Gaming to learn strategies
These questions are being asked this past month during computer science professor Morgan McGuire's Game Design Studio, an innovative course offered during Williams College's Winter Study program, which began Jan. 3 and ends Friday.
Although the course is technically based in the computer science department, students from a variety of majors are enrolled and thriving, thanks to McGuire's method of using game development to make complex mathematical concepts accessible.
"Games embody issues about how decisions are made, such as probability and planning," said McGuire, who also teaches courses on computer graphics and a colloquium on the social impact of entertainment technology. "I'm teaching students to think strategically. It's about winning the war, and not the battle it makes sense to lose a particular point in order to gain support for the next proposal."
Creating an original game
Yesterday, McGuire's 22 students worked on bringing to fruition ideas they pitched weeks ago to their professor, in anticipation of their final class project: The creation of an original game, using craft materials, computers, and concepts taught during the course.
Four self-selected groups of three to six students worked yesterday on their projects printing labels, cutting out stickers, fashioning playing cards and working out kinks in the games themselves which they will present to the class on Friday, when groups will have the opportunity to try out each other's creations.
McGuire has an inkling that students originally signed up for the course because they thought it would be "fun and easy" a notion they quickly realized was not true.
"They thought they were going to be playing games every day," he said. "But I'm pleased by how they've grown. One student told me, 'I've learned it's hard to make games, and I'm working harder than I ever have, but I like it.' "
The amount of artwork, rule revision and time dedicated to simply playing their homemade games is enormous but enjoyable, said Ben Rudick, a junior English major and pre-med student in the class.
"It's been insanely work-intensive the most work I've ever done for a winter study course," he said, and classmates agreed.
Rudick and his group-mates were smoothing homemade stickers over four decks of "Magic the Gathering" card game cards yesterday, which they used as bases for cards in their original game, "Action Quest."
The game, which members described as a real-time card game involving physical activity with the goal of advancing toward a treasure, is physically and mentally exhausting, with a target audience of 8- to 10-year olds and college students with similar energy.
"The strategy is simple," Rudick said of the fast-paced game, which group members estimated lasts between 45 seconds and 90 seconds. "But when you play fast, it becomes hard."
Another group's original game, titled "Pizza Delivery," features a game board of streets and delivery locations visited by stacked round disks, which serve as players' pizzas and game pieces.
"One pizza is delivered at each stop," said Michael Gerbush, a sophomore computer science and physics major. "But with each turn, the pizzas get colder and your tip goes down."
And given that tips can help players buy faster modes of transportation in the game bikes, roller blades and cars a speedy delivery is a commodity.
The game board folds up into quarters, small enough to fit inside the theme-appropriate game box: a Hot Tomatoes pizza box from the popular take-out spot on Water Street.
"College Life" and a game with a working title of "Battle Animalia" are the remaining two original board games groups in McGuire's class plan to present on Friday.
The creators of "College Life" were working on trivia cards for their game yesterday, which members describe as similar to the game of "Life," but for an older crowd; those working on "Battle Animalia," a game in which animals from different regions of the world battle to reach the middle of the board, were brainstorming as to how to cut down playing time from two hours to less than one.
Although their games are starkly different, McGuire said the four groups faced similar challenges in identifying, and working toward creating, their final products.
"Games, particularly computer games, are addictive," McGuire said, "and we're learning how to design games with that property. Fun isn't the right way to describe a game. 'Fun' games are silly games. Fun isn't the number one thing."
The engaging property of games is something at the forefront of McGuire's students' minds, particularly when they consider their target audiences and whom their games might attract.
Observing a game's impact
Kat Jong, a senior German major and game enthusiast working on the "Action Quest," has observed the emphasis on creating addictive games on a professional level.
"The 'Magic the Gathering' Web site has a link that shows archetypes of people who they think play the game," she said, referring to the game she's played on-and-off since fourth grade. "I didn't realize they were thinking in that way."
According to the game's Web site, "Timmy" plays "Magic" because he wants to experience something; "Johnny" plays because he wants to express something; and "Spike" plays because he wants to prove something how good he is.
"Battle Animalia's" creators considered their target demographic by imagining potential players and their relative levels of enjoyment during the game. During a class discussion yesterday, the group explained that one player they imagined a teenage girl who loves "American Idol," "Project Runway" and the color pink probably wouldn't enjoy their game.
That enjoyment factor is key to the success of games. According to McGuire, it's what separates them from other mathematical activities.
"Games are a way of opening up computer science and making (the study) interdisciplinary," McGuire said. "It directly applies to economics people follow a set of rules, work with random numbers, make choices and try to win. But it's not fun. I care about the entertainment value."
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