Developing Science-based Games with Teens: An AMNH Intern Reflects

J.  Shepard Ramsay was an intern at the AMNH, from NYU’s Program in Digital Media Design for Learning, in our #scienceFTW program. With the conclusion of the program last week (snff snff) I asked Shepard to review his time in the program. Below he talks about the joys and challenges of interning at the Museum, details the process of creating the Pterosaurs: Card Game and the early process of building a new game with students from scratch, and how he grew in the process.

Hello, my name’s Shepard (the one above being all nonconformist and looking to his left) and for the last 5 or so months I have been interning at the American Museum of Natural History in the Education Department under a certain Barry Joseph. Because you’re reading this on his blog, you might assume that I’m sucking up when I say this was maybe the best job that I’ve had, but I am very much not lying. Today is my last day here, so it seemed a good idea to write a little something to wrap up.

I started somewhere around the end of September, railing up against the start of the third semester in my Masters’ program. I make games and am studying game design for learning at NYU, so I was brought on to intern in the #scienceFTW program at the museum—the point of which was to teach educational card game design to students. I like teaching and love game design so it seemed like an exceptionally good fit. Additionally, this museum is one of my favorite places, so that couldn’t hurt. I had the sense that Barry and I would get along very well during my interview (he mentioned Ascension and knew of Netrunner, both personal favorite trading-card-like card games of mine) and I was never disproven.

Starting out, I was doing a lot of recruiting, running around the city to various comics and games stores (none of which proved advantageous to our efforts, but we didn’t know that at the time) trying to entice young people to enroll in our program. The idea was that there was probably a substantial overlap between people who play games and people who want to make games—this is probably true but it wasn’t so in the populations we were looking at. I’ll cut out all the boring details of this process, suffice it to say it had me running around the city and trying to converse with people who generally didn’t want to be bothered. All the while, at the museum I was helping to prepare for the program and participating in meetings surrounding the program as well as the games we were going to make in it.

One of the plans early on was to effectively mod an existing ruleset (Phylo), and tie our mod into the forthcoming exhibit on Pterosaurs. It seemed like this resonated with a lot of individuals in many different departments, which is the story of how that game—one unlike any that I’d normally design or play—consumed my life for several months (more on this later). Also, Nick (game designer extraordinaire) had been conceptualizing designs for what the “final project” for the program would be—spoiler alert, it’s really cool and mostly unlike anything that I’ve seen before. The meetings involving the design of this behemoth project were awesome; at this point I still didn’t really know anyone I was working with too well, so I was kind of surprised (but delighted) that they listened to certain things that I had to say on the matter.

Fast forwarding a bit, after all the pregaming was done for the program (such as requisitioning all of our supplies and setting the tentative schedules for the first several classes), it was time to begin the program for real. We had scaffolded the program to initially teach the core fundamentals of game design and through example (e.g. other science based card games) illustrate how science can be taught through games. Each day we would have a game for the youth to play and critique. The first part of learning how to design is often learning to understand design and developing a vocabulary for it. Maybe the coolest part of all of this is that they were playing with scientists working in the fields each game was exploring.

I enjoyed co-teaching all of these sessions because over-thinking games is always fun (it’s basically my job, it feels like), as well as showing others how to do the same. Between sessions, we were hard at work preparing for the next ones, figuring out the kernel of what we wanted the students to get out of it. We covered everything from how to parse mechanics in games (and figure out its core engagement) to introducing science content non-intrusively and in a way that makes players actually want to engage with the content. This is ultimately some pretty intense game design type material; some of our topics dealt in areas that there’s not a distinct and clean answer to. That said, I felt as if our students handled it extremely well. We had a sharp core group, and they didn’t let the difficulty of the task dissuade them.

Once these opening several sessions were done, it was time for them (and, by extension, me) to start making things. The Phylo game that I had mentioned earlier spiraled into a pretty monumental task, as we had to make sure that all of the science made sense to the best of our ability, and that the science and the game rules played nice together (no pun intended). We had them initially critique the original Phylo game (they had plenty of things to say about it) before beginning to think about how to construct the new version we were developing. A lot of this was spent in spreadsheets looking at numbers and tweaking values, both on individual cards and in the card ecosystem as a whole. The trickiest part of the whole deal, for me personally, was reconciling some of the science we were abstracting with the game (e.g. it’s a game about food chains but we don’t know all of what pterosaurs ate; the weaker creatures are supposed to be plants but we couldn’t find many secondary consumers in the biomes we were working in that ate plants, etc.).

