Teaching Game Design

It’s a little known fact that before I became involved in game development I was a choreographer. Yes, I have a degree in Maths, and I started programming computers when I was 12, but after getting that degree I went to dance school in London and got another degree, this time in contemporary dance and choreography. I followed this by forming my own dance company and spent the next ten years choreographing dances.

Which begs the question of how I got into game development. Most choreographers do something else to supplement their choreography income, it comes with the low-pay high-satisfaction territory. Some teach dance or do other dance related work, others wait tables in restaurants. I wrote code – it paid better and I enjoyed it. Eventually, a few years back, I stopped choreographing and focused entirely on game development.

Which is all background to what I want to talk about. Reading Daniel Cook’s recent article, How Revolutionaries become The Man, and particularly the section on game design teaching, caused me to remember, and dwell on, how I was taught choreography.

Teaching choreography

The first thing to note about my choreography learning is that it all took place in dance studios. I was never required to read books or analyze other choreographers’ work, although I did so by choice. I was encouraged to watch lots of dance, and my teachers made time to discuss what I’d seen if I asked them to, but choreography teaching was based around one activity – choreographing. The thinking, in essence, was the more you choreograph the more you learn. So, during my three years at dance school I choreographed 14 dances of varying length.

And while at dance school there were three choreography teachers from whom I learnt a lot.

Jane Dudley was a legend in the contemporary dance world. She was a dancer in Martha Graham’s original company and had over 50 years experience as a choreographer. Jane taught a class of her own devising, in which she choreographed a dance on us, the students, while asking us for ideas that she might use in the dance. Through this she encouraged our creativity, allowing us to express all sorts of crazy ideas, some of which she used and some she didn’t. Through this we also saw first hand, from the best vantage, how she built a dance piece, overlaying ideas, providing counterpoints, and discarding content without regret if it didn’t quite work. The result was a dance work that we all had a hand in creating.

I also asked Jane to watch and feedback on my work, which she seemed to enjoy doing. She was unreserved in both praise and criticism. Above all Jane emphasised the importance of creating something interesting. It wasn’t enough to craft with skill if what you were crafting was not unique in some small way. Jane helped me to understand and pay attention to the ideas that drove my work, to know what would make each dance special.

Ingegerd Lönnroth was quiet, unassuming and could dissect a dance with precision and present the truth with kindness. She sometimes struggled with a class full of students, but she was brilliant with individuals or small groups. On one occasion I showed her a piece I was working on. Inge watched the piece through once, then asked the dancers to perform one specific section again. Half way through she pointed and said “There”, and as she said it I realised how, with one careless move, I had broken the purpose and flow of the dance, and Inge had spotted it on a single viewing of the dance. Through her I learnt to pay attention to the details, to care about every moment. I also started to learn one of the most difficult skills of a creator, how to view my work with the dispassionate eye of a neutral observer. To see the dance as it was, not as I wanted it to be.

Kim Brandstrup was brilliant at telling stories with dance. But what I learnt from him was not about stories, it was about craft. He taught me how to shape a phrase of dance, to give it highs and lows, to make it deliberate and to give it purpose. In his choreography classes he would present us with simple, short exercises – a rhythm, a theme, a message – and ask us to create a phrase of dance, mere seconds in length, and refine it to convey the goal he’d presented. Then we’d watch each other’s work and discuss what succeeded and didn’t, and why. Kim taught me craft.

So, I learnt to choreograph by choreographing. I was only required to choreograph one work per year but I was encouraged to do much more. I used other dancers at the school in my dances. Most of the time I used prerecorded music, or on a couple of occasions no music at all, and there were no specific costumes or lighting because learning to craft the dance was what mattered.

In my final year I was lucky to work with a couple of composers from nearby music schools, a brilliant design student from a theatre school, and a friend of a friend who was a lighting designer. By then I was showing my work to the public and the addition of these other skills, and learning to work with those who had these skills, was important.

Choreography was an important part of my degree. I was assessed and marked by experts who watched what I’d choreographed, discussed it with me, and decided how many marks it deserved. There was no written exam, no testing my understanding of choreographic theory. To test my choreography, I choreographed and the examiners assessed the result.

What if game design was taught like I was taught choreography?

I don’t presume to know how game design is taught at universities around the world. I have heard stories, and if those stories are correct then it has little in common with how I was taught choreography. If game design was taught how I was taught choreography then I guess it would look something like this.

