This past week was the final meeting of the Tabletop Game Club for another year. This year concludes the fifth year since a couple of students approached me about sponsoring a club where kids who specifically enjoyed playing Dungeons & Dragons could meet on a weekly basis to storm the castle and plunder its dungeons underneath. As one who enjoys such adventures and the teacher at the forefront of the game design concentration, I simply couldn't refuse. And, that became the focus of the group: playing a variety of role playing games. There were so many kids playing at one point that the club organizers had to run two different campaigns simultaneously to accommodate every member. But, there are a lot of other kinds of tabletop games and this past year, we have seen an influx of them.
The shift all started when a small group of students wanted to play games other than role playing. The only rule we have as a group is that games cannot be electronic...they must be tabletop. Games like Ticket to Ride, One Night, King of Tokyo and Takamatsu were introduced to the club. The small group of 3-4 students and myself playing board games suddenly became 6-8. Students were slowly being siphoned off from the role-playing group. After three or four meetings, there were too few students to run two campaigns and the group playing board games was quickly growing too large to manage. So, one of the gamemasters suggested we add a group playing Magic the Gathering, a popular collectible card game. I haven't played Magic in years and it is by definition a tabletop game, so of course I said let's play and see what happens. Same thing...players of Magic grew fast and it attracted more students to join the club. Before we knew it, we have 10-12 students sitting around a 4' square table drawing cards and summoning creatures! Now, we routinely had one role-playing campaign, one board game and a couple of card games running simultaneously. All of the students at club are letting off daily steam, joking around, considering the effects of gameplay decisions and having a good time. And, I was as well.
But, let me tell you why I bring our club focus into this week's blog post as something that I consider to be a very important lesson for students, and fellow educators, to reflect upon. What many people see when they walk into our club meetings is a room full of very loud (organized) chaos. Kids are in passionate debates with one another about the game in front of them. Many are joking around and yes, occasionally they go outside of what might be deemed "school appropriate." There are definite reasons why our club is open to grades 8-12 and not younger kids. But what I see is productive student development in a way that cannot be reproduced in a classroom setting. All day, students are told to sit still, be quiet and bask in the knowledge teachers impart on them. But, despite what politicians want us to believe, good students are much more than receptacles of information. They do more than spit back names, dates and terminology. Good students understand the implications of the information they receive in the classroom and how to use that knowledge in a productive manner to solve problems and better society. These are the skills students learn by participating in clubs, regardless of the club's focus or intention.
Students who participate in a club or on a sports team take the lessons they learn in our classrooms and use that knowledge to solve real-world problems. While these problems differ from club to club, students actively use critical thinking skills and classroom information to develop solutions. The issues addressed can be anything such as how to move a soccer ball down the field to score a goal (trigonometry comes into play here) to why we should be upset with the state government passing HB2 into law (think about implications from classes such as history, business and law). Regardless of the issue being addressed, it is easy to connect the group's focus to our lessons if one takes the time to think about it.
Another key feature of club participation is learning how to interact socially in a safe environment. Students who may never meet outside of the club learn to work with one another to accomplish some goal. In tabletop, this goal can be anything from how to get information out of a guard or slay a monster (in a role playing game) to stopping an opponent from making a move (in board/card games). Working together towards a goal is something teachers often try to accomplish with group projects but this technique typically fails miserably. We all know that some students will refuse to accept a low grade and tend to do all the work, while others simply sit back, do little to nothing on the project and take the easy grade that others earn for them. Because of these problems, nobody really likes group projects. And such projects make minimal progress in helping students understand the importance of working together on a team or improving social skills. Clubs allow students to explore social interactions without any extrinsic motivation. They choose their own interest and learn how to interact with the members of the group in a productive manner.
This is how the world outside of academics operates. People of all different ages coming together, using their social and intellectual skills, to find solve the problems they encounter. Accomplishing such tasks, not repeating what year a bill was signed into law, solving for x or identifying the correct term/definition on a multiple choice test, should be the focus of what we aim to teach our students as educators. And this should be the reason for participating in school clubs and sports, not simply padding your college application like so many people think is the purpose of participating in such activities.
So the next time a student tells you they have a club meeting after school, don't look at it as kids wasting time on campus with their friends, an added burden at the end of an already long day in your classroom or an inconvenience for parents in arranging transportation. Consider how the students are taking their daily lessons out of the classroom and into the real-world to solve a problem, whatever that problem might be, and gaining valuable social skills at the same time.
