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. ūüôā 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.

EAE’s 10 Year Anniversary

Okay, so I work at Entertainment Arts and Engineering at the University of Utah. The content of this post might be a tad biased, but I promise no one bribed me into writing it! I sincerely felt inspired after our 10 year anniversary talks and events and spent time thinking critically about what makes a good university games program- for both the people who work there and the students. Ultimately what I discovered was the core of EAE’s success is getting the right people together at a place that feels like home.

Salt Lake is a beautiful place to make games.

EAE‘s 10 year anniversary celebration took place on Monday, 30 April. It was a day full of talks about the local games industry in Salt Lake, the role of university education in creating the next generation of game makers, and, most importantly, about how people are at the core of success.

Namely, these people.

People-as-drivers-of-success was the theme of the day. The idea that EAE functions and succeeds because of the people involved in it was echoed by faculty, staff, students and industry guests. And it was sincere. Too often in universities people diffuse their own achievements by acknowledging that success is a collective effort (well duh, of course it is!), but that wasn’t the spirit of yesterday. The spirit of yesterday was that we, the people that make up EAE’s faculty, staff, students, and industry friends, are family.

I think the family metaphor for workplaces is usually dangerous. In fact, when I was on the job market, it became a sort of red flag for unhealthy workplace practices (e.g. we are going to keep you here such long hours you will see your co-workers more often than your blood relatives). So I want to be clear that I’m not using the family metaphor in that sense here. I’m using it in the sense that I trust every one of my coworkers fully and completely as much as I’d trust my own blood. I know they have my back and I have theirs, but also I trust them to help me grow and become a better teacher… and a better human.

So many students, alumni and industry friends in one place!

So how do you make a group of people from 15+ countries, 10+ racial backgrounds, different economic and social statuses who are members of different faith groups come together as one big, happy family? Well, you don’t really have to do anything. There’s another demographic variable at play: we are all nerds.

I use the term nerd in an affectionate way, but it has a particular connotation to it. Nerds are the outcrowd- a sub-subculture of self-selected or otherwise rejected people who band together over peculiar interests. Whilst the flavour of nerd varies (e.g. comic book nerds, computer science nerds, data nerds, videogame nerds…) what we all have in common is that we have all experienced what it is like to be an outsider, although in different ways and to varying degrees. We have all felt awkward, uncomfortable and left out. I imagine every single person in the world has felt those feelings, of course, but maybe us nerds are more sensitive to them. In any case, when we get together we tend to cling to each other as a result.

Or we cling to dogs, you know, whatevs. And yes, Link the Doggo came to our party.

I say cling to be hyperbolic, but I think the general metaphor holds true. When you’ve never really connected to a group of people before, or if you have always felt a little odd or out of place and suddenly you find a place that feels comfortable, you cling to it. You call it home. You call the other people there family. And that’s what makes EAE so awesome. We are a home and family for a network of hundreds of students, alumni, faculty and staff from all over the world who have bonded together over their nerdy interests.

And so allow me to end this long-winded, glorified thank you note by cheering all the wonderful people I work with. Thank you for everything you’ve done to make EAE feel like home for so many. Myself included.

Here’s to another 10 years!


SpoOOoky Podcasts

My favourite time of the year is upon us- goth Christmas (aka Halloween). But it is barely even October you say? Doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. Halloween is a month-long celebration in my house. In fact, I actually start putting up autumnal decorations in September. I truly enjoy it that much.

I listen to podcasts a lot when walking Isabelle or taking roadtrips, but I am fairly new to the listening scene. I’ve complied a list of my favourite Halloween-themed podcasts, but there’s only three!

  1. Savage Love’s 2012 Special– Use headphones if the kids are around for this one as it is intended only for those 18 and older. As past readers of this blog will know, I’m a Dan Savage fan, even if I don’t agree with every point he makes. This gem from 2012 is probably my all time favourite Lovecast episode. It is gruesome, hilarious, and sexy all at once. Enjoy.
  2. Lore– I can’t actually pick a single episode from Aaron Mahnke’s podcast because they are all so good. So my second entry is all of this podcast. If you like your historical nonfiction and myths creepy with a side of the macabre, then just listen to the whole thing. It is brilliant. And it is launching as an Amazon series! Gasp!
  3. Limetown– Whilst the other two podcasts I linked are non-fiction, this one is pure imagination. Fictional people from a fictional town disappear, but it is written and voiced so well that it seems real.
  4. All Killa No Filla– Recommended by Andy Hill- Comedians talk about serial killers. What could go wrong?
  5. Welcome to Night Vale– Recommended by Utkarsh Rao- Small desert town, mysterious lights in the sky… It is a classic for a reason.
  6.  The Black TapesРRecommended by Matthew Jones- Horror fiction-presented-as-fact at its finest.
  7. Tanis– Recommended by Matthew Jones- Lovecraftian horror.
  8. Alice Isn’t Dead– Recommended by Matthew Jones- From the makers of Welcome to Night Vale, but a bit more plot heavy?
  9. Darkest Night– Recommended by Matthew Jones.
  10. Rabbits– Recommended by Matthew Jones.

