How I Applied Game Design to Teaching
In the Australian Spring of 2014, I began work at Evocca. Richard Hill, a close friend, and the first developer I met in Australia recommended I come in for an interview. My position would be Distance Game Tutor. My resume didn't hold any impressive education credentials, but I already had a long history of indie game development. That was good enough.
Upon starting I made the mad dash towards attaining my TAE (Cert IV in Training & Assessment). Evocca's focus on second-chance students struck a chord with high school drop outs, youth struggling with social and mental health issues, and middle-aged people who had previously given up on their passion in pursuit of providing for their families. These were demographics I did not have a lot of experience with, so I attended additional mental health support seminars to further develop the toolkit required to support my students.
Problem Statement: Our course focused on teaching the general aspects of all departments of game development; modelling, design, programming, audio, and writing. Students were not given the opportunity to work on a game until the very end of the course. As our course was online, students often created their portfolio projects in isolation. This is not how game development usually works, even in Australia's indie sector. In addition to this, most of our students struggled with confidence and interpersonal skills. Most of them only ever played AAA games, and had skewed ideas of what the development process looks like. How do we overcome the afformentioned hurdles?
By day I worked with students to help them study. By night, I applied my game design background to improve the institution's academic structure, and reshape our weaknesses into strengths.
Richard had been promoted as my Team Leader, and with his support, we pioneered new programs to improve student participation, instigate project work, and help them study games.
Game of the Month Club:
All of our students held a deep love of video games but struggled to analyze the craft in a meaningful way besides vomiting up inflammatory criticism they saw Let's Players, Live Streamers, and hyperbolic Game Reviewers spew. Game of the Month Club was an attempt to push students to play games they wouldn't otherwise play, and to develop the skills required to discuss the medium thoughtfully.
To create a conversational platform to discuss these games, I went to social media! Evocca was spending time and energy developing an in-house social media platform for students. I believe you should go where your audience is, not demand they come to you.
I created Skype and Facebook forums for students. Daily design and modeling challenges were posted to keep participation and professionalism high. I promoted positive and hard working students to moderate activity.
These channels turned the online course into a classroom setting where students could interact with their peers. Students struggling with mental health issues could participate at their own pace and make supportive friends. It took a lot of time and energy to make these forums positive and productive places, but the resulting atmosphere was uplifting for students and tutors!
Evocca Game Jams: While Evocca had decent course material, there was a lack of 'true' Game Development. Students spent too much time working on individual assets, models, or levels. The coursework didn't tie things together into a complete project until the final few months of study.
When I was studying game development, I was told that the first 10-20 games I made would likely be terrible. With Richards support and programming, we set out to run game jams on a regular basis. For most of our students, these jams provided the first opportunity to actually develop a game! Most of the Jams took place with tutors working weekends, running workshops, and creating tutorials to empower students!
Game Jams were a huge success. Students were able to get some perspective on how messy game development can be, how and where bugs can occur, and what a MVP looks like.
Other Systems: We experimented several other systems; gamifying coursesework, automating tutor paperwork to encourage more time with students, in-office team building exercises, tutor skill-sharing, mental health support training, and post-graduation portfolio guidance. However, for the sake of this post already going longer than expected I'll be brief. We fought hard to make the lives and experiences of students in the course a better one. As much as I enjoyed teaching, my passion was focused on problem solving.
Anyone who has spent time teaching knows the world of academics is one of chaotic bureaucracy. There are endless problems to solve. Only time, energy, and a bit of paperwork will slow you down.
End of an Era: I celebrated my first anniversary with Evocca as a rising name on the map among upper management and the New South Whales tutor team. I championed the students and fought for positive change within our existing structures and content format. There was talk that the company was looking to carve out a new position specifically for me. The role would involve a stronger focus on innovation and academic UX.
Each month after that I would hear from management. "Any day now, we're in the final stages of confirming a budget and support for the role." I continued to run programs and start new student-focused initiatives. However, my efforts had become so commonplace that I was no longer receiving the same support from management I had in the past. Even while solid stats backed up the benefits of these programs, my projects began to fall on deaf ears.
Silently, people began to disappear around the office. Originally, they were the silent wallflowers, or people away on leave. It wasn't until early 2016 that we discovered that the company had been systematically and silently laying off tutors.
In April 2016, the company sacked 200 employees. The game instructors on our team were all spared. The tremendous work we put in meant someone in upper management had apparently intervened to protect us. New management took over the team, and we were all sent to work from home. New KPI and tracking metrics were set up, and morale slumped.
It became clear that dedicating my time to extra-curricular initiatives was detracting from my ability to hit KPI. With morale low, and layoffs seemingly awaiting those who lagged behind, I had to put my passion projects to the side and focus on forcing students to churn through assessments as fast as possible. I was burnt out, students were burnt out, and my team was exhausted.
Just before I left Evocca, the game department became its own entity and rebranded as Art Intelligence. Things were beginning to improve. The course was updating to include new game dev software, we were discussing game jams again, and tutors were starting to feel more optimistic about the direction the company was heading.
Ultimately, visa issues pulled me away from Art Intelligence. I fought tooth and nail to make the course great for students and to make life easier for my fellow tutors. Despite the hurdles Evocca has faced, I believe Art Intelligence will stabilize and thrive in the way I had pushed Evocca to.
Evocca was, after all, my first full-time employment. It was an absolute pleasure to work during the good times, and it was a very eye-opening experience about corporations, academics, and myself when things were rough. I'm proud of the positive mark I hope I left on the company and my peers. I'm sure I will return to academics again someday, but for now, I'd like to spend time in trenches of the industry I love.
Thank you for reading.