January 9th, 2006

That’s Ms. Professor To You

I registered for classes for next semester tonight, and discovered that my name is entered into the “Faculty” section of the registration site. Yes, I am faculty, as I’ll be teaching a course on game design and education this coming semester. I think it’ll be quite interesting - which is a good thing, I suppose, as I doubt the students would find it interesting if I didn’t. I’m building the syllabus to teach them game design first, and then spending the last month of the semester talking about specific “serious games” and educational applications of everything that they’ve learned.

I don’t quite understand why people always want to run before they can walk, when it comes to games. I get other students coming to me all the time with their great new million-dollar game idea - and then when I ask if they’ve ever designed or even seriously played a game before, they give me this blank look. It’s as if they think games fall out of the sky, and whatever is fun for them is going to be fun for everyone who picks up their game. (Even worse: most of the games I see wouldn’t even be fun for the creator!) With the course I’m teaching, I’m trying to communicate that just as you wouldn’t try to compose a sonnet without knowing how to read and write, you need to learn how to read (play) and write (design) games.  Then you can try something that’s even more structurally difficult, like trying to create a game that’s educational, massively multi-player, or otherwise very specific in content or genre.

Hopefully my course will get at least some of my students to see why making games is hard - and also why it’s incredibly fun, compelling and meaningful. If even one of my students comes out of the course realizing that a) games are a language and b) that the language of games communicates certain things (process, social interaction) better than others (factually-oriented academic content), then I will have scored one for the good guys.

Reading List: Sunstroke

Read: Sunstroke, David Kagan.

Sometimes a girl just needs a silly techno-thriller - which is why I picked this up. The back of the book promised an out-of-control satellite armed with microwave technology which was going to Destroy The Earth. I’ve got a weakness for disaster novels, so I thought I’d try it.

Big mistake. This book was no silly thriller - it was an epically bad silly thriller, and it really pissed me off for some very specific reasons. The plot was slender and the characters wooden, but there were two things that really sent me over the edge.

First of all, Kagan really seems to enjoy killing off his female characters. Except for the President’s wife (who appears in all of two scenes, playing concerned wifey in both of them) and the love interest for the male lead (a journalist who spends half her stage time with her clothes off - you know, “to get the story,” like journalists do), there isn’t a female character who survives more than ten pages. It’s clearly safer to be male when the microwave rays strike!

Even worse, Kagan obviously knows nothing about computers, but decided to base his story around an out-of-control AI. (When I realized this was an out-of-control AI story, I almost stopped reading. I’ve almost never seen a good one! But I hate leaving a book half-read . . . .) He casually has his intelligent satellite eavesdropping on voice conversations, making inferences from what people are saying and “redesigning its programming” to respond. Also it proved P = NP and made a lovely cup of tea. I can’t even enumerate all the other ways in which he basically waved his hands and said, “Then a miracle occurs! And my magic AI satellite closes the gaping plot hole! With its teeth!” Sigh.

On the other hand, the climax of the book involved the (white male heterosexual engineer) hero endangering his life in a dramatic race to . . .

. . . change a fuse!

That scene was worth the $1.50 I spent to buy the book and the ninety minutes I spent reading it, so I call Sunstroke not a total loss. Barely.