I need your help to grow my list and have something fun to listen to on my fall break. Share your favourites in the comments or via social media pretty please.

I will update this list as recommendations rolls in, so if you too are looking for some creepy audio files, check back in.

Until next time,



Play Therapy and My Doggo

When I first saw Isabelle she was in kennel D20 of the Utah Humane Society. She critically hit my heart and I knew it was fate. This scrappy yellow dog was going to become my companion and best friend.

This photo was taken as the ink on the adoption papers was drying. Notice how my car is dog hair-free? Those were the days…

Of course I adopted her for more reasons than just the sweet D&D reference, but I have to admit that she came with quite a few warning labels which made me have doubts about my ability to care for her. Not only was I warned that she is a mix of aggressive breeds, but she also was potentially a fear-biter. When she was found roaming the streets, Humane Society staff couldn’t approach her. Then they had to board her for several days before anyone could get close enough to vaccinate her- even with specialist equipment.


Knowing all her problems, I adopted her anyway because I like a good challenge. And a good challenge she was. My animal handling skills were put to the test almost instantly.

Initially, Isabelle was afraid of everything. Her tail was between her legs during every walk and she would jump out of her fur at any loud noise. She would frequently wake me up in the middle of the night whining and crying and for a while I regretted my decision to ever get a dog.

Plus, she had a cold. I had adopted a sick dog. Things weren’t looking great. I mean, I had a feverish pup who sneezed on everything and tried to bite people. The weirdest part of all? She wouldn’t play. She wouldn’t chase balls, or frisbees nor would she tug-o-war with me and her rope. If you threw something, she would at best chase it and at worst look terrified. Even after she finished her antibiotics and was healthy! The irony was thick. I, a game scholar, adopted a dog who didn’t know how to play.

I asked my vet how to fix this problem. She said to socialise her with other dogs at a daycare. This helped immensely.

Learning how to play was a big deal for Isabelle.

Within a few weeks of being introduced to her new daycare pack she became more social. The first difference I noticed was that her tail was less frequently between her legs and more often up, if not wagging. Then she would occasionally play-bow (front legs sprawled out, butt up in the air) in the backyard. I’m told this is how dogs signal to each other, and their humans, that they want to play. We started playing tug-o-war with her rope (pictured above) and then moved onto fetch. Things were looking up!

After learning to play, Isabelle became more animated generally, but also more confident. Instead of hiding behind me on walks she started growling, howling and crying at the approach of other dogs. Not only was this embarrassing as people would stare at my out-of-control pup having a temper tantrum because there was another dog 10 metres away, but it was also baffling. She was doing great with her pack at daycare, so why would she freak out in the park?

Our training involved a lot of placing Isabelle on things.

When running 5-6k a day with her didn’t calm her nervous energy,¬†I decided it was time for behavioural training and asked the daycare for a recommendation. The behaviourist Mike was confident that general obedience training would help her trust me more and listen better. He was right. Within a six weeks of regular training and exercise, Isabelle became easier to walk and more confident in the park.


By Halloween she no longer howled and had temper tantrums, but was still a bit shaky. It wasn’t until Christmas she was sniffing-butts and comfortable greeting strange dogs in the park. This is the first time I let her off-leash.

Because everyone needs Christmas jammies, right?

I took her on holiday with me to visit family in Mexico. I was able to ride a bike along the beach with her trotting leashless next to me. Despite plenty of distractions (birds, washed up dead dolphins) she never left my side.

From the shelter to having a Christmas beach holiday… Lucky dog.

Although Isabelle’s good behaviour is a product of a lot of time, money, and energy, I think the turning point in our relationship was when she learned from other dogs how to play. I’m sure animal behaviourists have a much more professional way of putting this, but essentially once she loosened up enough to play, she was free enough to learn her role in my ‘pack’ (okay, pack might be an over statement since its just me, but hey, I’m the alpha!) and in her daycare pack. As a result, she is a much happier dog and I’m a much happier human.


Looking back on our journey together over the past year it seems like more than coincidence that the dog who was too scared to play lived in kennel D20 and was adopted by a game academic. She has taught me so much about why play is important to her and my psycho-social well being. I only hope I can continue to give her a happy, healthy life in return. Here’s to playing many more years together.

Until next time,



I’m back. And I’m a homeowner.

