One of the most difficult things about being involved as a guide in the cluster initiative is that there is no blueprint for how to get from where we are to where we want to be when we get to the other side of the transition. In fact, we’re not even completely sure what “where we want to be” looks like. We have a general idea but it’s still pretty blurry. In addition, we can’t simply scrap what we’re currently doing and start over because, in the meantime, we still have a university to run. The group of guides have begun to use the metaphor of trying to completely rebuild a plane while it is in the air. The only thing we know for sure is that we want the plane to fly better when we’re done.
As we move forward with this project, I’ve struggled with figuring out a plan for how to make decisions in an environment with so much uncertainty. How do we move “forward” when we’re not really sure where we’re headed? I realized yesterday that this is a similar situation to the one that I put my students into in my Creating Games class. I think some of what we do in that class can be helpful here.
Creating Games is a general education class that fulfills the Creative Thought direction. These classes are designed to help students understand and engage in the creative process. We talk a lot about how you come up with ideas, implement those ideas, test the implementations, and then revise and start the process over again. In my class, this iterative, or cyclical, process is focused on designing, implementing, and testing card and board games while in other classes, they might focus on creating paintings or poetry or films. The important part of the classes is the focus on process.
After some introductory material and projects through which students learn the basics of game studies, the major work of Creating Games begins with idea generation. But rather than generating ideas about games they want to create, I ask students to generate ideas about experiences they want their players to have while playing a game. This player experience goal is the rubric by which their final games will be judged. In the end, if the player experiences what the students set out to have them experience, then the game is successful. The focus on player experience goal puts the player at the center of the design process. This may seem like an obvious insight but how many times have you used a product whose interface is difficult to use because the designers didn’t think about how actual people might interact with the product? I think we’ve all had that experience so explicitly stating that the user (or player, in the case of games) should be at the center of a design process is never a bad idea.
Warning: Do not hit the ejector seat switch when you want to turn on the radio!
So when my students are designing and implementing their games, their player experience goals are at the forefront of their process. For example, perhaps the students decide that they want their players to have the experience of needing to make decisions with all information about the game status completely in view. If the students then design a game like Poker, where some information is hidden (namely, the cards in the hands of the other players) from a player as they make decisions, the students can evaluate their game to see that it is not successful. If, on the other hand, they design a game like Chess, where both players can see all the information about the status of the game every time they make a decision, they can see that the game is successfully meets their player experience goal. But Chess is not the only game that they might design that meets this same player experience goal. They might instead design Checkers, a very different game than Chess. But they will still be successful because, again, the players have the experience of having all information about the game status available when making decisions. They might instead design Go, or Connect Four, or Tic Tac Toe, all of which are games that have no hidden information and so require players to make decisions with all game status information completely in view. If the students then are trying to make a decision during their game development about how to change the game because some aspect isn’t working, they have a goal in mind. Will this change improve the player’s experience of the goal we have in mind? If yes, then they can go ahead and make the change. If not, they need to think of some other solution to the problem they’ve identified.
This idea helps me think about what we’re trying to do with the cluster initiative. If we think of all the goals of the initiative in terms of experiences we want cluster participants to have, we have a mechanism for evaluating what we’re doing even though we don’t yet understand what the final structure is going to look like. The Cluster Steering Committee set some goals for the initiative back in March. If we re-frame those goals in terms of experiences that we want students, faculty, staff, and external partners to have, then we can use those goals to guide our decisions.
For example, one of the stated goals is: “To support student preparedness through interdisciplinary programs, curricula, and open labs.” If we re-frame this goal to focus on the experiences students need in order to be well-prepared, we might say something like: To ensure that X% of students engage in ‘high impact’ activities during their time at PSU. High impact activities have been defined as things like learning communities, undergraduate research, collaborative assignments and projects, seminars, capstone projects, and so on that are excellent indicators for student success after graduation. Then when we make decisions about the structure of clusters, we can ask about the ways in which such decisions support giving students the experience of engaging in high impact activities.
I think it would be a great activity for the campus to work on making the cluster initiative explicitly people-centric by turning all of the stated goals into statements focused on experiences we want people to have while they engage with the University.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.