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?

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