C&W 18 Review: “Design Thinking and Game Design: A Productive Relationship for Writing Pedagogy”


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Session C4: “Design Thinking and Game Design: A Productive Relationship for Writing Pedagogy”

Presenters: Sarah Lozier-Laiola, Joy Robinson, Laquana Cooke, Lisa Dusenberry

Review by Elizabeth Jones

The description and title of this roundtable appealed to me not only because it combined two of my interests in composition studies but also because of the emphasis on ambiguity. In my experience, students tend to look for certainties, whether in the expectations of assignments or in assessment, so I hoped to learn about ways to help students to become more comfortable with ambiguity. The moderator/presenters for this panel were well-versed in the areas of digital media and game design. Sarah Lozier-Laiola is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow teaching courses in software design, technical and professional communication, and digital games design/analysis at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Joy Robinson, an assistant professor of technical writing and new media at the University of Alabama – Huntsville calls herself a mediaologist, innovator, and a geek. Laquana Cooke is an assistant professor of digital rhetoric at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and a video game designer. Lisa Dusenberry is an assistant professor with a focus on interactive media at Georgia Southern University.

Before opening up the discussion during this round panel, the organizers presented some of the competing models of design thinking and also invited participants to engage in a design activity. Cooke discussed some of the epistemological shifts in design thinking and asked (via one of the presentation slides) whether design thinking is “Discipline, process, practice, and/or mindset? The sources cited by Cooke include Kimball (2011), who points out that “design thinking” has been used to indicate a cognitive process, a theory, and a tool for other disciplines, particularly business.

Design thinking model

Figure 1. Diagram that expands and combines the steps of the Stanford model of the design process with the three stages of the IDEO model.

After this introduction, the round table moved into an activity called the Extraordinaries Design Studio, which is produced by the same organization that created the popular Story Cubes game. The Creativity Hub, as the presenters of this roundtable noted, focuses on creating products that “foster imagination, empathy, and self-esteem.” This design studio consists of a set of cards displaying people who do extraordinary things and a second deck of cards that depicts various objects or tools to be designed for one of these characters. Some of the options for designs are various articles of clothing or different places, such as a hide-out or simply a place to sit.

Spaceman card from the Extraordinaries Design Studio

Figure 2. Spaceman card from the Extraordinaries Design Studio

In this activity, both presenters and participants at the roundtable paired up and were provided with a double-sided card showing a character in a primary activity on one side and a series of pictures on the other side that provided more background for the character. As shown to the left, my partner and I were given a card depicting a “Spaceman,” an astronaut who appeared to be passionate about both his career and his family. Our assignment for this activity was to design a place for the character to sleep, and my partner and I designed a sleeping tube with padding so that he could sleep comfortable in a zero-gravity environment without having to strap himself into place. After completing designs, each pair presented their character and their resulting design, with an emphasis on the values represented on the character cards. The space for a “seasoned” wizard, for example, included a bubble in which he could rejuvenate and reflect.

As we moved into the discussion, Cooke emphasized that in order to keep the direction of the conversation open-ended, the panel did not intend to make assertions about game design. The questions themselves helped participants to focus on some of the problems unique to the use of game development in writing pedagogy.

  1. How do we prepare the classroom space to support the design thinking activities through game development?
  2. What are the best ways to introduce the ambiguity required for design thinking through game development in the classroom?
  3. How do we infuse productive failure opportunities as an essential part of design thinking in the classroom?
  4. What is the relationship between design thinking and game design, and should this relationship be reimagined/deconstructed for the sake of writing pedagogy?

Each of the questions was presented by a different presenter from the panel in order to set up the discussion. As Robinson introduced the first question, she prompted participants to think about praxis, low-stakes activities, and contrasting the idea of design thinking with rote processes. As she introduced the question about failure, Dusenberry, noted that an important element of using design thinking in classrooms is encouraging students to troubleshoot problems instead of scrapping projects and starting over.

The resulting discussion seemed to capture the essence of design thinking as a process of choosing among possibilities. One of the suggestions was to make design thinking less intimidating by providing students with a half-finished product in order to focus on what would happen next instead of asking them to begin with a blank space. One of the presenters later challenged this idea by arguing for integrating research from the beginning of the process to disrupt the designs and to encourage students not to default to the “tried and true” models of games.

Another problem presented by one of the members of the panel, Lozier-Laiola, was that in designing a board game, her students felt like they had invested too much time in the process. One of the solutions discussed was to ask students to refine existing games by finding the dominant narrative of the game and to then create a different narrative that better reflects their own experiences. One of the problems identified with this approach, however, was that this activity was more likely to reify than to disrupt narratives – a game that traces a hero’s journey might simply do so with a female instead of a male rather than to question the journey itself.

A discussion about the potential of converting an existing simulation about water resources into a game led to important points about the distinction between the topic of a game and its values. Participants agreed that the values of empathy and cultural consequences can be overlooked when considering the mechanics of a game. Although a resource management game would seem like an ideal fit with the topic of water resources, the competing values and goals of the various stakeholders in water systems – farmers, residents, and city managers, for example – might be missed in the process.

In the last few minutes, participants identified some of the justifications for using games in writing classes, such as helping students avoid being “duped” by some of the stereotypes present in popular video games. Perhaps one of the most important reasons presented, however, was to counter the myth that all that is needed for students (or anyone) to create interesting and successful games is to merely provide the tools for development.

About Author

Elizabeth L Jones

Elizabeth Jones is a Ph.D. candidate at Illinois State University with research interests in engagement, design thinking, reflection, multimedia composing, and analog games.

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