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.

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