Reflections on a Semester of Educational Game Design

I came into this course with a bachelor’s degree worth of experience in game design and work experience in numerous educational contexts. I have always been a firm believer in the capacity for games to teach, intentionally or not. Game design is, at a basic level, a nontraditional framework for education; the role of a game designer is to teach players how to play their game at an increasing level of proficiency. However, my experience afforded me relatively few opportunities to intentionally connect the two, and I can safely say that I did not fully appreciate the complexity of doing so effectively.

Designing educational games requires a different mindset from designing commercial or fully entertainment-oriented games, but not a completely different one. I would equate it to playing Mario Kart 8 for ten years, then going back to Mario Kart 64—the fundamentals are similar enough to trip you up, but executing on them optimally requires distinct approaches. Because I do not have formal education in… education, the thorough, lesson planning adjacent work of developing and implementing meaningful learning objectives was foreign to me at the outset. I hesitate to call this my biggest dislike, as the paradigm shift the process imposes is integral to learning game design. It caused a level of necessary discomfort, but that also made it my favorite part. I love to learn—I would not have pursued grad school if that weren’t true. As with most things, I believe I need more time and practice to reach a better understanding of the process.

I went into the semester fully intending to take the same completionist approach to the skills and attributes that I take to games. Unfortunately, well, life comes at you fast. Between loss, illness, and generally faltering mental health, my focus and motivation crashed like a wave against a rock early in the semester. Though I pushed myself to claim the Gamestorming and Narratology attributes, I had to drop those to follow. Both were extremely useful in developing projects through the rest of the class, and I am certain that will hold true going forward. The same cannot wholly be said of the Player and Blogger attributes, but that has less to do with them and more to do with my prior experience. My game design program and personal interests led me to build up both years ago, so I had less need for practice.

As I now see it, a serious game is one designed with the intention of interactive instruction to some capacity. It need not be didactic nor focused on concepts covered in classrooms, but it must have some purpose outside of pure entertainment value. While my view on the games themselves is largely unchanged, I have developed more appreciation for gamification. Naturally, as with any design process oriented towards human psychology, gamification can be implemented in a manipulative way. Just as I have personal disagreements with developing casino games, for instance, I take umbrage with gamification applied as flashy effects and increasing numbers to hook people on meaningless behaviors. However, the gamification of this course gave me a clearer way to stop myself from tackling every optional assignment. I may be a completionist, but sometimes I need to drop a few sidequests.

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