Teaching Genre and Paper Prototyping

This blog post is a postmortem for a class I ran on videogame genres in my masters level Game Design class. The main problem I was trying to solve with this lesson plan is that previous attempts to teach genre had been unsuccessful. The reasons previous attempts were unsuccessful are because:

  1. Academic literature (e.g. Apperley 2006; Arsenault 2009) problematises the idea of genre. And rightly so. Videogame genres occupy an extremely messy space between classic film genres (e.g. horror, westerns, dramas) and mechanical genres (e.g. FPS, RTS, RPG). The question students walk away from the readings with is “If genres are meaningless, then who cares?” But we still do care about genre because Metacritic cares, and because as designers we need genres to mean something in elevator pitches to save time. So then, how do I teach that?
  2. Activities which create and then critique generic boundaries only engaged a narrow selection of students who are interested in pedantics. How could I increase student buy-in on a topic most seem happy to check out of?
  3. This is a little off the topic of how to teach genre, but was still an issue I was facing at the time I designed this lecture. The students wanted more opportunities to design bad games. They asked for more chances to fail at being a game designer (without failing the class!) So how could I deliver an opportunity to design a bad game in only a 3 hour class?

The solution I came up with was to have the students create paper prototypes using core design elements which represent various genres. I, of course, did not come up with this idea alone. A huge shoutout to my Teaching Assistants Noelle Johnston and Utkarsh Rao who helped with the ideation process and another huge shoutout to my co-workers Matt Anderson, Jose Zagal and Corrinne Lewis who graciously gave their time to listen to my crackpot lesson plan and offer critique and encouragement. It takes a village, people…

A little background for context:

This activity was for a Game Design class for first year masters students. The class is mandatory for all masters students coming through the EAE program and occasionally we get interested students from other departments taking the class for fun. Class enrollment fluctuates between 60 and 70 students with a total of 63 this year. The total class time is 3 hours.

My desired learning goals/objectives for the 3 hours were as follows:

  • Have a critical discussion about genre.
  • Reflect on why genre is sometimes useful.
  • Teach students the basics of paper prototyping.
  • Get students comfortable with failing and making bad designs.

Anyway, this is how the lesson plan ran. I have used all images and videos with the permission of the folks who are in them/created them. We are happy for you to use this lesson plan in your class for educational purposes as long as you credit the designers. 

Paper Prototyping Genres: A lesson plan

By Ashley ML Brown, Noelle Johnston and Utkarsh Rao 2018

Step 1: Select the genres.

The TAs and I spent a while brainstorming which genres are amenable to being prototyped in only 2 hours. Spoiler alert: Not many are. We came up with the following list anyway:

  • Survival Horror
  • Dating Sim
  • Rhythm
  • Rogue-Like
  • Farm Sim
  • Turn-Based Strategy
  • Puzzle Platformer
  • Match 3
  • Pet Simulator
  • Endless Runner

Step 2: Gather materials

This ended up being quite material intensive. Most of the materials I ended up buying for this activity were super useful to have on hand for later activities as well though. The doubling-up of supplies drives down the average cost per activity, so its fairly easy to justify the expense to department budgeteers. It is worth noting that most of these items had to be purchased online so I had to order a couple weeks in advance. I linked my online purchases below:

Step 3: Discuss genre in class.

I opened the class with a discussion of what genre is and what it is most useful for. The students had already read the Apperley and Arsenault readings (listed above) as their homework, which allowed me to operate under the assumption students would understand critiques of genre. As I’ve run a similar lecture in the past, I came in with the expectation that getting students to be critical of genre would be easy. The hard part would be getting them to understand why we should still give a crap.

In light of this, I steered the conversation toward recognizing the importance of genre to sharing a common vocabulary, ease of pitching concepts, and being able to market your game effectively.

I ended the discussion by switching gears and talking about what paper prototyping is, what it is used for, and showing some examples of what they look like. A huge thank you to Matt Anderson for giving me fantastic resources to use for this portion. 

