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Posted 2006-11-14 by Tony Walsh
I've been teaching a course on Game Culture & Design for George Brown College in Toronto since last January, and am in the midst of conducting some hands-on workshops with the students. We're building game mechanics and rules systems playable on the tabletop. In my experience, there's no better foundation for digital game design than developing tabletop prototypes--if it works on paper, it'll probably work on the screen. Tabletop design forces designers to simplify concepts and mechanics to the human-readable, human-executable level, which makes the game's innards easy to understand, tweak, and rebuild.

I thought I'd summarize a few of the exercises I've been subjecting the students to recently. Feel free to add your thoughts or suggestions in the comments section.

"Let's Go to the Movies!": Develop a goal, set of rules and mechanics that describe any part of the experience of going to the movies.
I deliberately chose going to the movies as a concept because it's a broad topic and doesn't immediately evoke game play ideas. The topic seemed to generate lots of creative ideas, and was a good way to show the students ways of abstracting reality through simple rules. There are so many aspects to "going to the movies"--which ones are "important" and "unimportant," given a focus on a particular goal?

In one execution, we developed rules to determine if a group of friends had a "good time" going to the movies...
- as determined by their available budgets weighed against the price of the experience
- as determined by the genre of movie weighed against their personal preference
- as determined by the amount of chatter in the theater weighed against their tolerance for chatter
The students developed simple systems to generate random numbers within specific ranges, and compared sets of numbers for each attendee. At the end, they were able to say whether or not the group had a "good time" as they defined it.

Another pair of executions was conducted with the Canadian Film Centre's Habitat New Media Lab residents. This was more of a "game design boot-camp," so the goal was to create a playable game prototype in about 8 hours. Two groups executed two different concepts around "Let's Go to the Movies!" One group went the traditional tabletop route around the concept of buying and selling tickets and concessions for a profit, and the other group wanted to make a location-based game around the concept of throwing popcorn in a movie theatre (the game would be played inside the theatre on mobile phones). The first group basically had few problems in coming up with a fun, playable tabletop game. The second group had a harder time trying to translate a digital game idea into a playable prototype--they ended up simulating the experience of play with a presentation, but didn't end up with working game. I think the experience of the second group would have been less frustrating if I had insisted they do a tabletop game, but I wanted to give them the opportunity to try a top-down rather than bottom-up approach. I probably wouldn't go this route again--it's really tough for beginning game designers to get past the "excellent concept" stage to the "excellent execution" stage. Digital games are easier to conceive of than to actually design.

Game Mechanics: Following lectures on rules and mechanics, students were to use game concepts developed earlier as the basis for creating one or more game mechanics.
Despite the use of many examples to show what a "game mechanic" is, I'm finding it a difficult concept for students to grasp. I think it's too easy to confuse "rules" with "mechanics." As I learn more about teaching, I will hopefully improve my explanations, but in the mean time it was useful to have the students run through the exercise of expressing parts of existing game concepts through mechanics. I had anticipated one or two fairly complex mechanics to be developed through this exercise, but it turned out that what we got were a series of more simpler mechanics as they would be used in sequence during game play. Basically, the students seemed to find it easier to map out game play as a combination of mechanics rather than isolate one or two single mechanics. This actually worked out pretty well, since we were able to talk about the mechanics afterwards.

Game Mashup: Based on the results of the "Game Mechanics" exercise, mash up your game concept with the game of Chess.
I provided each student with their own dollar-store Chess game. They were tasked with keeping the essence of their game concept intact while running the game through the filter of Chess. The exercise was intended to force them try different ways to express their concept, with the objective of increasing their ability to create interesting game mechanics. Students used some or all of the Chess pieces in their sets. Some modified the board, some added cards, and some added dice. It was a worthwhile experiment that potentially broadened their game mechanic repertoire. Previous learning such as risk vs. reward, showing vs. hiding game information, and the extent of the "possibility space" was reinforced through this exercise.
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Comment posted by Brace
November 15, 2006 @ 8:58 pm
fascinating stuff T-Dawg!

I really don't have anything to add, plus you obviously are a faboo teacher. You'd be surprised how many educators don't learn from what doesn't get across to their students, and then try different ways.

I love that you set up a very challenging series of points of view on how to "attack" building or developing game systems.

Haven't we all dreamed of creating the next kick ass game? Your workshop looks like it brings a healthy dose of reality into the beginnings of the process, yet still keeping the dream possibilies going.

Coming to teach in Tucson anytime soon? :)
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
November 16, 2006 @ 5:24 pm
Hey, thanks for reading and responding, Brace. You are too kind. I am still learning about teaching if you know what I mean. The first half of the semester was mostly lecturing, whereas the second will be all hands-on. My lectures are pretty lively, but I need to break them up a little more with mini-exercises. Keeps everyone engaged and awake :)
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