Game Controllers and Course Design

Black Playstation controller


Scott Nelson

Image Credit: 

Scott Nelson, 2013, CC BY-NC-SA

So, I've been thinking this week about controllers and controls. The Playstation 4 controller was announced, and there are some significant changes in the design that speak to the changing nature of gaming in general. The new controller has a touch screen and a color-coded light bar to identify different players. Most significant to this post, though, is the missing 'Select' and 'Start' buttons. Since the 1980s, these buttons have been standard on most game controllers, and Sony's decision to replace them with the 'Share' and 'Options' button signals a shift in video games' focus. Gamers have definitely noticed this seemingly small shift, with some making video tributes to the lost buttons

The earliest computer games were somewhat solitary affairs -- a single human player competed against the computer. Later, with Tennis for Two, two human players could go head-to-head. Competitions in the arcade era focused on beating a high score set by another player at another time. Players had to be in physical proximity to one another to share a game. In the 1970s, though, that changed with the advent of online games where multiple players could compete simultaneously.

However, even through these changes, the basic controller signaled a particular interface with the machine. The relationship between the player and the game was highlighted. You could select from certain options and start the game. Sony's redesign shifts that relationship to one among a community of gamers. With a quick press of a standard button, gamers can share their experience with others through short screencaptures and broadcasts.

So what does this have to do with pedagogy? More than you'd initially think. My particular preferences as a gamer got me thinking about this shift and the design considerations that will surely follow. While pedagogues may not focus on these considerations, video game designers have made it a focus of significant study. Damien Schubert -- the lead designer of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game Star Wars: The Old Republic -- made it the focus of his 2011 Game Developer's Conference presentation. In designing for a game genre that by definition brings many people together, how can we still make space for the "lone wolves"?

At least in gaming, I happen to be one of those loners. I have a handful of Playstation Network friends who never hear from me, as I prefer to game alone. And I think World of Warcraft is boring. There, I said it. I'm sure other gamers will say that WoW really gets good after you begin raiding with others, but I just don't prefer that kind of experience. And game designers know that there's enough people similar to me that they should design with us in mind.

The same can be said for our classrooms. Digital Media production invites collaboration, as it can be too complex for a single student's workload. However, not all students thrive with those constraints. We should be careful to nudge students outside of their comfort zones, but also be mindful of the lone wolves out there. Not all students' careers will require them to collaborate often, and some web technologies are allowing us to work together, yet separately.

One way I mitigate these different learning styles is to design unit projects with options -- students can opt for simpler, individual projects, or for more complex group projects. The pull of the larger projects tends to be their "wow" factor. Some students would just prefer to make a video over a static image.

The other way is with something I call "Nelsonslist" (after the classifieds site Craigslist). I ask students to post on the course wiki a brief introduction to both their current digital media skills and skills they'd like to pick up. Students are then invited to network with others of similar interests. Over three years, it's worked quite well. Some students form affinity groups while others express their desire to work alone.

Though Web 2.0 technologies encourage us to share more and more of ourselves online, we can't assume all who participate in these communities enjoy posting their meals, high scores, and random thoughts. Lurkers make up an important part of those ecosystems, and we'd do well to keep them in mind when designing assignments.


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