“What you can say through the languages of games”

David Javet © 2024 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

David Javet © 2024 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

A new EPFL course from the College of Humanities (CDH), “Game design and prototyping”, taught by game designer David Javet, will start in the 2024 spring semester. Part of the CDH master’s in digital humanities, this course takes students through the process of conceiving, designing, and evaluating a game of their own over the course of a semester.

Although EPFL students are busy with classwork, exams, research, and student associations, many of them still find time to play games. Video games of course, but also board games, role playing games, and card games. Despite the popularity of these pastimes, EPFL still has very few places where students can learn to design games and convey scientific knowledge through this specific medium. That’s where the new CDH course “Game design and prototyping” comes in.

“This new class has mostly been the result of students asking for it,” says instructor David Javet. “There’s a lot of energy coming from the students who really want to use games to express themselves.”

When Javet talks about games, he doesn’t just mean video games. The games his students design can be board games, role playing games, card games, or even large-scale games, like Pacmanhattan.

“Since we are in digital humanities, it was really important to me that the class was not about how to program games, but how to really conceptualize games and what you can say through the language of games,” Javet says.

“It’s a lot about empathy”

The students in Javet’s course will have the experience of conceiving of a game from start to finish. This includes creating a game design document (GDD) and then prototyping and testing their games, which means approaching the games that they have created from the point of view of first-time users.

“Since games are about making someone else do something, it’s a lot about empathy,” says Javet. “It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t really know your system, trying to think about the other instead of oneself. Having someone play and activate your system forces you to think about how the other functions. So it’s a lot about listening and learning how to listen.”

Javet will also use a lot of examples to teach his class, assigning students all kinds of games to play for homework as well as having them all play games together in class and discuss the experience, what they think works and what doesn’t.

“It’s about having the students feel the design, play the games, and discuss the specific design elements and methodologies.”

Different media for different games

This is the first class Javet is teaching at EPFL although he’s been invited to give guest lectures in other EPFL classes in the past.

He recognizes that at a technical school like EPFL, there could be many students with significant coding experience who want to build big, complex video games. To help with this, Javet is planning to have teaching assistants to help students with difficult coding questions

However, he hopes that students will take on simpler games and media, because while students often want to design big, complex video games based on their playing experience, these games tend to be designed by 500 people for millions of dollars and are generally not good tools for learning about game design. This is because complex games rely on so many different systems and moving parts, which students sometimes mistake for substance, not realizing that their games might in fact be unfair or lack a compelling narrative.

Javet also wants students to think about what kind of game medium would be best for expressing what they want. Maybe once they come up with a concept, a story, or some scientific knowledge that they want to share, they will realize that actually a roleplaying game would better serve their goal than a video game.

“I don’t want them to just reproduce something that they like or feel will work and then it’s the end of the semester and they don’t really realize what they actually did,” Javet says. “The process should be about them stepping back and really thinking about what they are trying to achieve and then creating something.”

Author: Stephanie Parker

Source: College of humanities | CDH

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