GDC 2014: Critical thinking and analysis in game development programs

2014-03-18 13.52.28

Flanagan, Bogost, Brice, and Keough

Game development programs are forever facing a changing landscape. Traditionally, students are provided the tools to prepare them for the AAA industry, but where do they go when they want to learn about game development as a creative form? Music and creative writing have had programs for decades, but games are still struggling to catch on in this regard.

On Tuesday March 18th, at room 3020 in the West Hall, a panel of game development professionals offered their view on how students can gain an appreciation for how critical thinking an analysis can be implemented into the current educational curriculum. Hosted by Brendan Keogh, a PhD Candidate at RMIT University in Australia, his first question to the panelists was “What is critical thinking?”

Mattie Brice, an established game critic, particularly around the topics of diversity issues and narrative, described it as “An awareness that another perspective beside your own exists.” She continued with “Your perspective may give an incomplete amount of information. Other perspectives can help complete this.”

Ian Bogost

Ian Bogost

Author and professor at Georgia Tech University, Ian Bogost, explained it in another way: “There are first and second orders of observation. A first order states that a game has 3 lives. The second order asks ‘Why does it have 3? What does it mean to have a life?’ That is the domain of critical thinking.”

Bogost wasn’t the only professor on the panel, however. Mary Flanagan works under the digital media studies program at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire added to Brice’s statement about knowing that our knowledge is incomplete. Flanagan posed a set of her own questions about what one should ask when viewing a game critically: “What were the purposes behind the piece? What are the various ways that it could have been done?”

Now that the audience had an understanding of what critical thinking entailed, it was time for the panel to move onto the subject of why it is important, and what attracted them toward the idea of analyzing games through a critical lens.

Brice cited her first game, which was used in a number of classrooms, including a game design class, but also a feminist / gender studies class, as being the catalyst for diving into the subject further. “It was interesting, because there was a clear difference on how it was seen between classes. Game classes thought it wasn’t a game, and they couldn’t grapple with the themes, because they were too busy thinking about it as a game.” She continued with “Gender sexuality courses were steeped in a critical lens, and could more easily communicate with it, but I wondered, ‘why did they have such different perceptions?’”

Bogost chimed in, illustrating the point that “Gender studies students more effectively understand it on one level. However, you could also argue that the game design class was doing something similar, but from a totally different point of reference.”  This point really allowed the audience to understand how both groups of students can excel in one area, but based on their area of expertise or field of study, they can see things in a very different light.  Bogost continued, “We don’t want only one perspective; we want to merge the perspective of both classes.”

Flanagan added to that sentiment with, “Some categories people feel comfortable talking about, and others they do not,” when referencing the topic of Brice’s game.

Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice

The final point of discussion for the afternoon revolved around whether or not academia is preparing students for a AAA job instead of teaching them to become critical thinkers.  Brice argued the point that in a literature program you can go in and choose the types of courses that you want and need, which is well suited for folks with different interests. “Right now, we don’t really afford people to that that with the games industry. Are there enough diverse game development programs? For example, critical thinking and building with smaller teams, in addition to team building skills?”

“We don’t have a games program at Georgia Tech”, Bogost claimed, “but we do have an undergraduate degree in computer media. One half of it is liberal arts, and the other half is computer science. We made some compromises 10+ years ago, and are facing the consequences of that curriculum now, whether they are good or bad.”

Where will game development and academia continue to meet as time goes on? That answer will probably be forever changing, but after these panelists had the opportunity to share their insight, the audience had a clearer picture of one direction where it should be headed. Perhaps the future of gaming doesn’t rely on which studio embraces the best use of technology, but instead on the one which allows gamers from a diverse array of backgrounds to come together and see the end product and really force them to think about it critically. I suppose we’ll just have to wait until we see what this set of panelists have to say about that, next year.

Posted on by Dave Voyles in Features

About Dave Voyles

Dave is located in Philadelphia, and works as a Tech Evangelist at Microsoft. He's coordinated the Indie Games Uprisings on Xbox Live, wrote the UnrealScript Game Programming Cookbook, Made an XBLIG game, and is currently doing JS / HTML5 dev for browser base games. You can follow him on Twitter, at @DaveVoyles