Game Design and Differentiation
I am well into my first project as a game designer, and I would like to start writing about it more! I will never have this particular experience again, and I'd like to have some good records of what it was like and what I learned from it.
David Thompson and I are currently co-designing a game called Night Witches, a light wargame about the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. This was a Soviet regiment that was active during WWII and made up entirely of female pilots who flew harassment missions along the Eastern Front. Our game has what I feel is a very strong core rule set, and we are now building up the campaign, including interesting missions, upgrades, and--the subject of this post--failsafe measures.
One of the things that is interesting about designing your own game is that you get to know it better than anyone normally would, which warps your perspective of its difficulty level. David and I have a lot of playtesting left to do, but each time one of us demos Night Witches, we are fascinated by how the new player responds to our game. Some people grok it immediately and play in ways that give us a lot of insight into how we will write the rules, or possibly adjust them to account for newly-discovered edge cases. Others, even if they are brilliant people, do not intuitively pick this game up, probably because they are wired for different types of games. And of course, our game has a luck component to it, which means that you can play brilliantly and still have a rough go.
This means that as we build Night Witches, we have to account for a range of players. There has to be enough challenge to satisfy those who figure out how to manipulate our game to the max. But we also need safety nets to catch people who struggle, especially early on when they are still learning the ropes. Games require consequences that correspond with player performance, but you also can't kneecap your players in the first mission and expect them to enjoy (or even bother with) the rest of a campaign.
In my day job, I am a teacher, and this brings to mind one of our most popular educational buzzwords right now: Differentiation. Differentiation gets thrown around a lot, but what it boils down to is that you need to offer a range of ways for students to access the information you are trying to teach, and a corresponding range of ways to show you what they know. The goal is for students who vary in terms of academic performance, interests, special talents, etc. to all be able to learn from you and to demonstrate that they have done so. Depending on how it is treated, differentiation can be amazing for teachers to implement and for students to experience. But it can also come off as extra work, or something to nod at but largely ignore. It can seem impossible to add differentiation to a lesson plan when we already have so much on our plates, so many students with so many individual needs.
But I find that what David and I are doing with Night Witches is, in fact, differentiation--we are making sure that a range of players are able to access and enjoy our game, and that they can approach it in a way that gives them choices about the experience they want to have. We are offering three difficulty levels with VP guidelines to match, but there is also nothing to actually stop players from sticking with a level of their choice. We have had long conversations about how punishing the game should be, how we can keep the experience fun for two players if one plane is having a tough time (Night Witches can be played solo or cooperatively). But this differentiation is aimed at something other than learning objectives--this is differentiation for the purpose of invitation, an attempt to keep players engaged in and enjoying the world we have created.
As a teacher who is asked to differentiate for classes full of diverse students, I think that there is a lot to learn from game design. Educators often talk about student learning as entirely outcome-based. The purpose of the differentiation is the learning objective. Its successful implementation is allegedly revealed in the scores on state exams at the end of the year. However, while learning objectives do matter to us as the adults in the room, they frankly do not matter to the vast majority of students. What students need is to be invited, to be provided with a challenge or with a safety net as the situation requires. Student motivation and engagement are tough subjects to tackle and differentiation is only one aspect of that conversation. But I see the connection between what I'm doing in my off-time and what I am doing at work, and I want to keep reflecting on it.
Of course, games are different because their ultimate goal is engagement/enjoyment, and school isn't usually like that. But I often ask myself why that is. Learning is something that should be approached with joy. Play is also the most natural form of learning, for basically every conscious being in nature. Creating a game is a great reminder of that. I think my life as a game designer will ultimately make me a better teacher, as well.
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My name is Liz Davidson, and I play solo board games. A lot of solo board games...