2004 – Playing the Final — An Experiment in Pedagogy

The Ivory Tower

September 2004

Playing the Final — An Experiment in Pedagogy

by Elena Bertozzi

Teaching a class on the theory and practice of gameplay requires a certain amount of flexibility and humor — or the whole enterprise risks sinking into a sea of academic jargon with little or no relation to the experience of play itself. Play is so fundamental to our culture, and such an integral part of how we interact with others that it is very difficult to separate it from ourselves in order to study it. One way to approach the problem is to recognize that the classroom itself is a sort of playground. Each person in the room is explicitly aware of the rules, ground and stakes and has answered “yes” to the question, “Do you want to play?”. From the vantage point of players within a larger game, analysis of other play forms becomes possible.

I teach T367-Theory and Practice of Interactive Media as an undergraduate seminar, with one session per week dedicated to discussion of the readings. During the second session each week, a pair of students brings in a game, we play the game, and then analyze it in relation to the readings and other class discussions. One of the most interesting facets of the class is observing how the interaction between the students and between the students and the professor changes over the course of the semester. One of the premises of gameplay, after all, is that we are all equal before the game. Thus when playing, the students and the professor are on the same level, but when we go back to analysis we step back into the roles of the larger game.

Given the intensity of emotion experienced during play, however, this transition doesn’t always work seamlessly. The cracks and fissures which appear make the structural and political issues within the different games evident to us as we analyze them. This is especially true as the stakes change based on the kind of game that is being played. In games requiring physical prowess (kickball or whiffleball, for example), people in the class treat each other differently based on physical coordination and skill. In games with monetary stakes (Texas Hold-em and Caribbean Stud poker) the atmosphere in the room changes completely and gender differences in play are made almost instantly manifest.

After a semester of intense study and play, class participants know a great deal more about each other than is generally the case in a traditional classroom environment. We discover that one of the principal functions of play in culture is precisely this: discovering how community members behave under different sets of circumstances, with different stakes and in response to different challenges. Very strong bonds and equally strong dislikes are formed in class after the experience of playing such an assortment of games. I wanted to design a final exam that extended the ludic principals of the course into an arena in which the stakes were relatively high and which would really reflect their experiences of the play function and their knowledge of each other.

Eighty-five percent of the grade for the class is derived from standard academic assignments. Students write one paper analyzing an analog game, another analyzing a digital game, they keep a journal of their play activities and write weekly responses to the class readings, and they develop a final project (a design document for a new game, a research paper on some aspect of game theory, or a project of their own invention). The final exam is worth fifteen points and I offer the students a choice — they can either take a standard academic essay exam or they can Play the Final. Most choose to play. The rules for Playing the Final are available online.

What is interesting to me as an observer of this event, is how effectively this exam measures students’ knowledge and their overall citizenship in the class. Given that the exam is public, students study not just because they want to “get a good grade” but because they don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of the group. The exam itself is a learning experience quite different from the usual student experience of cramming before the exam and forgetting immediately afterwards. When a question is asked, many students look up the answer in their notes so as to be prepared if the questionee requests help. All of the exam questions are asked and answered publicly and there is discussion of the answers in between rounds, so the exam ends up being a review of the entire course.

After a semester of analyzing games, and the strategies that make players successful at games, they figure out a strategy for the exam rather quickly. Soon after accepting the exam contract, some of the students realize that the more everyone knows, the greater likelihood of a good outcome for any individual. If someone in the room knows the answer to your particular question, you have the option of getting some points, which is certainly better than none. Therefore the best students make study guides and send them out to the class list. The exam also rewards good citizenship — which is also the opposite of a traditional exam. Students are not competing against each other for the top grade. Their ability to earn a good grade is dependent on the goodwill of their classmates. This makes an extraordinary difference in the class dynamic. In fact, the people who really take a risk in choosing this kind of exam are those who have been particularly obnoxious or abrasive in class. Given that they grade each other, students are likely to give lower grades to those whom they dislike. The overall scores are almost always lower than the grades I would have assigned the students had I been grading. They are much harder on themselves and less likely to forgive errors than I would be.

Playing the Final turns out to be an extremely apt way of wrapping up a class on this topic. Students are forced to utilize the formal academic knowledge accrued in the class, and they also must play a difficult and high stakes game. Their success in the final is, in part, based on their ability to perceive and respond to the individual characteristics of others in the group. The process of Playing the Final underscores the importance of being able to play and understanding the function of play in our culture, it also helps fix the knowledge they have learned in their memories.

Elena Bertozzi
Elena Bertozzi is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Telecommunications Department of Indiana University and Assistant Director of the MIME Game Design program there. Her current research is on the nexus of play, gender and technology.

Publicado originalmente en el sitio de IGDA-DIGRA