Before starting my Learning, Design, and Technology program this fall, I had spent much of my quarantine playing games in my free time and thinking deeply about game design. Though I had played games growing up, it was always for recreation. Even though my time gaming during the quarantine started in the same way, I had started thinking about how my gaming experience was relating to the rest of my life. I saw the streams I watched as places of community, where people convened to share in a comfortable experience. I saw games themselves as places of learning where people were willing to take up challenges even if they were harder than math problems. I was really curious about the role of games as escape but also as teaching tools.
Thus, when I entered Stanford, I was really excited for the Design for Serious Games class! I knew that games could be “serious”, but I had little knowledge of the formal vocabulary and intentions behind game design. I also just wanted an excuse to push myself to make some cool games. I had made one or two games as practice over the pandemic, but they were mostly following tutorials, so I was eager to have a fresh experience.
Unfortunately, since the class became an independent study, I wasn’t able to get as much out of the class as I would’ve hoped. Nonetheless, I think I learned a lot from the process of making games and the conversations we had in our weekly meetings and game sessions. I think that our readings helped me develop a vocabulary for talking about games. Whenever I was playing games during our game sessions or in my free time, I found myself identifying the core mechanics and what their constraints were meant to do. I came to find the “intention” behind games thanks to the insights from the many sketchnotes and critical plays we did.
I also gained a deeper appreciation for the art of game design. Making a good game is HARD. I often had ideas for games and themes, but it was much harder to execute them. I often found myself struggling to boil complex themes like gentrification into objective, simple mechanics. I think its important that this be a struggle; these ideas are complicated and shouldn’t be so easily simplified. However, we should still try to capture the meaning and values held in complex systems into serious games for teaching. We must do it well. And that’s where playtesting comes in!
I think that the mantra of playtesting rang true for me. Because I had so many big ideas, having to put them in front of people in a game forced me to think quickly in terms of mechanics. I had to put together things that made sense as part of a game. I think it took me a lot of tries but I got it down for Project 3 with our gerrymandering game. Because we figured out our mechanics and put it in front of people, we were able to see what went well and poorly. In addition, because I was very cognizant of the fact that this game should simulate aspects of gerrymandering, I was able to toe the line between making the game true-to-life and fun. I also think that playtesting other people’s games led me to recognize what made a game “fun” and how to optimize for it through different variables in the game.
I also learned a bunch in this class about the difference between game-based learning and gamification. Though it wasn’t a central topic in our class, I feel like in the ed-tech space there is a lot of push towards gamification so I couldn’t help but compare the two. To me, gamification feels like it misses the point of games. To me, the fun part of a game is the “escape” rather than any point system or behavior modification mechanism. Sure, games make use of these systems, but they aren’t the priority. They are used in schools, standardized testing, and so many other places. Game-based learning feels almost more transparent and less manipulative than gamification. It’s built on the premise that games are supposed to be fun and then tries to make a learning experience out of that, rather than trying to apply the game to something unfun in the first place.
In the future I want to keep making games! I feel like I have a good sense for what makes a game fun now and I know that I can make games that mimic some of the challenges we face today. I see games as accomplishing dual goals for me. Games can be an escape from reality, a place where learning can be fun, but also a tool that can carry teachings over to real life. I feel like there is a lot more to learn in terms of making long-term games rather than just design sprints so I’m curious what a longer process would show me.