My First Game Design Merit Badge Midway Workshop
On Saturday, I ran a game design workshop for boy scouts at a local merit badge midway. The Game Design Merit badge, which I had helped to create, had been announced by the Boy Scouts of America only a couple of months ago, and as a newly annointed merit badge counselor, I didn’t know what to expect at my first workshop.
When I arrived at the church where the midway was held, the organizers immediately warned me, “We’re going to have to get you a larger room, because all the kids are interested in game design.” I had visions of hundreds of kids wanting to learn how to make games, but to my relief, only about fifteen came into my room when the midway began.
My main concern was that I had no idea how long it would take for me to cover most of the requirements. I say most because a significant part of the merit badge involves iterative design. Scouts are required to design their own games, observe other people playing them, make refinements to their design, and then repeat the process several times over. Since all of the scouts present would want to design there own games, there would be no one left to actually play it, and so I had to skip over that part of the requirements.
Since the merit badge workbooks had not yet been shipped to our local scout shop, I began with a lecture covering the game terms and concepts the scouts needed to know. I then asked them to pick four different type of games they’ve played, and identify each game’s medium, player format objectives, rules, resources, and theme. And that’s when I learned why the boys were so interested in game design — they all picked Minecraft as one of their four games, and really, that’s the only game they were interested in discussing. They came to my workshop because they wanted to talk about Minecraft with their friends.
Well, that was all right — Minecraft is pretty cool — but we also had work to do. However, the problem with Minecraft is that it really isn’t so much a game as it is an activity. There aren’t any rules to follow or objectives to reach. So, for the purposes of our analysis, I asked them to drop Minecraft as one of their four choices.
When the boys conducted their game analysis, I discovered something else. While they had no problem identifying the medium, player format, resources and theme of the four games they picked, they had a great deal of difficulty in articulating a game’s rules and distinguishing the rules from the objective. For example, if they were discussing the game Monopoly, they said that the objective was to make as much money as possible and the rules were to make as much money as possible. I wondered if a young teenager’s brain was not fully developed enough to extract the rules from their playing experiences. That is something I will have to research.
For the final portion of the workshop, I divided the boys into teams and gave each team a tic-tac-toe set. I then asked each team to propose a change to the game’s rules or objectives, predict how each change will affect gameplay, play the game with one rule or objective changed, and observe the player’s actions and emotional experiences are affected by the rule change. I was impressed with some of the variations on tic-tac-toe they came up with:
- Tile toss tic-tac-toe. Instead of placing their tiles onto the game board, they would toss them from a short distance. This was fun at first, but they had a hard time lining up three in a row.
- Four by four tic tack toe. Players played on a 4×4 grid instead of a 3×3 grid. The game took a little bit longer but somehow wasn’t as much fun.
- Real-time tic-tac-toe. Players placed their pieces down at the same time without taking turns. I would have expected them to be fighting over locations to put their pieces in, but instead, each player immediately filled the row closest to him with three pieces, ending in a tie
- Two-piece-at-a-time tic-tac-toe. Each player placed two pieces at a time. It turns out that the starting player always won on his second move.
- Blind-rotation tic-tac-toe. Before placing his piece, the player had to close his eyes while his opponent rotated the board 90 degrees clockwise. The player then had to place his piece based on his memory of the board and projecting the board layout rotated in his mind. This proved to be surprisingly fun and challenging.
The kids had a great time, especially since they talked about Minecraft while they were playing.
As I sent the kids off at the end of the project, looking forward to the games they will design on their own as the final part of the requirements. Just so long as they don’t all try to do a Minecraft campaign.