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Better Game Studies Education the Carcassonne Way

Following Noah’s lead, I thought I’d post the extended abstract and ask for comments on my upcoming DiGRA paper.  This is joint work with Noah as well as Sri Kurniwan at UCSC.


As game education programs grow, educators face challenges bringing formal study of games to students with varied backgrounds.  In particular, educators must find ways to transition students from viewing games as entertainment to exhibiting deeper insights.  One approach is to expose students to a wider variety of games, particularly German-style board games.  We hypothesize that greater familiarity may lead to improved understanding of game mechanics and test this hypothesis with a study involving students in an introductory game design class.  Initial analysis of the results shows increased understanding and changes in the student’s view of games.  From this we may suggest directions for future research and game education pedagogy.


Introductory computer game design students have difficulty transitioning from being fans to scholars of games [9]. Indicative of this is a tendency to describe games by genre or theme rather than core game mechanics [8].

Hunicke et al. suggest the aesthetic level is the most visible to players [3].  This is particularly true in computer games, since the machine performs the execution of game mechanics, while board games players execute the game mechanics themselves.  Sicart argues understanding of game mechanics is core to the formal study of games [6].  Woods argues the social nature of board gaming fosters a more reflective atmosphere for deeper understanding [7].  Hands-on study of non-computer games is used in game design courses, increasing student’s engagement and understanding [1, 5].

German-style board games are characterized as having simple rules and innovative mechanics. We hypothesize that students exposed to this type of game may exhibit greater understanding of game mechanics than students who are not.  We also predict they will apply this understanding to their study of computer games.

Study Design

We conducted a study on students in an introductory game design class, recruiting an intervention group of volunteers to participate in a 1 hour seminar that met 8 times.  These students played and discussed several German-style games selected to represent a range of game mechanics and variations on those mechanics.  All are considered gateway games, i.e., good introductions to the genre for novice players.  These are listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Games used in study




Bohnanza Uwe Rosenberg Set Collection, Negotiation
Carcassonne Klaus-Jürgen Wrede Tile Laying
Pillars of the Earth Michael Rieneck, Stefan Stadler Worker Placement
Puerto Rico Andreas Seyfarth Economic
Ra Reiner Knizia Auction
Settlers of Catan Klaus Teuber Set Collection, Economic
St. Petersburg Bernd Brunnhofer Card Drafting
Ticket to Ride Alan R. Moon Set Collection, Route Building
Transamerica Franz-Benno Delonge Route Building

Our survey questions assess understanding of computer game mechanics and familiarity with German-style games.  A control group was formed from the students whose surveys indicated the least familiarity with German-style games.  Sample questions are shown in Table 2.  Students took the survey twice: at the beginning and end of the class.  Difference in responses between the initial and final surveys show the change to the student’s understanding of game mechanics.

Table 2: Sample survey questions

Design a player aid for a computer game of your choosing. What information would a novice need to play the game?
Describe how you would create a board game version of a First Person Shooter [2]
Pick a game where the story is an important part of the playing of the game. Name the game and describe it without making reference to the story.

We are analyzing the survey responses using systematic text analysis [4].  Initially, categories of possible responses are formed inductively from the theoretical background.  As the survey responses are observed, the categories are revised, resulting in a coding that combines the existing theory with empirically derived insights.  Initial results show the intervention group’s responses are consistently in categories indicating greater understanding.


We have described a study to show the effects of familiarity with German-style board games on students in an introductory game design class.  Initial results of this study show a difference in understanding of game mechanics between the intervention group and the control group.  From this result we encourage game educators to include more hands-on exposure to German-style games in their courses.


  1. Brathwaite, B., and Schreiber, I. (2009). Challenges for Game Designers. Boston, Massachusetts: Course Technology.
  2. Fullerton, T. (2008). Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, 2nd Edition. Burlington: Morgan Kaufman.
  3. Hunicke, R. & LeBlanc, M. & Zubek, R. (2004) MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf.
  4. Mayring, Philipp (2000). Qualitative Content Analysis. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 1(2).
  5. Ryan, M. (2007) Eleven Programmers, Seven Artists And Five Kilograms Of Play-Doh: Games For Teaching Game Design. 2007 Australasian conference on interactive entertainment,   Melbourne, Australia.
  6. Sicart, M. (2009) Defining Game Mechanics. Game Studies 8:2
  7. Woods, S. J. (2009). (Play) Ground Rules: The Social Contract and the Magic Circle. Observatorio (OBS*) Journal 3(1)
  8. Zagal, J., Bruckman, A. (2007), GameLog: Fostering Reflective Gameplaying for Learning. Proceedings of the 2007 ACM SIGGRAPH Symposium on Videogames, San Diego CA, 31-38.
  9. Zagal, J.P., Bruckman, A. (2009) Novices, Gamers, and Scholars: Exploring the Challenges of Teaching About Games.  Game Studies 8:2.

This is just a very general, high-level description of the study, as that’s all we had room for in the abstract submission. The final paper will have much more in-depth discussion of the study and analysis of the data.

Some selected reviewer comments:

  • The paper could be improved by providing references and validity for similar surveys (methodology and analysis) used generally to demonstrate effectiveness of various educational interventions.

Anyone know of any?  I consider Zagel et al.’s various game studies education to be related work, but they didn’t do any studies of this nature.

  • a key area to expand in the full paper is demonstrating the importance of understanding game mechanics for game designers

Again, I can refer to the related work, in this case Sicart’s papers, Fullerton’s book, Brathwaite and Schreiber’s book.

  • I am not completely convinced of whether German board games are better than “non-German” board games.  This should have been incorporated into the study (perhaps as the control).

Not sure of the best response to this.  Early in the study design we decided to narrow the focus to German-style games.  The original plan was to do a wider variety of table top games, including RPGs, traditional card games, etc., but that jsut seemed to broad.  I suspect thsi is related to the previous point – we have to argue that German-style games are fundamentally about mechanics, and that understanding mechanics is crucial for game designers.

Any comments/thoughts/advice are appreciated!

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