On Tuesday, I started teaching a graduate studies course in the History and Techniques of Games at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. (To prepare, I ran through the Academy’s new faculty orientation, which included the above multiple-choice question, much to my delight). We’ll be looking at the history of games and gaming from the very beginning (i.e., ca. 5,000 years ago) on through the very latest. I want to construct the course around three main ideas:
- what games are and where they come from
- how games are made (in terms of both design and culture)
- the roles of games in society and our lives
The course description (which I did not write) sounds pretty cool (see below), though it does not include the game of Rock, Paper, Anything (more about that below as well) that I had students play.
This course provides an overview of games in history, from board games to the most complex PC and console games. Game design and theory, non-linear storytelling, pre-production, and game art will be examined. Emphasis will be placed on the use of games in society and how humans relate to each other through games.
I may lean a bit harder on some fundamentals of gameplay design (this is a graduate-level course in the game design department, after all, and only one of 15 students raised her hand when I asked how many people had had a gameplay-design course in the past), but I’m very excited to get to spend a semester talking to students about “the use of games in society and how humans relate to each other through games” — which is a lot of what I was on about over at 3pointD.
We spent the first session (we meet weekly for 3 hours in the evening) talking about some of the oldest games in the archeological record, including early backgammonlikes like Senet and Mancala, early sports and dice games, and the Mesoamerican ballgame (human sacrifice!), among others.
I also asked students to pair off and play a few rounds of Rock, Paper, Scissors, in order to illustrate two concepts and lay the groundwork for a third. First up was the way complexity can come from simplicity; students described a variety of approaches to strategy that they took, and admitted to enjoying themselves despite the fact it’s game that’s blindingly dull and simple on its face. Next, we looked at the thing that Rock, Paper, Scissors has given to every great strategy game ever made: balance; RPS (not to be confused with RPS) is a perfectly balanced game: each choice is beaten by exactly one other choice, and beats exactly one other choice. Thus, no choice is intrinsically better than any other. The game is able to accept a great deal of variety and replayability because of this simple fact, and the principle is one that’s found in almost any compelling instance of gameplay, strategy genre or not. (We also looked at the interesting fact that the three hand signals are the equivalent of game pieces or units in a strategy game.)
To complete the goofily interactive portion of the program, I introduced students to the version of RPS that my stepkids (who are 9 and 12) taught me, which we usually refer to as Rock, Paper, Anything, since those are your choices: you can choose anything as the unit you’re going to use to try to beat your opponent — the kicker being that you are obligated to make the hand signal for it.
Students came up with some interesting examples, although I had an easy time beating my opponent. He threw “dog” (crabbed spider-like hand signal) to my “tidal wave” (cupped hand with fingers imitating breaking wave), and then tank (spider-like hand with tank barrel sticking out) to my “earthquake” (palm-down flat hand with vibrating fingers). It’s interesting to see how removing one constraint and introducing player creativity into the process changes the game completely. It’s also interesting to see how the element of negotiation that’s introduced changes how the game works. Tidal Wave > Dog is pretty clear, but two students negotiated a draw out of Rocket-Propelled Grenade Launcher (hands miming holding the weapon) vs. Mack Truck (hands on steering wheel). Talk about emergent gameplay! What I like about this is that I neither told them they could use two hands to sign the unit, nor that draws were possible and could be negotiated. Of course, when you’re playing with a 9- and 12-year-old, that’s often the most contentious part of the game: Death Star (hovering fist) vs. Tank, for instance, has a clear winner, but Nuclear Holocaust (blossoming fingers) vs. Cockroach (scurrying hand) is debatable.
(One thing we didn’t get into in class is the themed versions that are often played in my house, like Rock, Paper, Hawaii (you can do anything as long as it has to do with Hawaii); Rock, Paper, Food; or Rock, Paper, Cute, in which it’s the cutest entry that wins, rather than the most bad-ass.)
So if the first class was anything to go by, I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester. With only 15 students (or perhaps a few more if anyone adds), things should be engaging and fun. Even in that small a class, we have a good range of people, including the one or two people who aren’t games majors and don’t come with deep knowledge of the medium, and the one or two people who think they know more than I do (maybe they do!). I haven’t detected anyone who seems to be there to fill an easy requirement, which is nice. As long as the conversation stays interesting (and I find a way to sit down from time to time during the 3 hours!), it should be a fun semester.