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Playing with Barriers: Hosting a Game Jam in Class -- Jason Custer

One of the greatest challenges of incorporating computer games into pedagogical practices is how to

address access, and effectively bring gameplay and game creation into the classroom. Understandably, the broader cultural understanding of “games” and “gaming” tends to focus on the kinds of consumer-driven titles we see in boxes on the shelves at Target or GameStop. These so-called “AAA” titles typically retail for up to $60 and require an additional $100-$500 computer or console to run it properly. That’s to say nothing of how expensive the kinds of workstation computers major developers and publishers use to make complex, resource-intensive games that typically take teams of hundreds of professionals multiple years to design. With this broader context of game design and industry in mind, the idea of asking students to play or create games as part of a classroom learning experience feels outside the realm of possibility.

These presumed barriers to entry likely play a role in the lack of academics assigning or seeing value in games or gameplay. In my own field of rhetoric and composition, for example, the vast majority of instructors fail to see the value of computer games as texts for students to either play or create. Per a study published by Matthew S. S. Johnson and Richard Colby in 2013, writing instructors were the least likely to ask students to create or analyze games as part of their classrooms (88). Similarly, when asked about the relative usefulness of different texts in a writing course, computer games averaged a mere 1.65 rating on a 1-4 point Likert scale, where a response of 1 classified them as “not useful” (89). The next lowest-rated category (fiction/poetry) averaged a 2.13 rating, while the highest-rated category (essays/expository writing) averaged a 3.40. Computer games, it would seem, are held in especially low esteem by many teachers—and presumably, as a result, very infrequently seen as options for student creation and consideration. These issues—access and esteem—present very real obstacles for developing pedagogical practices that incorporate computer games.

I first became interested in the intersections between computer games and writing pedagogy in 2011 after I read foundational game studies texts like James Paul Gee’s How To Do Things With Video Games and Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games. Shortly thereafter, I developed my own framework for integrating computer games into writing pedagogy—Videogame-Infused Pedagogy—and tried to address the theoretical and functional barriers that made teaching with computer games and asking students to design computer games such a challenge. As part of developing that framework and teaching courses focused on writing, rhetoric, and computer games, I’ve developed resources focused on ease of access and accessibility to help make teaching with computer games something a wide range of instructors can do, even without a great deal of experience. It is with that in mind that I designed the activity this post is dedicated to: a single-class game jam where students with no prior experience will make a simple but functional text-based game.

A game jam borrows from the language of musicians—in the same way a group of musicians might “jam” for a dedicated session and create new music for fun, a game jam is very much done in the same spirit. Every game jam is subject to its own set of rules or constraints, but typically, they have an imposed deadline of somewhere between 48 hours and 30 days, and a set theme for game designers to experiment with. Popular examples of game jams include Ludum Dare and the Global Game Jam, though there are almost always multiple online game jams taking place on the game sharing site Itch.io. Even renowned game studios like Double Fine host their own internal 14-day game jams—like their Amnesia Fortnight—to come up with new ideas for projects they can later flesh out. In short, while there is a ton of flexibility for anyone looking to set up their own game jam, they all tend to feature a specific time limit and theme as creative constraints to encourage experimentation and creativity as opposed to a fully polished game.

The single-class game jam is an activity I designed as part of a unit in a course I taught at Florida State University—ENC 1145: Writing About the Rhetoric of Videogames. This course fulfilled the second-semester requirement for first-year writing at the time and primarily had freshmen enrolled. I designed the course to do the usual work of a first-year writing course and modified common projects we completed in that program to fit into a more game-specific theme—for example, many instructors taught some form of a digital literacy narrative as their first project, so I modified this task so students designed a unique game avatar for themselves and asked them to explain why they made the design they did. In the third unit and project of this course, I asked students to design their own game by focusing on Jesse Schell’s elemental tetrad of game design and focused on the importance of appealing to a specific audience with a carefully-selected theme. The game jam activity opened up that third unit of my course with the intention of showing students that with the right tools, they could make something very rudimentary within an hour, so even if making their own game seemed like a daunting task, they were more than capable of accomplishing it.