One of the most important things that professionals always need to do is keep abreast of current tools and trends in the industry where they are employed. One of the most common ways to do this is by attending professional conferences. This is equally true of the game industry as it is with any other professional field. I introduce my students to this fact by taking them to the East Coast Game Conference. This annual event takes place in Raleigh during the springtime and boasts the largest gathering of professional game designers on the east coast. It is often an eye-opening experience for my students when they interact with the creators of some of the biggest titles being produced both currently and in past years.
However, this post is not about ECGC. This past week, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the NC Technology Engineering and Design Educators Association (NCTEDEA) Spring Conference held in Kill Devil Hills, NC. While there, myself and three other Kenan Fellows shared information on our experience in the program along with our resulting lesson plans. Although the conference was very small, there was a lot of interest in what we had to say. Attendees got to see how four individuals from different backgrounds (an engineering teacher, a business and marketing teacher, an honors chemistry teacher, and myself - a game art & design teacher) were put together to build a wearable device and how we brought this shared experience back to our classrooms in unique and differing ways. While this was useful for the other teachers in attendance and presenting to one's peers is good for all to experience as a professional, I really wanted to bring something useful back for myself and my students.
Not only does attending conferences allow one to gain valuable information by attending formal presentations, but it allows you to network and converse/collaborate informally with one's peers, many of whom you may or may not see in other environments. This is where the real power of conferences comes into play in my mind. In attending, I managed to catch up with a former fellow game art & design teacher, Jonathan Peedin, who has since left the world of education and returned to his former career of designing video games, this time for Boss Key Productions as a senior UI/UX designer. However, he has kept one foot in the world of teaching as he is working on re-vamping the GAD curriculum and requirements to more closely align with the game industry. We had a number of conversations about where these changes may lead and I came back from the conference refreshed and excited about the updates to come. During the formal sessions, Jonathan gave a talk on free design tools and tablet use in the classroom, where he introduced two applications that teachers and students can use. And, I want to encourage my students to look into these tools as they can gain a lot out of both. Plus, being free, the price is perfect.
The first tool Jonathan shared with attendees is Sculptris by Pixelogic. Sculptris is a free 3D modeling application made by the same company that sells ZBrush, the industry standard 3D modeling software. Both products work like modeling in clay, allowing the artist to pull, pinch, push and prod their character or object into shape. Currently, the curriculum calls for teaching 3D modeling using 3ds Max, which has its roots in the world of computer aided drafting. Just considering this information and how we would use 3D models in video games, it is clear that using an artistic approach makes more sense than the technical design approach. We are often working with organic shapes and technical drawing is not really designed for such work. This doesn't mean that one should ignore technical modeling programs such as 3ds Max or Maya. While you can easily model your objects in Sculptris, you cannot rig or animate them and these are important tasks in creating video games. Applying texturing is also handled better outside of Sculptris. Based on all of this knowledge, I was very pleased to learn this powerful and lightweight application is being added to the list of required software for the game design classes.
The second tool I learned about was Krita, which is a free paint program. While Photoshop continues to dominate as the industry standard piece of software for 2D digital artwork, some companies are also looking at what is available to use for free these days. And, I often have students ask me what they can get for cheap, or better yet free, to learn how to create artwork on the computer. And, it may come as no surprise that GIMP is often the answer I provide. Like Krita, GIMP is free. However, it has a steep learning curve and I have often hear students (and myself) complain about getting very frustrated with it. GIMP is not intuitive and if you are used to working in Photoshop, rather hard to understand. At least it is for me. So, when Jonathan told me his coworkers at Boss Key pointed him towards using Krita, it made me even more curious about using it. So, as soon as I returned from the conference, I downloaded the software and started exploring its capabilities. After just a few minutes, I found it to be very intuitive and easy to use, which gave it a major boost over GIMP. And to my amazement, in terms of drawing on the computer, I preferred it over Photoshop! So, while I currently have minimal experience with this software, it has become my new go-to response when students want/need access to a paint program.
