Gaming the System: Things I Learned by Asking Lit Majors to Design Their Own Digital Games

I’m breaking my summer blogging hiatus by reflecting on the class I taught during Spring quarter. It was mentally and emotionally overwhelming in a lot of ways and has taken some time to process, but I’d like to present the more organized thoughts I’ve had about the class here.

UCSB’s Department of English has given me some great teaching opportunities over the years that have gone well beyond the standard Shakespeare and American Lit TAships one would normally expect from an English department. This Spring, I was lucky enough to have a pitch accepted for a class called “Gaming the System.” I modeled this after Alan Liu’s Literature+ seminar, which gave students the opportunity to put theory into practice with a split-quarter design: approximately half of the class is a survey of the field (in Liu’s case, digital humanities production; in mine, social justice game design) done in more traditional reading/discussion/lecture style, with the other half of the course devoted to working on projects.

The basic philosophy behind my course came from queer and feminist indie game designers like Anna Anthropy, Merritt Kopas, Porpentine, Mattie Brice, and others who not only design their own games but host workshops and tutorials for others to start too. I put several chapters from Anthropy’s manifesto about everyday game design, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, on the course syllabus in order to inspire students to jump in feet first and get down to designing. The catch was, each student group had to design with a particular social justice issue in mind.

This course was highly experimental, and with a roster of 34 students I was (very reasonably) afraid that the experiment would be a disaster. I could not have been more wrong. I’m planning on profiling some of the student games in detail in future posts, but for now I’d like to offer up some things that I learned from this experience. You can visit the course website here to see the syllabus, view student blog posts, and learn about and play the games that each group made in order to get a sense of what we actually did.

Lesson #1: Undergraduate students can accomplish amazing things when you let them off the leash.

I’m hardly the first person to discover that the seminar paper model does a disservice to students who think differently or simply isn’t a reliable assessment/teaching tool for certain skills. I often defer to Cathy Davidson for detailed discussions about the ways that university instruction need to change to keep up with the times. This was the fourth (or fifth?) time I gave students the option to design their own “final product” for a class, though this is the first time that a nontraditional assignment was required for completion. Many of my colleagues at UCSB and other universities have assigned blog posts, critical fan works, and other creative projects in lieu of the “traditional” paper, and we have all been glad we did so. I’ve received sketches and short stories, critical fanvids and even original songs about texts that exhibit a level of critical thinking that one would expect at the university level. However, with this class the magnitude of the students’ accomplishments was above and beyond anything I had expected this time around.

Perhaps it was because the project was such a huge leap of faith. Of my 34 students, less than half were gamers, only three had any digital design experience, and only a handful would have identified themselves as hardcore computer users. This was an English class full of English majors, not computer scientists or art students or game designers. And yet, at the end of the quarter, they had made 8 digital game prototypes all by themselves tackling issues from domestic abuse to colorblindness ideology to environmental justice. Some of these were more polished than others, but everyone had grappled with making meaningful arguments with unfamiliar technologies and come out with more or less successful digital objects as a result. They really rose to the challenge in ways I never could have anticipated.

Lesson #2: Being ‘off the leash’ does not mean activities are unstructured.

On the contrary, thanks to those who went before me I’ve learned that it is important to bridge novel assignment types with familiar structures in order to get students to think across skill types and to give them a way to express ideas that they can’t quite get across through design. My experience as a student in Alan Liu’s seminars were instructive in this regard: if your object doesn’t work as planned or if you don’t have the technical skills to implement certain features, being able to express them in writing (which is, after all, one of our primary trained skills in the humanities) can sometimes be just as useful as programming them into your work.

I spent every day during class workshop meeting with the student groups, checking their progress, fielding questions, and helping them plan their next moves. Groups made formal presentations during which I and their classmates could make suggestions informed by the theoretical conversations we had had earlier in the quarter. Over the course of the quarter, every student had experience writing a  “close playing” about a video game object, assembling an annotated bibliography about social justice, and articulating the rhetorical strategies of their games in writing. The students had a lot of free rein in choosing topics, pursuing different design strategies, and even setting their own schedules, but there was a lot of guided learning that took place in this class as well.

Cathy Davidson likes to say that if professors can be replaced by computers, then we absolutely should, and I think my experience in this class really confirmed that for me. No matter how much you restructure (or even unstructure) the classroom, you will only get good results if instructors are interacting with students in meaningful ways.

Lesson #3: It is okay to take a little bit more control.

