Designing more than Games, Students Design Experiences

Photo: Student and teacher play testing a board game.

One of the newer course offerings at the high school is game design. For students with an interest in gaming, digital or analog, the course reverses the student’s role from player to designer. The shift provides a window into an unfamiliar process.

Still, many students arrive with more skills than they might believe.

Early interest included students from art club, robotics, and engineering, where design skills already play a significant role and quickly become assets in the new course.

“You have an idea provided by the class and you still follow rules, like game theory and structure of how people like to play games, and genre. But it still has enough creativity to it that you have to figure it out yourself, rather than a teacher telling you,” senior Andrew Potenzone said. “This class is different, in the sense that it is not like an art class, where you have complete creative responsibility.”

Photo: Students collaborating on game design.The initial version of the course focused more on video games. However, that revealed a gap for students that was difficult to bridge. Understanding basic principles and mechanics of games are essential. Yet, executing them in a video game development environment requires separate technical skills. It proved difficult to address both within a single semester.

Since taking over the course, Kirsten Fournier decided a return to fundamentals would be best. Students had played games but little knowledge about how they worked or why they were fun.

Fournier decided modifying existing games then making a board game would be the best way to investigate the process and deepen their experience. Yet, technology was still involved.

“I was wary of introducing tabletop games first because they might really only be into video games. But they have been really interested in these other board games,” she said. “They have gotten really creative in such a way, it has been refreshing.”

While not coding video games, students spend considerable time using graphic design tools and CAD software to realize their projects.

“The kids really took the leads in how to make the boards and game pieces. They have been using CAD, the laser cutter, and 3D printers. A few students even found software that allowed them to take their own images for their boards to much larger poster sizes. They just seem really into it,” Fournier said.

The results involved students developing games with a variety of themes, mechanics, experiences with the board as a common element. Another element included imitation or inspiration from games students enjoyed.

Photo: Brett Crochiere protoyping the Pac-Man board game

Junior Brett Crochiere and sophomore Drew Rancatore teamed up to try and recreate the video game Pac-Man as a tabletop board game.

“It started as a joke but we thought it would be cool to do an adaptation of an existing game. Pac-Man is a classic. The way that Pac-Man and the ghosts move was a natural challenge and correlation to a board game,” Rancatore said.

“We joked around about it but the more we thought about it, the more we thought it would be good,” partner Crochiere added.

For Potenzone, another classic served as a model.

“Making a game influenced off of chess, your goal is to capture the king and queen…but the board determines direction the piece can move,” he explained.

Reconsidering basic elements like the board itself opened a range of learning possibilities.

“I’ve learned that you can modify a game so much that it is entirely different. The mechanics are based things that change the whole game. If you chance one little thing in a game it can change it entirely, making new strategies and maneuvers.”

The design experience opened up of connections for the students. Beyond developing their ideas, they need to execute, play test, and fine-tune their game until it works. The difference between playing and creating became clear.

“Games are now something I can appreciate for their design not just their enjoyment of play,” Crochiere said. “This is the first time I have been combining creative skills, like the artwork and physical design, with these other skills, like game theory.”

“We are designing an experience and that’s new to me,” Crochiere reflected.

For Fournier the engagement is proof of success, “The kids seem really into it when we began doing some of these projects.”

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