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11:31am on Friday, 12th October, 2018:

Challenge Week


It's Challenge Week again! This is when the Department of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering splits its first-year intake into groups and has them work on a subject-relevant challenge for a week. Last year, when we piloted it, we won an award; OK, so it's only an award internal to the university, but we still won it. This year, we've run it again. I'm a big fan of it, as I think it really does help first-years get into the swing of things and get to know other people on their course, so I'm happy to be part of it. It's fun, too!

The challenge for the games students last year was to make a board game on the theme of Vikings. This year, it was on the theme of Mythology. I did explain in my opening talk that living religions shouldn't be counted as mythology even if some of their stories are thousands of years older than what we do regard as mythology, but I still had to stop three groups from putting Hindu scripture in the same mix as Greek, Roman and Egyptian myth.

Because we have close to three hundred Computer Science students, some of them had to do the games challenge instead of the programming one. This meant that several of the game design groups were made up of people on Computer Science degrees rather than Computer Games degrees, but as it happened they were all up for it (there were a couple of disengaged groups last time round). We had 12 groups doing board games in all, each one with around 6 members, at least on paper; some didn't show up, which is indeed one of the reasons we have Challenge Week — so we can track the missing ones down and find out what's wrong. Today, the groups will give short presentations about their game, and those who made a meaningful contribution to creating it will receive a pass mark. Those who didn't will receive a fail mark; basically, because all the games are functional, this means those who didn't show up fail and the others pass. There's no gradation: you either get 100% or 0%. Challenge Week as a whole is worth 10% of the first year marks, so this is our sneaky way of giving 10% to as many of our first-year undergraduates as we can and so reduce our appalling first-year failure rate.

As with last year, it was interesting to watch how individual groups managed to reflect in their game design some artistic statement of which they were completely unaware.

For example, I was looking at one group's preliminary design on the first day and I knew I could expect trouble. The game was asymmetric: one player was the hunter and the others were the hunted. The hunted needed to get to the other side of the board and the hunter was trying to stop them. Sure enough, on day 2, one member of the group approached me and said he was being shut out by the others, who were accusing him of trying to block their ideas and make them use his instead. I had a word with the group as a whole and they took it professionally; they were all if not friends then at least colleagues at the end. The game was an exact statement of their group situation, though.

Another group was comprised of computer scientists. Their game was very unsophisticated, but they were happy with it and enjoyed making it. Each player had their own sub-board, which they moved along by rolling dice. When they got to the middle, they waited until someone else got there too then fought them in a battle that was basically Top Trumps. The winner waited for the next person to get there and this continued until there was only one left. The thing is, although you might expect them to have implemented the first phase by using a track with numbers on it, that's not what they did. Instead, as you moved along you left a trail of tokens on the board. Thus, by the time you'd reached the middle, you'd filled in the whole of your board in tokens — maybe a hundred of them. The boards were a metaphor for a week spent making a game: these non-games students were figuratively filling in time.

A third group was made up of students who were also not gamers. They had ideas for games, but these were all simple mechanics taken from other games. None of them really fitted together. The design they eventually came up with was about making mythical monsters out of body parts (head, torso, legs). The idea was to make some kind of Frankenstein monster out of these disparate parts and hope it could beat the boss monster at the end. That completely nailed their group dynamic.

I should say that until I pointed it out, none of these groups even knew they could say something through their game designs, let alone what they actually were saying through them.

Another group was made up of game designers who gelled quite well. Naturally, their game was co-operative. There was a mythical Japanese snake that was going around devouring villages; the players had to go to villages and make sake there, so that when the snake arrived it would drink the sake and lose a head (which is apparently mythologically correct). So, hmm, a snake? That's a flowing line: it represents Challenge Week. The villages are the different game-design sessions we had. The players had to work together to defeat the snake head-by-head (make the game session-by-session) until they'd defeated the beast (Challenge Week) in its entirety.

This was unusual for a group of games students, because games students tend to argue with one another. If everyone is a game designer, everyone wants their idea heard and most of the ideas are actually good — they just take the game in wildly different directions. I once did a game design exercise in Cologne and a group of four game designers spent four hours reaching no decisions at all. Last year in Challenge Week, we had two designer-heavy groups that ended up making games where the players are gods, each of which has its own special powers. This makes sense, because designers are the gods of their games, but if they have to work together to make the game they lose that divinity. Therefore, they assign it to themselves as players. We had the same thing happen this year with one of the groups made up of games students. The general gameplay was a bit plain and by-committee, but the design of the gods was imaginative and exciting.

