The New School

Back to Basics


My students shuffle into my Counter-Strike level design course here at UC Berkeley.

Today we’re play-testing a student’s final project, the culmination of a semester’s worth of design theory. We’ve discussed map layout iteration, real-world architecture and timing the counter-terrorists’ route to Bombsite B. Now this student has a chance to show what he’s learned and impress his classmates. His level loads …


… and we’re immediately treading water in a vast, featureless rectangle of ocean adorned with a lopsided pirate ship parked next to an impossibly tall lighthouse, all bathed in the same dim gray light because he forgot to point the sunlight downwards. There are no buy-zones, hostages or bombsites, because he forgot those, too. Some players are stuck inside walls, while the lucky few individuals gifted with movement wander aimlessly, knifing at shadows until the sight of the lighthouse mysteriously crashes the game and boots them to their desktop. It’s virtual purgatory.

“Well, if it crashes the game, then just don’t look at the lighthouse,” the student helpfully advises us. Thousands of miles away, DaveJ sheds a single tear.

At that moment, I felt what many game developers feel when a play test goes horribly wrong, similar to the stages of grief: First you deny it happened, then you blame the player/student and then you finally accept responsibility and start trying to fix it.

What Went Wrong

UC Berkeley has no formal videogame design curriculum, so as part of a special education program called DeCal that allows students to develop and facilitate courses for their peers, I decided to leverage my background as a modder to teach level design. (The notorious UC Berkeley StarCraft course is also one of these DeCals.)

I thought I did everything right. We contemplated the alleys of de_inferno and why no one ever plays de_piranesi. We even covered the hot industry buzzwords and design practices: the anatomy of meaningful play and intentionality, the importance of emergent player narrative – all the popular high-level game design theory relevant to Counter-Strike.

Apparently the students didn’t care about that stuff. They were typical gamers with no intention of pursuing a career in videogame development, but as their instructor I had to make the occupation appear accessible and attractive.

I wanted my students to appreciate the simplicity of the routes in de_dust, the elegant way the bridge in de_aztec looks risky and also plays riskily, how form fits function and how designers control both, orchestrating a beautiful ballet of controlled chaos.

I saw my class as a game design problem. Players want to climb the boundary cliff they’re not supposed to climb instead of running the ball to score a touchdown; likewise, students wants to construct a game-crashing, impossibly tall, anatomically suggestive structure instead of wondering why that’s such a terrible idea. As a designer, you could put a fence on top of that cliff to communicate that’s not an option – or somehow remove the ability to jump around in the first place.

The joys of 3-D construction and world creation weren’t exactly the focus of this course anyway. Worse, they seemed to be getting in the way of analyzing and practicing design. So I removed the pesky distraction of 3-D graphics and went back to the basics.

Starting from Scratch

This semester, I began running an “outdoor game design” course. Instead of huddling together in a computer lab, students collaborate in small groups, designing games to be played outside on the UC Berkeley campus. The games often feature diverse mechanics: blending in with crowds to deliver secret documents, swapping cards to become the richest divorcee, running back and forth to dodge a zombie gauntlet, etc.

And now, simply put, sometimes I can’t get the students to shut up. Each week offers a new debate as students propose new rules and insist that we remove others. With new games come new arguments and discussions: Is it cheating if you pass the secret documents to a stranger? Why is the “hopping on one foot” rule so genius? Should the octopus wait five seconds or 10 seconds?


Now the students are actually thinking; now they’re critically analyzing game design and engaging one another, unlike in the Counter-Strike level design course. Here’s why:

Higher-order thinking. The change in scope, from level design to game design, actually challenges students’ assumptions. I found that seasoned Counter-Strike players already had their own conception of the game and were ambivalent about adopting a more critical design vocabulary.

Logistics and class pacing. With the larger shift to game design, a semester-long workshop in digital games quickly becomes impractical, since it encouraged an emphasis on graphics and an arms race for visual fidelity rather than critical game design experimentation.

Graphics only confused students, convincing them they had to simulate the world in some realistic way – by building a (somewhat) recognizable pirate ship, for example, rather than focusing on how the players navigate that pirate ship – and without the distraction of having to virtualize real-life locations, students focus directly on analysis and criticism.

Playing outside is more teachable. When a Counter-Strike level is poorly designed, the core mechanics of the first-person shooter genre act as a safety net to create new mini-games: dueling with knives, trying to jump off the cliff first, etc. Faced with something we all recognize as simply awful, players improvise, spontaneously creating their own type of fun in place of team-oriented bomb defusing.

But when an outdoor game is poorly designed, it creates a tangible stench in the air as players scatter like chickens, breathtakingly confused, before finally losing that last shred of motivation and just standing there with a blank stare. Since students design the core mechanics themselves, there’s no “safety net” – failure is obvious, frequent and embarrassing, especially when it’s face to face in a classroom. It’s blissfully awkward.

Playing outside is just … well, better. The act of playing outside possesses a certain immediacy and sense of agency that can’t be captured by videogames, a tangible, tactile feeling that gameplay is a real activity, not some bizarre thought experiment. You can use an awkward combination of keyboard keys and mouse movements to simulate the act of walking and looking, but why not cut out the middleman and just walk and look outside as we all do so already?

Instead of lecturing on de_dust, play Capture the Flag outside on a college campus. Sneaking among the trees highlights sight lines and cover. Sprinting up the stairs shows the importance of elevation and higher ground. Guarding a pedestrian bridge emphasizes the strategic value and cost of chokepoints.

The Future of Game Design Education

I believe game design is inherently interesting to everyone, even those with no interest in digital game development, because everyone plays games: Solitaire, football, Sunday afternoon bingo, beer pong, Monopoly, pinball, Grand Theft Auto – we are all players of some sort. Thus, it only makes sense for games education to be equally as inclusive.

Currently, the vast majority of game developers and educational institutions wrongly ghettoize a game design education to a small contingent of computer science students when some of the most talented designers in my class study biology or architecture.


We need to promote this idea of “gaming literacy,” that games exist on a vast 4600-year-old continuum from non-digital to digital. Games are older than film and older than the novel. Designers should be well-versed in this tradition.

The professor sponsoring my class would often talk about that singular moment when they see a spark of comprehension in a student’s eyes, when “it clicks,” when the student seems to see those green scrolling strings of binary code at the end of The Matrix.

It’s when, during the first outdoor games workshop session, everyone is talking loudly about their games except one oddly silent group huddled in the corner. You walk over to investigate and see them trading small slips of paper. Passing notes in class, tsk! But when you look closer, you suddenly realize they’re actually prototyping their game, even though you haven’t introduced the concept to them yet.

That’s when you smile, like a proud mother watching her child’s school bus pull away from the stop on his first day of class. They just grow up so fast, you know?

Robert “Campaignjunkie” Yang designs levels and weird pretentious art-house mods for Half-Life 2. You should play them. In his spare time, he’s also an undergraduate English student at UC Berkeley.

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