Sunday, March 31, 2013

Game Design and Student Affairs - The Ten Things Every Game Needs

For my second exploration into how Game Design can improve Student Affairs practice, I am going to be drawing heavily from this Mark Rosewater article - The Ten Things Every Game Needs (originally a two parter, thankfully combined for an "end of the year best of" run).
This is a fantastic article because it is able to "explain it to you like a five year old." Rosewater was invited to his daughter's fifth grade class to talk about game design for an upcoming school project. Because of this, difficult concepts needed to be boiled down to their essence and kept brief in order to maintain the attention span of, well, 11 year olds.
Already this echoes an important concept in Student Affair (SA) of meeting students where they are. As practitioners, we have a wealth of knowledge and theory that guides us, but it does not matter if we start reciting the words from textbooks and do not realize we are not dealing with an ideal actor, but rather an actual student with actual experiences. Thankfully, I know zero SA professionals who act solely guided by the text, but it is nonetheless important to keep in mind.
While not every Game Design (GD) principle in Rosewater's article is transferrable perfectly, many do make sense in the realm of SA.

1. A Goal (or Goals)
Games need to have a point - there needs to be a tangible "something" that the winner has to do in order to win. They need to take out an opponent's King, have the most tiles in their color, reduce an opponent's life total to zero, kill the large monster in the dungeon, or one of any other variety of ends. The game ends when the goal is achieved. 
Then what is the goal in SA? Being such a broad field, there is not any one goal. In this instance, it could be helpful to think of SA much more like a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (like World of Warcraft) than a side scrolling platform (Super Mario Bros. [the original, for Nintendo]). Rather than having a definite sequence of events, students can pick and choose their own path through college. Because of this, each student can have a vastly different interaction with the various SA offices on their particular campus. Therefore, each time a student has an interaction, we as professionals have to have a goal in mind. This can be as simple as "ensure they have fun at the spring carnival" or as complex as "prepare them for a real world career through student employment opportunities." 
The big issue comes with a unifying goal. In any division of SA, there needs to be an overarching theme, an uber-goal, that ties all offices together. While different places may describe it differently, I like to think of the Goal of SA to be "ensure the healthy development of a student outside the classroom." Using this Goal to guide all my practice helps to make sure all my sub-games fall in line.

2. Rules
If your game does not have rules, then people will cheat. While it might be easy to transpose this to policy and call it a day, in SA, rules can do so much more. Yes, a posting policy might not teach a student anything (except for reading comprehension), but in the world of event programming, the step by step process taught to students to plan events and complete contracts, the rules set forward for them, have actual real world application. Following this, is can be extrapolated the rules and policies set down by SA should be intentional, in order to help further the Goal.

3. Interaction
Rosewater says players need to interact with one another. In SA, we need to make sure that the students interact with US. Policies and procedures can be written down, but taking away the human element destroys the chance to build relationships, and hampers the ability to cultivate potential student leaders. If interaction is removed a student could violate the alcohol policy and be punished, but there would be no chance for an educational moment.

4. A Catch Up Feature
Sorry, GD is not a perfect analog. There is no need for a catch up feature in SA practice because the nature of the profession is to meet students where they are. If a student needs to be brought up on policy, it should be the professional's priority to help bring a participant up to speed.

5. Inertia
College has its own internal inertia: the march to graduation. This parallel helps to keep students thinking forward. In SA, we can do the same by encouraging students to take on increased roles. Hall council to resident advisor; club member to club presidents; student council representative to student government president. Students will often need to be made aware of the options and nudged, but will take the opportunity to move forward (in part because this generation of students is more likely to want to move up that ladder).

6. Surprise
Surprise is actually something SA should avoid. Students should know what to expect when they interact with SA professionals- a student should not be caught unaware. However, it happens: a policy changed, the student never read the guide book, the student is a new transfer, and so on. In this instance, we have to act as a Catch Up Feature.
There is the possibility for good surprise though. Going above and beyond is never a bad thing (as long as it does not interfere with other aspects of the work day). Students appreciate when people care about them, and surprising them with extra help or some leeway on a very minor transgression (thinking hours late paperwork) can go miles.

7. Strategy
Drawing on Rosewater's definition of "something in your game that allows players to get better over time" is the influence for this comparison. As students engage deeper with offices and SA programs, it might be time to challenge them more. In this case, we, as professionals, need to provide the challenge (and yes, the support) for them to navigate more in depth aspects of the co-curricular life. This can be anything from helping them to plan a more involved program to helping them navigate an internship process. Rather than strategy, SA should provide the opportunity for growth.

8. Fun
The programs put on by SA offices are important in that they help serve students by providing them with skills that they may not acquire in the classroom. Some of these programs are not fun (think Tunnel of Oppression).
How then, does fun translate? Fun can be seen valuing and enjoying an experience. If SA officers can provide an experience, that while challenging, is rewarding, then we can fulfill this goal. Therefor, in the realm of SA practice, fun should be seen as "valued experience." Using this, practitioners can again return to the Goal as a guiding principle.

