Before this semester, I shared the incorrect assumption that the Computer Science Department focused only on computers. I imagined that when I would visit the department on the fourth floor of Robert Bell all I would find are rooms full of students staring at computer screens, their bloodshot eyes reflecting infinite lines of computer code. What I discovered was exactly the opposite.
This past semester I shadowed Dr. Paul Gestwicki’s Computer Science Seminar: Introduction to Game Design. To my surprise, I never once saw a student use a computer, outside of presentations. Rather, the students spent the semester actively engaged in discussions about game design and focused on creating their own tabletop or card game. This course focused on providing students with a thorough understanding of how games work and creating space for them to create a game of their own. The concepts that the students learned can transition to the creation of a digital game, or they can continue straight on into the development of their card/board game.
Presented below is a combination of candid images from the class, quotes from the students, and contextual information about the four stages of the class: Learning Game Design Concepts, Pitching Game Ideas, Workshopping the Games, and Presenting Final Projects.
Learning Game Design Concepts
Dr. Gestwicki generally starts the class off with a joke, or an interesting anecdote, or a philosophical question, or even mentioning job postings he has seen. This warm-up time allows the students to get settled and comfortable, and within minutes they are often responding to whatever Dr. Gestwicki is throwing at them. These initial thoughts and comments grab the students right within the first few minutes of class, and from that point on the students remain engaged in discussions that are substantial in content and yet light-hearted in tone.
The structure of the class primed several students for success, such as Austin Tinkel: “Dr. Gestwicki’s teaching style is a good mix of theory and practical application. We learn the theory of a particular concept and then apply it in smaller projects. At the end of the semester, we do a big project that is the culmination of everything we learned in the semester. I love this project-based approach, especially when it’s backed up with a solid theoretical background.”
“Dr. Gestwicki is the type of professor that provides a lot of constructive feedback and synthesizes a wealth of knowledge from different disciplines in his lessons. That is to say, he is a very good professor!” – Dillon Waggoner, Assistant Director in the Career Center who audited the course.
Students took turns presenting on various game concepts that are important to consider during designing a game, such as point of view or scoring systems. The discussion following each presentation allowed the students to talk about ideas they may want to incorporate into their own game and provide each other with gaming recommendations.
Pitching Game Ideas
As the first step towards their final project, students pitched their game idea to the class. The students presented a short summary of their idea and the way that the theories they had learned in the course would be incorporated into the game. The students used humor, visual aids, and even cookies to warm their classmates up to their game ideas. Each of the presentations was followed by detailed feedback from Dr. Gestwicki and then from the rest of the class. The students were all engaged in helping each other succeed, they listened intently to the presentations and provided concrete feedback. Throughout the whole semester, it was a uniquely collaborative environment where all of the students in class shared a comradery around their projects.
“The biggest takeaway I got from this project is that defining what I think is funny is hard, but also super necessary and rewarding. After some shots in the dark, I realized that is was Absurdism that I really wanted to incorporate into my game. Once I nailed that down and made it the core of my game, the project really came to life.” – Wayne Uhlenhake
Pictured above is Makayla Hughes, a senior studying journalism and graphic design. She created a game called Astroculture about farming on a colony planet. “I knew I wanted to make a board game, and I decided to go with my idea of making a game about farming in space….there was a significant difference in my rough draft to my deliverable. I spent most of my time this semester working on the core mechanic of my game, which is farming…Playtesting went rather smoothly and helped me figure out a lot of kinks that were in my game. It provided valuable feedback, especially with the presentations we did in class.”
Susannah Rosenthal was one of two people who audited the course. She has a long history of game design experience and frequently shared that knowledge with the class. Her background allowed her to have unique and influential feedback for her classmates’ projects.
Several students commented on the knowledge and useful feedback that Dr. Gestwicki provided on their project, with some calling him “tough, but fair.” Constructive feedback at this early stage in the process added an extra challenge but resulted in superior finished projects.
“Dr. G’s teaching style is iteration-based and being able to sell your idea, especially in front of your peers. Our ideas were subject to a lot of questions, and we had to be ready for that. Alongside the structure, Dr. G was also able to answer specific questions related to development, which I appreciated.” – Zachary Siddiq
Workshopping the Games
After the initial pitch, the students set out to design a prototype of their game. After several weeks of starts and hiccups, they presented a rough mock-up of the game to their peers. For this workshop the creator of the game stayed at their seat while the rest of the class explored the games, taking turns playing and providing feedback. There was laughter and positivity in the air, and it was clear that everyone was there to contribute to the best game designs possible.