I led the most recent iteration of this activity in my ENGL 390 Rhetoric of Computer Games course at Minnesota State University Moorhead, once again to demonstrate to students—through experience, which is something games are capable of perhaps better than any other kind of text—that they were capable of designing a functional, rhetorically-savvy computer game as one of the later projects for the course. By taking something that feels monumental and showing how it can be done within a single class period, I think this activity demonstrates just how accessible creating a simple game as part of a course can be. Without further adieu, here is a link to the activity itself.

I recommend dedicating at least a single 75 minute class period, though a combination of two 50 minute classes that emphasize design and discussion separately would likely work exceptionally well. Unlike complex, computationally-intensive games and game engines most students are familiar with, this activity asks students to use a platform known as Twine. Twine is a free, open-source, relatively simple, yet incredibly accessible program that allows users to create their own interactive narratives. With some coding skills and/or Googling, however, Twine also allows for the addition of several more conventional game features. In its most basic form, however, users can design a simple branching path and encourage players to make a series of decisions. While several games build on this underlying branching narrative structure by layering in additional puzzle elements and more robust graphics technology—such as the episodic series released by Telltale Games throughout the 2010s—but at their heart, Twine allows designers to replicate a great deal of what more complex titles do simply by allowing players to make simple choices by clicking on hyperlinks.

One of the key advantages Twine provides for teachers and pedagogy is how easily accessible it is; virtually any device with a web browser is capable of running Twine and allowing users to create games. Whereas the vast majority of game engines will require specific downloads, installations, and perhaps high system requirements to build or run games, the flexibility to use Twine on any computer with a working internet connection and browser allows for maximum scalability and access. This is especially important for instructors teaching without access to standardized hardware and software; if the only computer technology you can use in your classroom is what students bring in with them, ensuring compatibility with the widest range of devices is critical to the success of these sorts of activities. Again, Twine can allow users to create surprisingly intensive game experiences with time, effort, and interest, but its barrier to entry for both the platform itself and its system requirements is hard to match with just about any other freely available game engine.

After introducing students to Twine, I ask them to spend some time creating a rudimentary game experience by following this set of instructions. I find that one of the biggest challenges preventing students from actually making a game is the pressure of finding the perfect idea or starting with a scope that is far too large. To help remedy this I ask students to use a random game topic generator, so the pressure of coming up with a “good” idea is off the table; instead, they can simply focus on my main goal in doing the class game jam—learning the basics of how to use Twine as a platform. To make this process even easier, I ask students to map their game jam games out in Microsoft Word, to avoid the interface of Twine intimidating them too much. My goal in this single class period is to get students to create a functioning game that integrates at least one image, and implementing multiple paths that lead to possibilities for relative success and failure based on the player’s decisions. By simplifying game creation down to designing a few paths, using a topic and theme they don’t need to create on their own, designing a game becomes an exponentially easier process than it may appear at first.

While my course focuses specifically on computer games, asking students to create games to synthesize and represent ideas can be a fruitful exercise for a range of disciplines. Bogost makes it clear that he sees computer games as an ideal place to apply procedural rhetoric, he also welcomes us to “see procedural rhetoric as a domain much broader than that of videogames, encompassing any medium—computational or not—that accomplishes its inscription via processes” (46). One of the major benefits of seeing procedural rhetoric and expression this way is that it encourages us to consider how we can create interactive models of how vital processes work in any field. Specific to this lesson plan, it allows students to create interactive models of any numbers of processes, and as Bogost argues throughout his work, help them gain a deeper understanding of how those processes work, and what arguments those processes may be making, intentionally or otherwise.

The basic set of plans in this post for hosting an in-class game jam can open the door to a wide range of possibilities for students and our pedagogies alike. For instance, demonstrating the relative ease of producing an interactive text that models core knowledge in your area of expertise may encourage students to create projects in an entirely new medium, and perhaps help them become more critical of otherwise incredibly complex problems and concerns. By no means does this mean that projects or plans need to shift into game making as a primary task—I would never suggest that any approach is best for all purposes or contexts—but it is important to consider what we can do in our pedagogy and our students can in our courses when we open more doors for them to explore and engage with what we value.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. (2007) Revised Edition. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Johnson, Matthew S.S., & Colby, Richard. (2013). “Ludic Snags.” In Rhetoric/Composition/Play Through Video Games (83-97). Palgrave Macmillan, New York

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