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Game projects are a cornerstone of DigiPen’s unique approach to education. Or, as freshman-level game project instructor Justin Chambers succinctly puts it, “Game project classes are the secret sauce of DigiPen.”

Each academic year, students form multidisciplinary teams and create video games, applying the lessons learned from their other classes to create original art, programming, design, music, sound, and more. Designed to replicate the environment, structure, and pipeline of a real-world game studio, game project courses are one of the most direct ways students prepare for the industry during their studies. As DigiPen moves towards its new online and hybrid teaching model for the fall, instructors from the Department of Game Software Design and Production have been recalibrating the courses to preserve the game project experience, without jeopardizing students’ health or safety.

One principal area instructors are focusing on is how to create a sense of team cohesion, camaraderie, and unity in an online environment.

“I think the biggest thing has been answering the question: How do we get teams together when we can’t physically get them together?” says Jen Sward, associate dean and principal instructor.

Although Microsoft Teams will be the official platform used for course instruction and group collaboration, one key to fostering a sense of teamwork is encouraging students to use other platforms as well. “What are the best ways we can help people to connect? One way we can help is just not to get in the way,” Sward says. “For instance, I’m not a big Discord user, but students want to use Discord, and it works. So we say, ‘Absolutely! Go for it.’”

Instructors are also keeping, and in some cases potentially expanding, a regular feature of game project courses — lab time. Typically held each week in DigiPen’s Tesla and Edison production labs, lab time is set aside for teams to work together on their projects as professors from various departments walk around and meet with them individually, offering help and evaluating project progress. Since they won’t be able to walk and talk in person, instructors are finding ways to continue those informal lab meetings online. “We chose to add lots of small labs to create opportunities for the first-year students to interact with peers, instructors, and teaching assistants,” Chambers, who also serves as associate dean of articulation and coordination, says. “We will also have lots of breakout discussion sessions and ways to get students chatting as well. [First-year students] absolutely must meet and greet and build relationships that will support them as they progress through their education.”

We normally hire what I’d call a platoon of TAs, around a dozen. This year, we’re hiring a small army.”

For sophomore, junior, and senior-level game courses, lab time will largely look the same. “We’re going to use them for what we’ve always used them for, which is meetings with individual teams,” senior lecturer Ellen Beeman says. “We also have meetings with team leads, so we get all the producers in a room at one time and talk to them about how things are going, what to look forward to, and any challenges they might have so we can help them out — something we also do with design leads and tech leads. We’re still going to use our time that way, and I’m confident we’ll be able to continue that in an online format.”

Another major challenge instructors are addressing is making sure students are supported and keeping up, especially given that game project courses are some of the largest offered at DigiPen.

“It’s the nuts and bolts of, how do we make sure we’re tracking that everyone is doing okay and no one is getting left behind in a class that, combined, is about 200-plus students?” Beeman says.

It’s a sentiment Chambers echoes. “That is easily monitored when you can see teams gathering around campus and working together,” Chambers says. “Moving online, it becomes much harder to know who is engaged.”

One change students will likely see to address the issue is a sizable increase in the number of teaching assistants. “We normally hire what I’d call a platoon of TAs, around a dozen. This year, we’re hiring a small army,” Beeman says. Many student teaching assistants will be hired based on their expertise in specific areas. “So we’ll have technical TAs who you can contact if you need help with graphics programming, a physics TA, a Unity expert, and so on,” Beeman says. In addition to dedicated specialist TAs, Beeman is looking at assigning each team their own general TA as well. “The idea is that every team will have a point person who they know to contact if they need help, in addition to their course instructors,” she says.

The asynchronous approach is that you read, see, or watch the lecture in advance. Then we get together and have a discussion.”

Students will see many lectures in their game project courses shifting to what’s called an “asynchronous” model, a break from the usual classroom setup.

“Rather than me getting up and talking in front of everyone while my slides go by, which we just don’t think is productive in an online setting, the asynchronous approach is that you read, see, or watch the lecture in advance. Then we get together and have a discussion,” Sward says. Instructors may prepare prerecorded lectures ahead of time for students, substituting live discussion time in when lectures would normally be held.

Students may also find themselves preparing the material for live discussion ahead of time, something called the “flipped” model of education. “For instance, for senior teams, I’ll say, ‘Okay, where’s our industry going during this pandemic?’ Then your assignment will be to go find a company that’s changing, study how they’re changing and what they’re doing differently,” Sward explains. “It’s just like getting an assignment, but instead of us just saying, ‘Turn in your homework and I’m going to grade it,’ it’s going to be, ‘Turn in your homework and let’s talk about it.’”

When COVID-19 initially hit Washington state in the middle of spring semester, both models were adopted during DigiPen’s sudden switch to distance learning. Since then, game project instructors have spent the summer refining the approach and improving upon it. “We’re adapting all of that because Zoom fatigue is real. You can’t just sit and watch a whole live lecture online,” Beeman says.

Moving into the new hybrid model this fall, Beeman wants to make sure game project students remember one of DigiPen’s core values above all. “Ask for help,” Beeman says. “Most of our students figure that out pretty quickly, but under the current circumstances, that core value is even more important. The minute you start having challenges that you feel are too much, please come to your teachers, your TAs, or your peers, and ask for help. We’ll be there to help you.”