Above Austin Tinkel explains his game to Susannah during the workshop session, “I decided that I wanted to make a single-player board game because I hadn’t seen many of them on the market. I thought of a good theme that would work for a one-person game. I then came up with some basic mechanics and start testing them. As I got feedback, I updated the rules and improved the game.”
Austin plans to continue on into a career in game design and said this class was an invaluable experience that provided him with the tools he needed, “Creating a game from start to finish is a difficult process that requires a lot of effort in many different areas. I learned that rules require constant iteration and that a lot of the time, your first idea is one of your worst.”
“I started with games that I knew and the mechanics that I enjoyed. It seemed to help to have played a large amount of board and card games, even though the process of designing one was a totally different challenge. For me, most of the progress came early on with one idea that I felt was good. After that, it was a lot of gradual refining. Changing only one thing at a time took a while, but it was the best way to understand what works and what doesn’t.” – Dillon Waggoner
Pictured above is a game designed by Jawad Al Mamoon, who said that the process of receiving feedback caused him to discover an inner drive to succeed: “Learn to find it within yourself to carry out a vision rather than quitting.”
Above Zachary Siddiq tests his game with Dillon Waggoner, “Class ideas and feedback on topics was my first resource. My personal process is a lot of looking at a blank sheet and wondering what would make people laugh and have fun. Later, I’d test and finalize ideas.”
Presenting Finished Projects
After a semester of hard work and multiple revisions, the day finally came for the students to present their final projects. The students presented their polished games, talking about the process from idea to implementation, and illustrating an example round of the game. The rest of the class asked questions and provided feedback, complimenting the aspects of the game that they thought were done particularly well.
Close shots on Dillon Waggoner’s finished game: “My first biggest takeaway is that I was able to get around to designing a game. It was huge to simply finish a project and go through the process of turning an idea into a finished product. What I hope to benefit from this moving forward is more motivation and process for expanding my game portfolio. One down, hopefully much more to go.”
On the right Wayne Uhlenhake, a music media production major with a computer science minor, presents on his game Fried Tea, an absurdist tabloid party game. Reflecting on the course and construction of his game, Wayne said, “My goal for my semester project was to create a game that would be funny, fresh, and unique. I wanted to provide an environment that could encourage my friends and my sense of humor to flourish. I went through a lot of trial and error, but ended up with a game that I’m proud of and excited to share with friends.”
It’s safe to say he was successful, for Wayne’s game was well received by the class with lots of laughter.
Jawad Al Mamoon provides constructive feedback on one of his classmate’s projects. Jawad values the high standards that were set in the class and how that prepares him and others for a career in game design, “If you want to make games or any software, its a tough class but its necessary to get you ready for the harsh demands that will come in a workplace. [Gestwicki’s] classes throw you in the deep end at times but you come out better for it.”
Alex Northouse’s presentation on his fighting based card game was a big hit among the class: “The process of creating my game was finding a concept I enjoyed at the time — card fighting — and then feeling out what I really enjoyed about it. What it came down to, for me, was the aspect of finding out your deck’s strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, so I wanted to make decks that would be as unique as a standardized system would allow! Otherwise, the hardest part of making the game would be coming up with a solid set of rules and the iconography I used to help elaborate on card effects.”
The students took great pride in designing cards and boards that would make their game inviting and understandable. This was one of Alex’s biggest takeaways from the class, “I learned a lot about how to properly design aspects of the games, and the implications of those design decisions were when the game was actually played.”
Above Zachary Siddiq giddily shows off Alex’s laminated cards.
In the two images above Gwyn Hultquist presents on her game involving aliens and mystical characters, a game that many in the class were eager to play.
“Dr. Gestwicki’s teaching style is a good mix of theory and practical application. We learn the theory of a particular concept and then apply it in smaller projects. At the end of the semester, we do a big project that is the culmination of everything we learned in the semester. I love this project-based approach, especially when it’s backed up with a solid theoretical background.” – Austin Tinkel
As a concluding thought, Dillon Waggoner reflected: “Any student who would like to be enabled to bring their game visions to life should take this class. And if you want a career in gaming someday you would be remiss not to.”
With courses on game design, the Symposium on Games, and Global Game Jam, Dr. Gestwicki’s work has long been a hidden gem of the Computer Science department. The interdisciplinary nature of game design means that all students are encouraged to join in, flexing their creative muscles and building unique skills.
If you have any interest in game design or development, reach out to Dr. Gestwicki to learn about the numerous courses and opportunities available at Ball State.