Students are encouraged to create games, working with fellow students as artists and programmers. They create multiple games every year, in various genres, exploring ideas, pushing boundaries, discovering for themselves, with guidance and help from experts who work or have worked in the industry. They learn craft from small exercises, designing solutions to specific problems or designing a critical few seconds of a game.

They are encouraged to read, to play, and to discuss what they read and play. But there is no right and wrong for them to be taught, instead there is opinion to be formed and skill to be acquired.

Each year they also work with a professional game designer, as assistant designers and level designers, to create a complete game for release to the world (their colleagues studying programming, art and music build this game that they design, also under the guidance of professionals from the industry).

Every year, they present their best work for assessment by experienced game designers and the marks from this are their assessment. And at the end of their course, after designing 14 games or so, they will have started to form their own vision of what games they want to design and to gain the skills with which to design them.

If I went back to school, that’s the game design course I’d like to learn from.

7 thoughts on “Teaching Game Design

  1. Oh now you must do us a dance when we next meet up!!!

    I think theres a problem with your thoughts on this. Each of these course require some know-how. Choreaography requires know-how on how to control the body, balance and what the movement of the body looks like, something we learn of many years of experience.

    The other requires knowledge of platforms, their limitations, languages, tools, target devices etc, things that someone new may have no idea about. It surely takes some lecturing on these before you can attempt the actual coursework (i.e. hands on as you describe your experience with choeography).

  2. Just to add to that, and exmaple is that my boy is learning to read and write.

    It’s not possible to give him a pen and some paper and tell him to go away and have a crack at it, and learn from experience, he needs some structure learning of smaller parts for him them to be able to attempt these larger parts.

  3. Hi Tink

    Choreography isn’t about how to control the body or balance, that’s dancing. Choreography is in part about how the body looks when moving, but these are not usually the everyday movements that we observe around us. Choreography is about communicating complex and subtle ideas and emotions through structured, planned motion of multiple bodies. To suggest we all know how to do this because we’ve been moving our own bodies for years is wrong.

    In game development platforms, languages, tools and target devices are things I worry about as a CTO. My game designer, however, cares about how people interact with the game and, through the game, with each other. He cares nothing for languages and tools, and only cares for platforms because they restrict what he can do, much as the size of a stage and the limitations of the human body restricted me as a choreographer.

    My description was of many people around me helping me to learn to choreograph, in an environment where I choreographed. In the same way your son learns to write by picking up a pen and writing, while you and others help him. Until he picks up the pen and tries he can’t write, and over years of practice he will develop his skill. He won’t learn to write by having someone explain to him what a pen is, how it works, how to manufacture one, what paper is made from, how to manufacture it, etc. He learns to write by writing.

  4. First of all, i agree, gamedesign should be independent from programming and art. As much as programming algorythms are independent from programming languages. There is a term marketing communications, i think gamedesign is gaming communications of sort. It is more about ways of dealing with people than caring about technology that allows for such communications (technology is just a way to present carefully crafted message). After about three years of being a full time indie (flash), i am now trying to approach that from a different (not just experience) angle, and yeah, it is certainly more about psychology and marketing than anything else. The main problem for me right now is that i can’t translate my vision into the game as quick as i’d like to do it, which usually leads either to not having certain things in the game (because it takes too much time), either to have things not balanced and polished to a good point (because that takes too much time as well). Which is why i am moving my framework to Ash right now (or actually extending it to be more of an engine to handle all basic things i will need in production). And if you are reading this, please, can you describe a bit better how to use your system with a back buffer rendering system (as3, single bitmapData approach). E.g. one must have a sorted list of drawables before fetching them to the buffer. How to solve this problem without having to write a single back buffer renderer system which will use maybe a frustum to cull and gather drawables and then sort them? I am asking that because i am still unsure about the proper usage of entity model. Thanks. Also, i’d certainly read your thoughts on gamedesign in your blog if you are willing to share :)

  5. You know the saying, if you build it they will come. Clearly you have a vision of what teaching game design should be…why not start a workshop (online, offline or both) to test out this model of yours. I’d be first in line if you did.

  6. The Vancouver Film School has a game design program that runs much like you suggest. Students are taught by both in-house faculty and lecturers from industry, developing multiple games independently and in groups. The final four-month term is spent in a group of (usually) 3 to 6 people, who take on the roles of designers, programmers, artists, and project managers. Each group works with an experienced game designer from the local industry, and has bi-weekly mentoring sessions in a lab setting during which experienced artists / programmers / sound designers go from team to team helping them brainstorm and trouble-shoot.

    (Disclaimer: I have spent a number of terms as technical mentor at VFS, but I have no other vested interest in the program.)

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