Every game loops through similar cycles of play, tweak, and iterate before being ready for release, and ultimately I think we did a pretty good job with it as a whole. We removed some rules, added a few others, and generally made it a better (read: more interesting and playable) game than what it was when we started on it. Our first test of the pterosaurs game was extremely busted (some cards were not even playable) and the students thought that we had engineered it like that. I found this hilarious, because it’s the process that all games go through. We did manage to fix most of the upsets (thanks in huge part to our students) and make a playable, even moderately fun end product. Now, it’s still not a great game, but that’s what our other prototype is for. And the new design of all the cards doesn’t hurt; they’re gorgeous and have crystal clear information architecture. I came out of this process knowing far more about pterosaurs than I had imagined I would (Tupandactylus imperator is now one of my favorite prehistoric creatures). Yeah I really like prehistoric creatures, something that I had forgotten before starting work at the AMNH.

Throughout this process, the four of us who have been working on this program had been discussing the other game (as of now still untitled). It metamorphosed from something resembling a deck building game to an insane hydra of a semi-collaborative deck building worker placement light euro science party. Even with all of that, the design is pretty elegant, though it does need some work—mostly specific details around how actions resolve, as well as needing some more content, though. Nick has appreciated my input in the design, and has expressed that he sees it as a collaborative design process at this point (hearing him say that made me visibly glow with happiness) and I really love the direction that it’s going in.

The students’ interaction with this project has mostly been in the area of content generation; we provided a sort of structure for them to build up dynamics inside of. A lot of this stemmed from research which we seeded and oversaw, pointing them in directions to explore around the various modules we were including in the game. It focuses on how various exhibits in the museum came to be, delving deeply and specifically into the museum’s history and the expeditions that brought them into existence. It is super awesome that we have the detailed records that we do, as a result figures like Roy Chapman Andrews can become characters in the game (presently he’s a “hero unit” of sorts that gives bonuses when excavating for dinosaurs). We had the students build a few spreadsheets attempting to distil some of the broad facts of the expeditions we were focusing on into gameplay relevant abstractions. This all culminated in a playtest using mechanics that we had devised which interfaced with content the students came up with. It is still super rough, but that’s the game design process and I’m glad they got to see something even earlier in development than the pterosaurs game. Developing a game from scratch is a whole different beast from working within an existing system or rule set, and seeing just how nebulous all of the details are is an important insight, I think.

In hindsight, the main thing that I got out of this internship is kind of strange and requires a bit of explanation. I’ve been designing and making games for as long as I can remember, from dumb pen and paper roleplaying campaigns to more complex, almost euro style games but I have never until recently thought of myself as a game designer. I have never shipped anything (not necessarily for lack of trying, but I’ve run into many bottlenecks that I just didn’t really have the know-how to surpass at the time). Then I started taking game design classes and people began telling me that I inherently knew something on the subject. And then (making this immediately relevant again), at a point during my internship Nick told me that I’m good at what I do. That, in addition to the incremental work that I did with this program, did more than just make me feel nice – it has given me a sense of purpose and identity that I didn’t really have previously. This whole idea of making games to teach things was far less real before, and I think I’m better off now. I can approach new projects with the confidence that I know what I am doing; maybe not in every single way but I’m now certain that I can come to some kind of solution. That’s a good feeling, and really I have Barry and Nick to thank for it. I’ve attained more than simply a few good contacts—this residual effect will change how I approach every project that I work on hereafter. Right now, as I write this, I’m working on another game. I’m going to finish it. It will be awesome.

Today is my last day here, which is really upsetting. We’re showing off all the work the students have done throughout their past 20 sessions and I hope they got something out of it. I also hope that I helped contribute to their learning in some way. It’s pretty tough to consolidate everything that I’ve done and experienced at the AMNH into a such a small blog post and there are things that I am leaving out. However, I hope that this conveys that these last several months have been crazy and wonderful; I’ve met a ton of amazing and dynamic people and have had the chance to do work that I truly love doing in a strange and eclectic place. I will miss it

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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