Chris Stuart, Clemson University
Creating the Roll for Student Initiative Series
Creating the Roll for Student Initiative Series has been filled with ups and downs over the last two months. My proposal stated that this series would be three to four games which would cover various professional development areas that graduate students often need help with in their academic careers: taking PhD level classes, conferencing, navigating the job market, and teaching development. At the alpha stage, I have revised drafts of both the PhD level class simulation and conferencing. Both were play tested at least five times to varying outcomes, which I will detail in this essay.
This series started with the creation of “The Conference Experience” at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in 2017. This game started as a game jam submission for The Council for Play and Game Studies where I worked with Josh Wood and Dan Frank to create a virtual CCCCs experience. This was the foundation I started with, but the game has evolved beyond just the experience of CCCCs into a professional development pen and paper game that became the inspiration for the other games in the series. This initial game was created over the course of an hour after several days of the conference (without playtesting), but the new alpha version of the game was built nearly from the ground up over the course of about 12 hours. When I changed a section, a mechanic, or the point system, I would play through a couple sequences to see if the game functioned as I intended it to.
“The Conference Experience” is a dice rolling pen and paper game that conflates the random number generation of the dice rolling with the unpredictability of the conference experience. Anyone that has attended an academic conference knows that you can only plan for so much at a conference. The concept of transtextuality, or a text (read here as “game”) that is giving meaning to or from a contextualized situation, is of paramount importance for the purpose and intended audience of this game series. The Roll for Student Initiative Series’ purpose is professional development for graduate students, so “The Conference Experience” needs little introduction or setup to understand how uncertainty works with the dice rolling mechanic. Costikyan (2013) claims most game designers don’t think about uncertainty because they are working within genres that rarely deviate from the norm. He explains that we need to take a careful look at where it lies, especially if we are trying to isolate specific aspects of a player experience. He lists a line of questions which I focused on when designing this game series: “What uncertainties does the player face? Are they sufficient to make the game challenging, at a level of challenge that is appropriate for the audience? Are they the kinds of uncertainties that are likely to appeal to the game’s intended audience?” (p. 106). This series, and “The Conference Experience” especially, uses this uncertainty and failure contextualized through transtextuality between the graduate experience and the game, which brings reflexive play to the forefront.
The first draft of “The Conference Experience” was designed to give the player an experience of attending sessions and battling fatigue along with networking in hallways on the way to panels. The first two playtesters claimed to love the feeling of agency they had with choosing certain actions and rolling dice, but felt that it was missing many different aspects of the conference such as going to lunch, choosing to network with scholars, and other conference activities. I implemented some new choices, such as the exhibit hall and lunch, but I’m still trying to figure out how to implement other requested mechanics, such as finishing your paper on time, going out at night, and comprehensive workshops. After ten playthroughs in total, I think the game has balanced out to something that can be picked up and played in a relatively short time without much knowledge of pen and paper games, which was the ultimate intention.
So far, through the alpha testing, the feedback has been mostly positive. It is important to note that all playtesters were at two conferences: The Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) with one tester, and the Children’s Literature Conference (CHLA with nine testers. One recent graduate stated, “I like this, like, a lot. It really captures the craziness of a conference that most of us don’t think about until we are actually at the conference. I like the choices that you have to make.” Another tester said, “The dice rolling makes me feel like I have control, but only as much control as you can have at a conference.” Most of the players were asking for more choices to make or made suggestions for point values, balancing of risky options, and a point sheet that shows goals to “win.” Three out of the ten playtesters failed miserably with their scores due to bad rolls early on which set them up for disadvantages later one. For instance, one playtester rolled ones for the first two sessions which kept her from gaining any experience points or extra dice for later rolls. Another playtester rolled really well for the first three sessions, but rolled ones and twos for lunch, making them miss the session before their presentation, and also for their own presentation, which made them miss it entirely. These failures were laughed about around the table with people watching on. The playtesters that missed their own panels in the game felt that it was far too easy to miss sessions when it isn’t that common. I did change some of the rolls to make it more likely to attend the panels, but I did remind them of Juul’s (2013) thoughts on failure and that failure helps us learn about possibility, approaches, and the greater understanding of the task at hand. Although they did not enjoy failing at the game, they did walk away with a better understanding that one cannot do everything at a conference without some repercussions.
These feelings of failure bring me into the second game I created, tentatively called “Surviving the Classroom.” Where “The Conference Experience” was to be simply played and understood, “Surviving the Classroom” is far more complicated and gives the player more agency over the results of the game. First, the player needs to assign three character points to the four possible character skills: rhetorical knowledge, labor, focus, and nuance. Each point makes dice rolls higher in their designated categories, but they are used in slightly different scenarios, depending on how the player wants to engage with the game. For the final version of the game, I plan on creating a PDF that will track the points and the changes to the rolls to make the game a bit easier to follow. Each action in the game either increases or decreases one of the three statuses in the game: anxiety, fatigue, and ineptitude. The purpose of the game is to finish the fifteen-week semester with as low of a score as possible in all the statuses. This game has not gone through playtesting with other players yet, but the goal is not to win, but to bring awareness to the difficulty of coursework, the importance of self-care, and that there can indeed be a balance of reading, writing, and mental health.
When the game was first developed, I was trying to finish coursework at the end of the semester and was frustrated with workloads, imposter syndrome, and mental health. Senior students and advisors discussed the importance of balance, time management, and self-care, so I started the framework of this game as an assignment. This game fits within the overall goal of the Roll for Student Initiative Series, especially because of the issues with mental health and graduate students. I want the overall message of this game to be that there is time for self-care (missing classes, not turning in work, and skimming readings) and you can still get through the class. No student can finish a class unscathed, but that is not a representation that is often discussed.
The initial proposal for my game series discussed taking PhD level classes, conferencing, navigating the job market, and teaching development. I want to have a range of playability across the series—the conference one being significantly easier to play than the PhD level class, for instance—but I also want to make sure that the overall message of self-care and professionalization is met. After polling playtesters and others at the conferences, every person that was post job market said they would not want to play a game that would make them relive the market. Every student that was polled that didn’t go on the market yet said they would like to play that one. This is a decision I need to better understand before I move forward with the game. However, my next game in the series will be based on teaching freshmen composition wish a short section on practicum and then teaching a fifteen-week course. This game will not have as complicated mechanics as “Surviving the Classroom,” but it will integrate a bit more agency than “The Conference Experience.”
Costikyan, G. (2013). Uncertainty in games. Cambridge: MIT Press.