The final piece of knowledge that Jonathan touched on was the use of graphics tablets for doing one's artwork on the computer. I have tablets in my classroom but tend not to use them too often. I know...shame on me! But, with everything else I have to do and learn for my classes, I have simply put learning the graphics tablet on the back-burner to more pressing concerns that are constantly presenting themselves to me. But, I do see the value in using them and have always allowed students to do so at their request. I found Jonathan's response to a comment by another teacher useful in re-framing my mind on using them. This teacher asked if it is difficult to get used to drawing on the tablet and looking at the screen as opposed to a pen and paper on a desk. His response, and I paraphrase: you already do this with a mouse...it's just a matter of training yourself to do it with a different tool. So, when I installed Krita, I also grabbed one of the tablets. My first problem was that I could not get different shades like I can with a pencil despite the maker's claim of 1024 different levels of pressure being available. This bothered me. However, after updating the driver, it worked like a champ. All that is left for me to do is learn how to program the hot spot locations on the tablet and I am really ready to use it even more productively. However, even without them, I have started working on my skills and am quickly falling in love with using a graphics tablet. It's really not very difficult to become accustomed to, as Jonathan mentioned, and simply takes a little practice. I believe this will be the focus of my personal learning this coming summer.
So, while attending the conference, I was out of my classroom and at the beach for two days. The question I ask myself is does this benefit my students? I think it does based on everything I discussed above. I learned some new tools and gained a little insight into the direction the game design classes will be taking in the future. I hope you agree with my assessment and if you do not currently attend whatever professional conferences your industry offers, you change your perspective on them and start doing so.
"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
The above quote is often attributed to Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. Although he is not speaking about learning in a high school environment, this quote does a wonderful job of summing up the importance of self reliance through research and reflection on any topic one is interested in learning more about as opposed to simply accepting the status quo as the definitive truth.
So, you might be wondering, how does this relate to my students? One of the things that has always perplexed me when kids come into my class is how many simply rely on me to be their sole resource for information. In our childhood, we are naturally curious creatures who want to learn about and understand everything we come in contact with. As we begin school, that natural curiosity with trial-and-error exploration is often squelched and we learn that compliance and acceptance of the information we are provided will give us everything we need to succeed. Sit still, listen to the teacher, accept what they tell you as truth and you will do well in school. While such behavior is useful and necessary in some sense, I do not believe this serves the student's best interest in the long run. Often, by the time a student reaches high school after getting this message of compliance for the previous nine years of schooling, they have grown dependent on the teacher to serve them their daily dose of truth regarding each particular subject area without often understanding the implications or uses of that material.
Some of my personal goals for students are for them to gain a sense of independence and curiosity about my curriculum and the world around them. I want them to trust themselves to ask good, informed questions that extend their knowledge deeper than the curriculum requires, to explore new tools/techniques without being dependent on me to hold their hand every step of the way, and to use what they learn and experience to deepen their understanding of visual design techniques and game design. Doing so will help them grow into creative, independent individuals who think of innovative ways to use the tools/techniques that they are provided access to in my classroom. This requires constant reflection on what they have learned, whether it is information I provide them or information they find through their own curiosity and research, as well as using this new knowledge to create their own, unique and original pieces of artwork.
In order to do this successfully, students also have to realize that I may not always have the answer to their question, so they need to do their own research (even if they start by me pointing them in the direction to go) and then apply what they learn from it. It may not always work out as they hope it will, but they will always learn something useful from the experience. And, the ability to solve their own problems without relying on someone else is a skill that will transcend my class and help them well beyond their years in high school alone.
My favorite student interactions usually go something like this:
Student - "Mr. B, how do I do x?"
Me - "Why would you want to be able to do that?"
Student - "Well, if I can do x, then I can use it in my art/game/writing to make a better product."
Me - "Interesting idea...how can you figure out how to do x because that is something I have never considered and I am not sure how to do it."
Student - option a: "Well...I know student-y has worked with this software before. I could ask them."; option b: "I could Google it."; option c: "I could check the company's website/wiki/blog/Twitter to see if someone else has done x."; option d: "I could look through a magazine/book on the topic."; etc.
Me - "Good idea(s), let me know what you learn as others might want to know this information as well."
Often, they come back to me having found the answer on their own with a sense of pride and accomplishment in their ability to do so. They also tend to be full of interest and energy to extend their knowledge of the subject or tool even deeper. And, have used this acquired knowledge in an interesting and creative manner. They have now taken the first steps of self reliance, curiosity, and are becoming lifelong learners. I deem this a success!
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.