So as it turns out, moving across the Atlantic and buying a house was a bit more than I had bargained for. Something had to give and that something was updating my website… And my blog!

Welp, I’m back up and running now and here to post my first blog since last Christmas (crikey!). If you were curious what I’ve been up to, let me demystify: I spend almost every weekend at home improvement stores now.

This was on my birthday. I went to Lowe’s to buy air filters on my birthday because I had a 20% off coupon. Just let that sink in…

Between DIY repairs and upgrades, homeownership thus far has been a never-ending drama. Don’t get me wrong, I feel incredibly lucky to live in a home, let alone own one, but something I’ve always taken for granted is how much work goes into maintaining a house. I guess I had always thought as long as you swept it and mopped it the walls would take care of themselves. Oh what a sweet, summer child I was.

Problem number 1: a leaky window well.

Upon moving in, I immediately discovered a flooded basement courtesy of an improperly sealed basement window. Sigh. At least that was an easy fix.

Then I didn’t have a washer or a dryer. An expensive problem, but not an insurmountable one. I bought a flashy Samsung model that sings to you when your clothes are done. Slight problem though…


I swear I measured the counter and the washer multiple times, and yet there we were. Couldn’t open the detergent drawer because the crummy plastic and press-board counter was too deep.

Okay, again, not a difficult fix. Just gotta saw the countertop to fit, but dusty business…

… and I could go on. Like how long it took to hang all my retro Star Trek posters- which by the way are nicely framed because I am a grown up. (That’s the rule: It’s okay to have posters on your walls if you’re over 30 years old, as long as you frame them.)


Or how incredibly satisfying (and simple!) it was to replace a gross, old shower head with something shiny and new.


But I’ll spare you all the gory details. The important thing is I am back and ready to blog. In between home projects, of course.

Until next time,


Happy Nerdy Holidays

If there’s one thing that can get me into the holiday mood, it is geeky holiday specials and nerdy spins on classic carols. I’ve complied a listicle of my favourite YouTube hits here, but by no means is it exclusive. Feel free to comment and add your favourites.

Angry Video Game Nerd Bible Games (Episodes 1-3)

Remember all those great religious games for the NES? No? Well that’s because they weren’t officially released by Nintendo (except for 1 odd Konami title which had almost nothing actually religious in it). The Angry Video Game Nerd plays Bible-related skins, bootlegs and ports of classic games in these 3 holiday specials. It is hilarious and informative of the wild west of early games’ enforcement of intellectual property rights.

“Christmas Raid Carol”- The Guild

You gotta love any carol that starts off with the line: “Dead orcs roasting in a lava pit…” A classic from the early days of Felicia Day and co’s The Guild.

“Make it So”- Captain Picard

Some genius cut TNG to make this fantastic carol.

12 Days of Starcraft

This is an animated version of the old internet classic. Enjoy.


A Call to Hugs

I, like most of you, am still reeling from the implications of last night’s election. Not only because of the rather bleak financial outlook and how that will impact my personal life, but also because I am witnessing history repeat¬†and it is devastating.¬†2222618062_a4a451ea1f

More important than how I feel, however, are how marginalised groups are doing.¬†The fact that we now have a Republican controlled House, Senate and President isn’t the key issue here. The key issue is that we have elected someone who was endorsed by the KKK– who are now celebrating a very white victory. If this is anything like what happened with Brexit, which it is looking very similar indeed, then many of our friends and loved ones¬†might be¬†fearful over the repercussions of this election.¬†lutracanadensis_fullres

This is not a message of sensationalism or over-reaction, this is a message of love, compassion and preparedness. I sincerely hope that hatecrimes do not rise 58% this week, like they did the week after Brexit, but something in my gut tells me they might.

We need to be prepared to deal with the fallout of this election by helping others. Think of this blog post as a call to hugs*.

Look out for your LGBTQ friends, your friends of colour, your friends from non-dominant faith groups, your immigrant friends, your friends from lower socio-economic backgrounds, your mothers, sisters, aunts, and other ladies in your life.european_hedgehog_erinaceus_europaeus

Regardless of who you voted for, check in on your friends and see how they are doing. See how they are coping with the fact their marriages might become invalid, they might lose their healthcare plan, or they might feel unsafe. Of course I am speaking in hyperbole here. Don’t actually ask these rather personal questions. Don’t ask anything at all. Offer a shoulder, an ear, or a cuppa. Listen and provide love and comfort.

This is a moment in which we can all show how much we care for each other. We can show our humanity and that will make all the difference. It could change history.

Until next time,


PS- Pix in this post aren’t relevant, but much needed.


*But also not hugs if some folks** don’t wanna be touched.

** I mean engineers.  Clearly.