9. Flavor
We are just going to pass this one on. Games are encompassing experiences. The "flavor" of SA is that there are students in college, trying to get the most out of their time.

10. A Hook
Rosewater describes this as a selling point. This is a fitting place to end since SA can sometimes have trouble selling itself. Often viewed as "the party planners" or "the fun police", SA professionals have to remember that we trade in student enjoyment. At the end of the day, if students are not satisfied with our offices, we are not doing our job well. To that end, the Goal should serve as guide. Everything SA does should come back to that development, from the alcohol sanction to the service learning trip. Coupled with this must be the education. It makes sense that some of the best Resident Advisors are those that had run ins with Residence Life early in their college career, as these students can see the "hook" and then the benefits.

So, there it is. My second foray into linking the realms of Game Design and Student Affairs. This one was a bit harder than the last, and I would love to get feedback from gamers, professionals, and everyone in between.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Game Design and Student Affairs

It says so right in my profile. There are two, of many things, that I considered important enough to tell the public: I care about Student Affairs and I play Magic: The Gathering. One is my job, the other is my hobby, and considering my skill at Magic, it shouldn't be hard to figure out which is which.
Recently, I've started paying closer attention to Mark Rosewater's copious production on design (whether it be his weekly column, his podcast, or his tumblr). Maybe it's because I'm intrigued about the way things are put together; maybe it's because I just really enjoy Magic and immersing myself in various aspects of the game. 
This past week, I attended a professional conference (ACUi) for student union/college union/student center professionals. On the flight down, I was listening to one of Mark Rosewater's (aka MaRo) podcasts and he said something that resonated with me on a level deeper than Magic. Paraphrasing, he said "if someone loses at your game and hates your game, you've made a bad game." For whatever reason, it clicked in the professional half of my brain (chalk it up to the juxtaposition, or maybe the fact I was falling asleep as he said it), but it made sense from a Student Affairs perspective as well. "If a student has a negative experience with your office, and comes away angry, you've created a bad experience." Sure, it's not the prettiest sentence, but it makes sense (I'll delve more into this soon).
First, some overly simplified descriptions of Magic and Student Affairs. Magic is a card game, where you take the role of a powerful wizard (called a Planeswalker in the mythos). Utilizing resources (lands), you summon creatures and powerful spells to defeat your opponent. 
Student Affairs can include a wide variety of offices on college campuses. These offices are responsible for the well being of students outside the classroom. Activities, student unions, career services, housing offices, leadership centers, community service, and many other offices can fall under this umbrella. Student Affairs professionals concern themselves with the co-curricular education and development of the student body (as well as many other things).
Game design is the process by which games are successfully designed (I'll hold for applause on that sentence). Games need many things (which I hope to discuss more as this series progresses) in order to succeed and thrive. 
MaRo has said that games are about creating an experience. Student Affairs tries to achieve the same thing, just in a drastically different setting. If this is the case, the principles of good game design can be applied to Student Affairs to enhance practice. This is not to say that offices need to turn everything into a game, but if we can better understand what makes games tick and work (and perhaps not work), then we can improve the experience for students.
Now I'm going to be focusing on Magic, since it's the game I know best, but will likely touch on other well known games as they become appropriate. But back to the paraphrase:

If someone loses at your game and hates your game, you've made a bad game

As professionals, we hope that students never have to come to our office for a negative reason. We hope they never get in trouble for having alcohol in their room, never spend club money on something that cannot be reimbursed, and never go down the hallway muttering expletives at us.
But, it happens. 
People are going to lose games, just as students are going to make mistakes. Using this as a guiding point, we can do our best to make sure our game is not bad.
How can losing be good? If you lose, someone won. Watching how someone can win at a game is incredibly instructive. Now sometimes, the "winning" is easy - read the rules and don't break them. 
But how can it be done better? I know I've encountered people who don't read the rules (or the reminders and FAQs). Take the time in the meetings to point it out, show the rules (in an instructive way). 
More than this, it is important to explain why the rules are in place. Now a lot of time, students are not going to care or give the time. However, it's a lot easier to be angry at "well I just got in trouble because s/he doesn't like me" than it is to "well, I got in trouble because I broke policy."
While I don't work in Residence Life and Housing, I have heard enough stories of students who got into trouble for alcohol early in their college careers who then came back and became the best RAs - by understanding how and why they "lost," they were able to come back and win. 
This is not a new concept, but it helps illustrate the link between good game design and successful professional practice. The link is pretty clear.
In the past few years, Magic has had two game mechanics that play into an idea that I think Student Affairs could benefit from. The mechanics (evolve and landfall) reward players for doing things they already have incentive to do. Evolve asks to play stronger creatures after weaker ones, providing bonuses to those that were already played; landfall provides rewards for playing resources (land). More than being rewards, these mechanics actively enhance the experience and learning of the game player. The idea of having spells with various costs in your deck, for Magic, is important, as it allows you to have something to do at multiple points in the game - evolve forces players who build around it to consider this. Landfall forces a player to hit their resource plays, which again instructs players in how to get better (play enough lands).
How can this apply to Student Affairs? One way to teach our students is to provide them things they want to do, but do so in a way the rewards them for doing it.
The best example I can think of for this, at the moment, is housing selection. This process is tied closely to academic standing (both grade and year). Students want to graduate, and they want a place to live. Rewarding students who do better academically makes sense from this perspective. 
This is just the tipping point. I know there are others ways to reward students for doing what they already want to do (meeting them where they are, so to speak), but this principle, if applied correctly, can create a better experience for all involved.
Speaking candidly, one of the issues I have is having students understand the policy regarding contracts and speakers. If I can find a way to make the process itself easy and instructive, since there is already an end they want to achieve, I can enhance the experience.

