longer-running courses.

Plus, Stencyl is amazing! But that's probably a topic for a future blog post.
But I think the main reason why I have so much confidence in this workshop is because I just have a lot of confidence in Jane. I don't want to sound like I'm sucking up for the sake of a better grade, but it's just refreshing to be able to work with someone who is clearly concerned about the quality of the final product. She has a lot of creative ideas, but unlike most people with ideas, she actually has the teaching experience and the design skills to make them work.

To Be Continued...

This will likely turn into a series of posts, especially if we're going to have to write post-workshop reflections as well.

[Edit: Click here for the followup article!]

By the way, I mentioned a lot of systemic problems with American education in this post. If you have experience teaching or TA-ing, or if you're just a frustrated student, I'm really curious to about what your experiences with these problems were, so please post about it in the comments below. If you live outside of the United States, feel free to talk about how much better your educational systems are.

1 comment:

  1. Lol I got an email saying you blogged then I got excited.

    Well I have only gone to schools in BC so I can't compare to what it's like in other provinces here or other countries but we get some weird substitute teachers here (maybe the inexperienced teachers??). We do still get some bad regular teachers here though. All the weird teachers I'm thinking of were high school teachers so I don't know if it's because you get more teachers or maybe it's easier to get a job as a high school teacher.

    Anyway, good luck with the workshop!