Write about games, Melos! (#1, “Teaching”)

Welcome to my weekly or biweekly ‘column’ that I will definitely make it past installment 1 where I try to casually write about some aspect of game design or games. Or maybe just what I ate for lunch… This time I’m talking about my part-time experience teaching game design/music to college art students from 2016-2019!

Starting Out

It’s September in Tokyo and it’s not that hot anymore! August was horrible… but my electricity bill was worse. Maybe electricity companies conspire to give Japanese apartments horrible insulation… sigh. Oh. Even the Ocean came out on consoles (PS4, XB1, Switch) a few weeks ago. It’s cause for celebration! Oh wait, I can barely go out to meet people… okay, maybe it’s just time for a parking lot party with two people. Um… ETO coming out got me thinking back to its original release, 4 years ago, at the end of 2016. Ah… it must have been an overly relaxing time for me. Why?

Well, I was in Taipei in August 2016 (4 years ago! agh! pain!) and my friend William (creator of Manifold Garden) texted me about getting an offer to teach game design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (aka “SAIC”. It’s an arts college in downtown Chicago.) William was too busy with Manifold Garden so he asked if I’d be interested. Sitting at a window, enjoying some A/C and a cold milk tea, looking at a misty jungle after the afternoon summer rains, with the release of Marina and I’s nearly 3.5 year development time game in sight… I said “sure!” The department head then e-mailed me.

Before I knew it I had to reinstall Skype to do a brief interview, but I was basically hired on the spot, despite having no teaching experience. I know you might be thinking “hey, wait a minute,” but it’s not like that! You see, the part-time game lecturer market doesn’t have that many applicants at any given time.

Qualifications to teach

First, there’s a matter of qualification. This position required teaching Unity 3D, so the teacher obviously has to make games, which is uncommon, but further it’s limited to designers who also program, since you have to teach the program to first-time students. Second, they have to be interested in teaching! While a good number of developers make tutorials, the subject of teaching is an entirely different level of obligation. Third, they have to be willing to put up with low pay. Part-time lecturers at art schools, if you were wondering, don’t make much money (at least in my eyes, given the prerequisite skills!). And if you’re a programmer, uh, you can make a lot more…

Er, fourth, you have to live in Chicago! Oh wait, right, fifth, you also need to be looking for work. I helped hire a few other lecturers after I joined SAIC, and I know a handful of cases in which one or two of these conditions were not true and they couldn’t take the job. Most game designers who code are working somewhere and too busy!

Moreover there’s pretty much no consistent way to do outreach for applicants (I would help hire a few people later on, through mailing lists and networks)… oh, and myself getting hired was last minute because the guy before me quit out of the blue. I like to think my experience at that point was enough, but if you look at the context, it was probably I was hired more out of necessity (I actually applied two years before to no response, hehe). I mean, I wasn’t totally unqualified, but still…

Well, I had like two or three weeks to create a syllabus, so I panicked and e-mailed past teachers of the course for ideas and their syllabi. Somehow, despite only briefly knowing how to use Unity 3D, things still went okay. Actually, looking back on it, that’s unacceptable! What the heck, me! Teaching a college course without being well-versed in the engine they’re using? Well, when I applied I said “I don’t know that much Unity.” I did not lie. I was told it’d be fine. Besides, I decided that half of the course would be playing and analyzing games, so I should be able to get up to speed with Unity given my coding background (and I did, eventually…) Two or three chaotic weeks later… wow, I’m going to college! Again! I looked like a college student. I mean, I still do… *smile* *smile*

Teaching at SAIC

I started in Fall 2016 and would teach at least one class every semester until Spring 2019, when I quit (for a mixture of reasons I still haven’t fully come to a conclusion on), finished Anodyne 2, and moved to Japan. I taught “Experimental Game Design” 5 times (I designed the syllabus) and “Video Game Music Composition” twice (a course I both proposed and designed).

But if I talk about those things – planning, teaching, etc… – I will never finish this essay so we’re going to skip all of it! The focus is supposed to be about how this relates to game development or something…

But, okay, what’s teaching like, then? Well, let me remember some of the minutia that isn’t about teaching!

Very cold, very quiet mornings. When I reminisce on Chicago I think about the summer or early fall, but really it’s mostly cold… I’d often have to wear boots and then I’d change into shoes once I got to class. Waiting for the Metra Electric train (I lived in a half college/half residential neighborhood called Hyde Park). The cold air, coming back in the evening as the sun set, hoping the train would stop at a position on the platform a bit closer to my exit. The wi-fi cutting out at Millenium Station, where I’d sometimes board. Picking up snacks at the gas station on the way home. Crossing the 6-lane road to the train station when it’s completely snowed over. Buying the 10 of the wrong ticket for the train. Seeing someone at the train platform who totally went to college with me but I didn’t really know who they were…

Reader: “Where is this going…”

Having to draft marketing tweets as I eat breakfast, sending them out in the moments before class starts as the students trickled in. Handling work e-mails during lunch break. Calling maintenance because our room was always too cold or too hot…

The students who sometimes ate greek yogurt in our room without ventilation while watching YouTube during lecture. Browsing the Korean family-run snack store at Van Buren St. Metra Station for red bulls or candy… wearing the same grey wool pants every day because it was way too cold. Putting up fliers for my classes to attempt getting full enrollment. Walking to the water fountain. Walking back from the water fountain.

Reader: “What happened to the essay…”

The second door at the Walgreens always being broken, the Panda Express line being too long. Being able to visit the Art Institute for free during lunch. Trying to make it to the bus to get home earlier. Waiting in an art store while it’s freezing while waiting for the bus to come. Running into – or avoiding – students who happen to be at the bus stop. Running into students while eating tacos. Running into students while going to get water. Drinking barley tea in class. Praying the projector works. Debugging students’ code.