This was my first attempt at something larger. I'll still write about other stuff (Magic, music, the Mets), but the chance to unite two of my passions, well I couldn't pass that up.

If you read my blog because of Magic, what sort of design elements would you want to examine? If you're a student affairs professional, what sort of game elements do you think could improve our practice?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

My Take on "The Following"

Warning, here there be spoilers.

I wanted to like The Following from the get go. Kevin Bacon is a solid actor -I enjoy most of the things I have seen him in - and the premise had promise. Serial killer dramas intrigue me. It is not an obsession with their acts, but more their mindset - it is so totally alien to me that I want to try to understand the thought process. It's like a puzzle. To that end I've watched a lot of Criminal Minds and specials on the History Channel, back when they actually talked about history and not how much random crap is worth.
First, the good. 
Kevin Bacon does not disappoint. He looks the part of a haggard FBI agent. The love triangle with Claire (the killer's ex-wife) is predictable and his pacemaker only seems to matter when people are trying to kill him with magnets or stun guns, or when he has to race up stairs to catch the bad guys. However, Bacon is doing a more than adequate job with what he is given.
The Following also deals with violence in a real and visceral way. Much how the American version of The Killing tried to avoid pulling punches with the aftermath of death, The Following makes no bones about the act of killing or inflicting serious bodily harm. The action is there in front of you and it is real. There are no quips, no slick music, no cutaways. 
And now, the bad...and there is quite a bit of it.
Joe is not a very convincing serial killer. His back story- an English professor specializing in Edgar Allan Poe who becomes obsessed with Poe's work and uses it to fuel his killings - is so cliche it hurts. While charismatic, I have to suspend a lot of disbelief  to see Joe as someone capable of cultivating such a large, and devoted, cult of personality. 
Also, he seems like a shitty professor, doing a lot of entry level analysis of Poe.
Second, the show played right into an awful trope. Annie Parisse (aka D.A. Borgia of Law & Order) plays Debra Parker, the FBI's resident cult expert. A few weeks ago we got her back story. Surprise, she was a member of a cult, the kind where the cult leader likes to do grossly inappropriate things with underage female members. In one cutaway we see her escape from his lecherous clutches.
At this moment, at had so much hope for the show. Then I realized it was on network television. Parker is returned to the cult leader for an implied rape.
Parker is a strong, smart and capable character. She could have been all these things without being sexually assaulted. Rape and sexual violence is horrible. Many people do not recover. Many do and become strong people, but it is so sickening to see it used as a plot point in their character development.
To contrast this, look at Sons of Anarchy. In season two, Gemma (played spectacularly by Katie Segal) is brutally raped. She is already a strong woman by this point. We see her fall from this position and claw her way back over the next two seasons. Gemma's journey resonates because it is far more real. 
And writing this makes me feel ill, because it's talking about such acts in entertainment media. There is no good way to deal with rape except to do whatever you can to stop it (thus ends the PSA).
The Following also has a race problem. There are no non-White leads that survive. Black FBI agent? Stabbed in the throat? Black lawyer for Joe? Killed by Joe. Sure, there's a black Marshal, but he's pretty firmly entrenched in the "angry Black man" character, and is largely invisible. The two characters that were killed off were doing so right as their characters were becoming interesting. In this week's episode, the lawyer helps Joe escape. Instead of dealing with the ramifications of her acts, she gets killed. This is a cop out. In the same episode, our first character of clear Latino descent (Warden Montero) facilitates the escape and gets locked up. It's painful.

I think the biggest problem with this drama is that Fox saw the success of all their FX dramas, and decided to try and adapt it to the basic network. FX, with shows like Sons of Anarchy and The Americans do a great job of having us identify with "bad guys" that commit multiple crimes and kill a ton of people. But we are able to identify with them because they have to kill. It is to protect their way of life, perverse as it may be. The Following fails here because no one in the show has to kill. The Cult of Joe is built around "wanting to kill." Emma, the nanny-come-kidnapper of Joe's child (Joey), has a shitty mom, and kills her. This is so drastically different from Jax in Sons of Anarchy killing to protect his family and club. The Following is trying to make these English 101 groupies feel like  full characters. It has thus far failed because the only thing they care about is an arrogant, piss-poor professor with an accent. And apparently Edgar Allan Poe.

I am going to keep watching the show because A) it has potential and B) there is nothing else on in its time slot. But if it doesn't get better by season's end, I don't think I'll be back.