Groups with non-designers in them tend to make games in which the players are heroes rather than gods, because they see themselves as battling heroically to complete the task rather than creators of realities. I was therefore surprised to find one such group did have players playing as gods. When I queried why they were playing as gods, it turned out that one of its members actually was a games student and that using gods instead of heroes was his idea. This was another game with oodles of pieces on it, occupying the board and filling in the time. It had the additional feature that if you knocked someone out then you got their land and pieces, a positive feedback loop that brought the game to a swift conclusion once someone beat someone else. This was saying that once it was obvious what the outcome would be, there was no point in continuing: just get it over and done with. That was pretty well what the Challenge Week game design exercise was to them: fun while they were doing it, but once it was over they could go off and do what they were really here to do. OK, that's fair enough. Of all the games, though, this one was the one that got the most emotional reaction from the students when they playtested it, so I'm hoping that at least the games student among their number might pick it up and play with it some more.

There was one group of designers that was quite high-powered. They spent several hours arguing about what the game should be like, but rather than retreating into "let's all be gods" pushed through that to "let's allow players to play how they want to play". The result was a very flexible, almost sandbox game that you could win by aggression, stealth, alliance, exploration — it really was quite neat. I didn't get to see it playtested, though, because I kept having to go off and teach MSc students at critical junctures. I'd like to know more about the underlying mechanics, because it did seem to have a lot of depth to it, and as the team is going to tweak it some more for fun I may yet get that opportunity.

There was a group of non-designers with four members that spent most of their time squirrelled away in the nearby cafeteria. Their game had a circular (well, hexagonal) board with a point in the middle that everyone had to reach from their own individual starting point on the map edge. OK, so the middle clearly represented the end of Challenge Week (you just had to get there, you didn't have to do anything once you'd got there) but there was something not quite right about the way the players started out as far from each other as possible. There were event cards to pick up along the way, which either advanced your own progress or hurt that of one of your opponents. When I asked if the cards could hurt your own progress and was told they couldn't, I realised what had happened. The group had started off quite fractiously, with everyone able to recognise that other people's ideas weren't particularly great, but not having the experience to come up with better ones themselves. Eventually, they crystallised about a design which resonated with their situation and so was acceptable to them all. They got along really well after that, which is the only state I'd seen them in (because of their cafeteria location preference). When I suggested that it looked as if they'd had some big arguments but they weren't acting as if they had, that's when they explained that they had indeed spent the opening hours having (civil) arguments, but after these had been resolved they all got along swimmingly well.

I didn't get to look at the gameplay for all the groups, because three workmen came in yesterday at 10:45 telling me they needed to fill the room with chairs for a hundred biologists at 11:00. We were expecting to have the room the whole day. I had teaching in the afternoon, so that was the last I saw of the groups all together. I don't doubt that the games I didn't probe could also yield some artistic statement from their group, though. There was one group made up of computer science apprentice students who had been together for a month already so knew each other well; they created a game in a Eurogame vein, with resource management and so on. I'd have liked to have found out if this connected to the company they worked for, or whether the game they made was a reskinning of an existing game, but I didn't get the chance.

This kind of reading of games is quite easy to do, although of course it's quite easy to overdo, too — seeing things that aren't there. I'm surprised there isn't much about it in the Game Studies literature, although that rarely looks at gameplay as a vehicle for delivering an artistic payload (even though it's the only thing games have that no other artistic medium has). Maybe I'd write a paper about it myself if it actually counted towards the Department's contribution to the Research Excellence Framework. Not being Computer Science, though, it doesn't. Yes, CSEE, It's all very well having a Research Incentive Scheme, but for people who can't publish in the narrow list of journals it decrees, it acts as a Research Disincentive Scheme.

Hmm. I don't work only for Essex University now, though, do I?

Maybe if I repeat this exercise at the Gotland Game Conference, it'll actually be worthwhile and I can help someone else get a publication, too.

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Copyright © 2018 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).