Reader: “Melos I want to know what teaching’s like, not this crap!”

Ah… but it’s more fun for me to ramble off these things!!

What is teaching actually like!

Well, the teaching I did was me and 12 students agreeing to meet somewhere for a fixed amount of time to communicate with the hope of one gaining knowledge. For my courses, everyone is interrupting their lives for 7 hours (these classes were literally 6 hours a day, once a week, with a lunch break). Students were overworked, they were tired, they were giggly, they were excited, absent, sick, willing to learn, bored, worried. Students certainly did learn game design, basics of programming to various extents. The varied success could be chalked up to my lack of teaching experience, but it’s also the context of the class itself. In that mix of conditions – students having to take so many classes, game design being very broad to teach – it was fortunate that students did manage to make games! I think college, or school, is run very strangely and generally students should be taking fewer, more intense classes so they have time for their life and time for learning. Otherwise they’re just stressed out and get sick…

When I taught, my abilities and weaknesses as a game designer really came to light. Of course there’s stuff I’m good at. “Oh yeah, I am good at programming!” But also there’s stuff like “Well I don’t know much about shaders though…” There’s a lot of doubt – what qualifies someone to teach game design?

But I also realized that I obviously can’t teach “everything” about game design, so I had to laser focus on what I really wanted to pass down with the limited time I had. I mean I think some things still ended up being kind of overly general out of necessity, but… my teaching focus was on wide exposure to varieties of games (mainly Indie), and giving some tools to analyze those experiences. This was limited by students sometimes being too busy to play even one game or read an article, due to SAIC’s coursework demands. A student might have thought they were going to learn how to make an MMO, but no! You’re going to code teleports in Unity and play Oikospiel!

I did teach how to make games, but I really wanted to teach how to begin to look at games critically… not just design-wise, but also the political contexts. Because to me, that’s more important, and the mechanical skills of making the game come with time and grinding. And you can kind of figure that out on your own time if you want to, but you can’t easily find a game designer lecturing and talking with you and 11 others for 3 months.

I also taught coding fundamentals in Unity and made a set of simple exercises that I hoped would make it easier to play a game and be like “Oh, okay, maybe that’s how that works…” When I learned game-making, revealing that curtain, bit by bit, through programming forum posts on how to shoot a bullet or change levels – those fed into how I perceived and played games.

Anyways, those approaches… kind of worked. My evaluations were generally positive (thanks!) with reasonable complaints. I could have done better. But I was busy myself, too… (aren’t we all…) Also teaching is acting in some ways and it would take a lot out of me to be very enthusiastic in ways that I feel my most memorable teachers were. I don’t think I could reach that level… at least not in the context I was in.

On Music

The idea about focusing on something specific applies to teaching game music. I’m not technically skilled at things like mixing, mastering, or music theory. But I have a strong intuition and focus on the process of ideation for game music: I focused on thinking of game music as a problem in which you solved by finding lots of reference music and then using elements of them to drive your direction for a song. I focused on listening to music actively and making internal lists of emotions and images evoked, and analyzing why we have those images and what kinds of experiences may have informed those images forming (popular media? nostalgia? experience and chance?)

Of course, this was an issue when some students needed help on learning to pen melodies, or some students wanted to learn how to get into the industry, or write technical-sounding music, and I just could not help that much, as it came through experimentation and practice to me! But I did make my class fun (if a bit repetitive), I made prompts of game music and had students write the song, and we’d listen to all the songs each week and discuss it! I imagine that would have been nervewracking, but I did that a bit in school myself and it was very beneficial.

Just one teacher

In game music and game design, there were many things I couldn’t teach, couldn’t do – especially as there was not really a games curriculum at SAIC. I’m just one teacher (there were a few others, but in DIFFERENT DEPARTMENTS!!!)

But just like making an indie games, it’s this limited capacity that I think makes for a special experience. To me, art school classes – as a student – the real opportunity there to me is being able to work with an “expert” (haha, am I an expert? Hmm…) for 15 weeks, getting to see this ‘Melos Han-Tani’ weekly, and ask him whatever questions. Then he rambles about game design ideas, rambles too long about some game that was assigned, talks too long about programming that even he gets lightheaded, tries to lead a discussion… and that strange combination of things he decided to teach, somehow that hopefully becomes memorable.

Share knowledge!

I think game developers (or people in general!) should continue to share knowledge to the capacity they can… detailed notes on production, approaches to problems. In casual blog posts like this! Or elaborate video tutorials if you have the time. Releasing a game is great, but going a step further is even better.

Trying to teach Unity in 2016 got me motivated to make All Our Asias in 2017. Likewise, wanting to gain more experience got me motivated to make Anodyne 2 in 2018 and 2019. It all feeds together nicely like a loop…

The teaching experience got me to think about teaching within my game design practice generally. I like to think about what I want to pass down to other developers, fans, players.

Game making is being a part of a small history: I’m creating something with the hope it becomes a part of someone’s life in some way through the ideas it addresses and places it leads to. I’m creating something in response to my ‘game design ancestors’, learning from them but also expanding on them in ways they didn’t or couldn’t do. I’m creating something for future games: reference points for future game designers to look back to.

And teaching, or talking about the games you make actively, giving details, behind-the-scenes, open-sourcing a game, answering questions on a Discord candidly, letting you go out of bounds with a swap or a magic car… that’s all a part of teaching, in a way…! If I’m going to hyperfocus on this one strange medium of human creation, then I believe I may as well do it in a way where I can try to somehow share that knowledge.

Okay, time to go play Final Fantasy 14… (doing these posts is inspired by past Naoki Yoshida’s biweekly column series on FF14…)