This is probably one of the more important things that I learned teaching this class: ultimately, I erred a bit too much on the side of letting students make their own interpretive decisions about the texts they were reading. Part of this was practical: there were 8 very different issues each group was tackling, some of which I was only familiar with in passing, and something like 170 unique bibliographic items across the class for me to evaluate and advise on. Normally, paper topics are constrained to a limited number of texts with which the instructor is intimately familiar, or, as in the case of the Lit+ classes, the number of students was greatly reduced. However, I also wanted the groups to have a wide variety of texts to inform their game design, which meant asking students not to overlap their texts. It was an unanticipated problem that I chose to deal with mostly by trusting my students to read carefully and come to me with any misunderstandings or questions that they had.

I believe I did a good job helping them to use their research in productive ways, but I’m not sure I made my advice forceful enough in some cases. An influential feminist studies professor in my life once shared that she does not permit students to disagree with certain texts when she first introduces them to the class. This always struck me as an odd way to do feminist pedagogy, but I now realize that there is something to be said for limiting free thinking, at least initially, when you are dealing with topics that explicitly challenge the hegemonic structures in which students have been immersed. (For a more extended version of this, see this post on what academics can learn from the Internet.) Ultimately, some of my suggestions were tossed out by the groups, or they heeded them in ways I did not intend. I did have the power of evaluation over them (in the good ole disciplinary tradition), but their finished projects are public and some final choices struck me as particularly problematic. Next time I do this, I will steel myself to forbid students to do things, even if it means having to redo considerable amounts of work.

Lesson #4: MORE SOCIAL JUSTICE INSTRUCTION.

Ten weeks is not really enough time to give students an introduction to game studies and social justice and game design and ask them to make a prototype of a game, but that was the challenge I created for myself. At the time I was planning the class, it seemed more likely that students would have encountered the basics of feminism and critical race theory than video game studies, so I skewed the readings toward familiarizing students with concepts like procedural rhetoric and narrative architecture. This was a mistake.

There are many good pieces out there that discuss game design and social justice together, and I tried to incorporate as many of them as possible. There are many others that I missed, including the fantastic “Power to the People: Anti-Oppressive Game Design,” which I assigned as soon as it came to my attention upon meeting one of the coauthors, Susana Ruiz, at the FemTechNet Conference at UC San Diego. However, I think it is equally important to prioritize intersectional queer, feminist, critical race, and disability studies work that does not engage with game studies. I tried to do this through the annotated bibliographies by requiring that at least two items must come from outside of the field of game studies, but more focused instruction in the principles of social justice or anti-oppressive scholarship during the seminar phase of the course would have, I believe, provided them a more solid foundation on which to build their game design.

The quarter system is nasty, brutish, and short, indeed, but I will make appropriate adjustments next time.

Lesson #5: Anyone can make a game if you make them try.

This is similar to #1, but with I want to finish this list with a bit of a twist: undergraduate students can accomplish amazing things when you drop them off a cliff and ask them to fly. I hope it’s obvious by now that I did my best to provide the infrastructure necessary for the class to approach the problem I set out for them at the beginning of the quarter, but even I wasn’t 100% certain they could actually do it. (For the record, I didn’t let them know this until they had succeeded.) “Gaming the System” was both a leap of faith and a radical stretching of comfort zones for most of the students who walked in on the first day expecting, as they inevitably do, another round of articles to read and papers to write. Every single group rose to the challenge.

I consider this class my very first pedagogical victory.

Stay tuned for more in-depth profiles of specific class projects.

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8 thoughts on “Gaming the System: Things I Learned by Asking Lit Majors to Design Their Own Digital Games

  1. This is just wonderful. I have “ten principles” for redesigning education for the world we live in now and one is “let students lead” and the corollary is: it takes a lot of mentoring and leading and teaching and “professoring” to “let students lead.” I will be talking about this in my upcoming Coursera MOOC on History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education and will link to this wonderful post. Think about reblogging on HASTAC.org too—I know our network members would learn so much from this. It’s great.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Cathy. Will be putting this up on HASTAC momentarily. I’m obviously very inspired by your work on pedagogy and hope to be able to run more class experiments like this in the future. UCSB has really been a great teaching environment for me in this regard, and I can only hope wherever I end up in the future will be amenable, as well!

  2. I’ve had students in my second year War State & Society designing very traditional board war games for a few years now, and grad students in International relations working on outline game designs which apply IR theories to real world cases; students will rise to challenges, if properly presented and scaffolded, and with a safety net. I often set these are group tasks, on the grounds that while one student alone might get stuck, a group will often find a solution. Novel assessments are scary for the lecturer, and many universities will be wary of innovation, and hard on failure. However, there are enough of ‘us’ out there to support and help each other!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mike. Creating board games is definitely an option I thought about and one that I’ve seen other colleagues use to great effect. In many ways, it is better for designing games themselves because it takes out the challenge of navigating digital platforms. It’s great to hear from other people using these methods as well!

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