Friday, March 05, 2010

Faculty Training at Norco College

Norco, California, USA

Riverside Community College LogoA few months ago I got a message from Judy Perry, who's head of the new game program at the Norco campus of Riverside Community College in southern California. RCC was about to set up a game development program, grant funding pending, and would I come and help to train the faculty? Of course I would. In order to save them the airfare from Britain, we scheduled it for right before the Game Developers' Conference this year.

I’ve had the opportunity to teach university faculty on a number of occasions, and it’s always fun and different from teaching students. They don’t come in with as many preconceived notions, for one thing. Students tend to feel that they already know everything there is to know about games, based on what they’ve seen in the shops. (I quickly disabuse them of this idea.) Faculty usually aren’t hardcore gamers, so they’re more open to new ideas. They sometimes come up with very unusual ideas. Unfortunately, their lack of experience also means that they occasionally reinvent the wheel, but I can usually nip that in the bud before it wastes too much time.
A few weeks back Judy wrote to me with the good news that their grant had come through, and in addition their college now had its own identity – not merely the Norco campus of Riverside Community College, but Norco College, an independent entity. We planned an intensive three day visit, with events scheduled throughout the day and in the evenings as well.
Judy met me at the Ontario, California airport and took me to dinner at the Mission Inn in Riverside – a lovely historic hotel that the college very kindly put me up in. The next day the fun began. It was a relatively small group, which made it possible to have a lot of discussion. We started with my fundamentals workshop in the morning, and moved on to interactive storytelling in the afternoon. That evening I went and hung out with a bunch of students for a while, telling scurrilous stories about industry luminaries and giving ad hoc design and career advice.

Judy Perry (top left) and team at work on their game idea.
The next day we were hard at work again. I began with an unscripted discussion of how the industry works as a business, and the careers available within it. In the afternoon we did my character design workshop. The faculty was a bit of a mixed bag, and included both former game industry professionals and complete newcomers – professors of computer science who had never even played a game. They had some fun designing the look and animation move set for Emily Vista, field zoologist, and Aristides Mykonos, sponge diver, among others.
In the evening there was a gala dinner at the Eagle Glen Golf Club, with over 100 people. It included faculty, university administrators, a few students, and some parents. Every single person who turned up got one of my books as a gift -- generously provided by the college -- and I signed them all. The dinner was lovely, and I gave my lecture “The Future of Interactive Entertainment to 2050,” which was pretty well-received although my laptop was a long way from the podium and I could barely see my slides. Afterward Judy Perry told me she was surprised that I was able to make the subject of procedural content generation both accessible and funny to non-technical people, which I take as high praise.
After all the excitement the previous night, we took it a bit easy on the last day. I gave a lecture on mechanics design, and then gave the participants a challenge to find the flaws in a game and make suggestions how to fix it. Mechanics design is always the hardest thing to teach, because it’s rather dry. I didn’t want them working with spreadsheets, so I invented an asymmetric card game for two players and had them play through it a few times to find out what was wrong with it. I’ve only done this once before and I wasn’t sure how it would be received, but people seemed to get into it and there were a lot of good suggestions. It was particularly interesting to see how different players adopted different styles of play – the strategists spent a long time figuring out how to lay out their cards, while the more casual players dived right in (and actually seemed to enjoy themselves more).

A room full of people trying to fix the flaws in my castle siege card game.
After it was all over Judy and I enjoyed a quiet chat before I headed off to my hotel. It was a long and busy three days, with almost every moment taken up with activities of one kind and another. I even got to play a student-built survival horror board game during one of the lunch breaks (five players, one of whom is the mad killer, but only he knows it). I was impressed with the students and faculty, and I hope the opportunity arises to go back some day. Special thanks to Judy above all, and to Annebelle Nery, the Grant Director; Dr. Diane Dieckmeyer, the Dean of Instruction; and Dr. Brenda Davis, President, who all supported my visit and worked hard to make it happen.