Undergraduate Videogame Symposium

Over the weekend (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) we held the second annual Undergraduate Videogame Symposium in the English department here at NAU. The amazing thing about this symposium is the breadth of majors who participate in the event, involving themselves in roundtable discussions, videogame play, guest speaker presentations, and student presentations. We had solid attendance across all three days, and fantastic discussion about the larger culture surrounding videogames and play.

In what will be the first of a few posts about the symposium I want to discuss a comment made by a software Engineer from Zynga, Wil Coats. When asked what individuals should do to work in the games industry he responded: make a really bad game. In a side conversation I had with him on Friday before a Q&A session with business students he discussed the composition of his design/engineering/user-testing team as very tech heavy. So I find the idea of making a bad game even more intriguing from a humanities perspective.

First, there is the idea and place of failure being put forward with this claim. In this way, Coats argues for the inclusion of failure as long as you learn from it. This idea is forwarded by game scholars such as Gee, but is not easily recognized in educational settings. As students/educators we must learn to self-reflect on failure so it can become a teaching moment. Earning an F on a paper or test is not the same as designing something that just doesn’t work. So how can education reward for effort with a reflection as part of assessment when something/someone fails?

The second key point from this idea is what does making a game mean? Do I need to practice tech design, code writing, usability testing? Is game design testing interactive narrative or interactive storytelling? Is game design testing play and how to design learning and play so players can progress through a game or story? I’m particularly interested in this portion of the question as 1)his team has no humanities majors, 2)a student presented yesterday on Halo.

So I’ll start with #2, the easier. A student in my Videogames and Literacies course completed her gameplay with Halo 1 and Halo 2. As a non-gamer, she accepted the recommendation of friends that she would like the game Halo, so completed that for her play in this course. She ended up hating the game. She professes to have no problems with the FPS aspects, killing, etc., instead, it was the integration of story, lack of story, and holes in the story that ruined gameplay. Based on these ideas, her gamer friends recommended the game to her BECAUSE of the story. As an English major she MUST want to play a story heavy game, obviously. These gamers never considers or questioned her likes and dislikes in relation to play – but to story. This is interesting as some aspects of gamergate emphasized games as entertainment as a reason to make no changes. But as English majors expected to enjoy story heavy games, this student discussed how little she enjoyed the story, and the issues with the story construction. So not only do we need to make failed games, based on my student’s experience I also think we need to play a variety of games to understand why we like to play and what we like to play. If her Halo loving friends considered games outside the gamer context, and played a variety of games from a variety of genres they may have made a better recommendation for her. This is a form of failure – playing a game we dislike, or recommending a game that others dislike. So to engage further with Coats’ we as players need to play more games like this to understand the application of the failure=learning model outside just quest failing, and as overall genre failing so we can be more critically aware of the culture of game genre.

To return to my first comment about Coats – I think humanities majors are uniquely qualified for this conversation, and the selling of this failure=success model. Humanities majors, English majors specifically are taught to analyze and contextualize cultural artifacts in broader issues. As Humanities moves forward with technology, many of us incorporate this line of thinking into experiences with technology. I ask my students to recognize, analyze and contextualize technology; recognize, analyze and contextualize various uses of technology; recognize, analyze and contextualize various ways of reading, writing and sense making in digital spaces. This would allow game designers and game design teams to more effectively engage with sense making done by players – instead of designing just fun games they design games with interesting ways of teaching and assessing to push players into new realms of thinking. Some games are already doing this, more could.

To begin, educators need to consider the failure=learning model, and consider ways it may fit into their pedagogy. Not all students earning an F on a paper are willing to engage with critique made by their instructor, learn from that, and rewrite the paper to better demonstrate their learning. So what are others ways of helping students fail, to help them self-reflect, to help them learn?


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