Step 4: Split into groups.

As this class was run in the second half of the semester, students had already formed friendship groups and cliques. In order to encourage working with people they’ve not yet had an opportunity to, the TAs split up the groups via the counting method (where you point at people and assign them a number counting up and then all the 1s group up, all the 2s, etc). As we had 10 genres, we used numbers 1-10. 

The first of each number (e.g. the first assigned number 1, the first assigned number 2, etc) became team captains. This was their reward for sitting near the front of the room. 🙂 Team captains then came to the front and drew a slip of paper with one of the above 10 genres printed on it. Once they pulled out their paper, they read the result outloud. This was done at the front of the classroom for added excitement and drama. 

Step 5: Create 5 elements (but not the Fifth Element- dohohoho)

Once in their groups of about 6 students, they were tasked with creating a recipe for their assigned genres in about 20 minutes. They had plain chart paper and scented markers to help brainstorm. The overall goal of this segment of the activity was to boil down the genre into the ‘must haves’. 

They were encouraged to think up examples of games which break the rules or lack the elements they listed. My hope was that their conversations would result in critical thought and discussion about design elements in genre and why they matter.

After the 5 elements were created, they were presented to the class and critiqued in a large group. In the above image, you can see annotations to the original list in green marker. 

Step 6: Shake things up

When I introduced the concept of making 5 generic elements, I called it a recipe. I think calling it a recipe is a useful metaphor to get students to think about what are the eggs and flour that go into an Endless Runner cake. I also, however, think that recipes are inherently inflexible. Or maybe that’s just my bias from watching too much of the Great British Bakeoff? Anyway, I was aware of the fact that the activity could leave students with this idea that in order to be a successful Pet Sim, you MUST have a digital avatar, needs to fulfill, etc… And this was not my intent.

To offset this fear of being too formulaic in the paper prototyping phase, I had the students re-draw their genres and switch after they had presented their lists. So, for example, the team that had initially created 5 elements for Pet Sims, ended up paper prototyping a survival horror game. They were instructed to take the 5 element list with them when they went into the prototyping phase, but they were not told that they had to follow the list to the letter. More on this later.

It was a little chaotic, but the good kind of chaotic. Some students were relieved they didn’t have to do design work on a genre they didn’t like or hadn’t played, others were upset that their favorite got taken away, and others just seemed excited to make something.

Step 7: Paper prototype

The students had about an hour to design and create their prototypes with the materials I provided. As this was the first time I had ever run this activity, I wasn’t sure whether or not it would be successful. An hour isn’t a lot of time to talk about design, let alone create any sort of assets.

My nervousness about students’ ability to design and create with strict time constraints was ultimately unfounded. Using teamwork and efficiently delegating tasks, students were able to create functional (and even fun!) prototypes. Examples of the prototypes can be seen above.

Step 8: Playtesting

We spent the rest of the class playtesting each other’s paper protoypes

Survival Horror:

Puzzle Platformer:


Thoughts, conclusions

Overall, I think the activity was very successful at tackling common teaching meta-problems. By meta problems, I mean problems experienced by all teachers and not just professors of game design- for example engaging students who normally check out. 

Here’s what I was hoping would happen: I hoped students would take the element list from the team that created it and tear it up. Or reorganise it. Add to it, subtract from it. A few teams did this, but unfortunately many teams decided they would ‘fail’ the assignment if they didn’t include every element on the list. I write ‘fail’ because the activity wasn’t graded, but I feel like in this case I failed the students a bit. The activity wasn’t as successful in pushing their critical thinking as I would have liked because the act of creating genre recipes seemed to have boxed in their thinking. To remedy this in future, I will be more proactive and literal in telling students to push against their inherited design elements.

If you decide to run this activity, or a modified version of it in one of your classes, do let me know! I’m eager to see how different professors and students react to this lesson plan.

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