Casey O’Donnell Rants About Teaching “Capstone” Course

Disclaimer: Game Developers Conference (GDC) “rants” are short, intense opinionated talks meant to be provocative, funny, and, most of all, spirited. They often take an extreme position, in order to provoke thought and conversation.

This past week, Dr. Casey O’Donnell delivered a rant over at GDC about teaching the capstone course. What is the capstone course? It’s the final class in the Game Design track here at MSU. Students are placed into teams of 6-8 and then paired with game company clients—such as Stardock, Scientifically Proven Entertainment, Kixeye or others—who work closely with the students. O’Donnell calls it “interning without interning.”

That doesn’t sound so bad, right? What’s the big issue?

Well, as the instructor, O’Donnell has to dole out some hard life lessons, and the students have to take it. After spending several courses in the specialization working on their own game ideas, furthering their own projects, the capstone course changes everything. Students are now working on the client’s ideas, and that is the harsh reality: “Most people in the game industry don’t’ get to work on their own projects. That’s one of the learning outcomes, but do you really want to be that person?” Granted, an important lesson.

RANT: “It isn’t that I hate capstone…I just hate its learning outcomes. I get to teach students things they resent learning. Whoopee!”

Delving deeper into the teams, students learn about themselves. They learn how to manage conflict (or how not to manage conflict), that your product doesn’t always ship, that working with a team of people who aren’t our friends can make you a better person, and of course, that not every project they’ll work on for clients will be awesome.

RANT: “They even have the chance to get fired, without really getting fired. Those are all learning outcomes! But who the hell wants to learn those lessons? Who the hell wants to teach that?”

Even worse than that, O’Donnell feels, is the fact that he can’t expect students to work in lab like a regular 9-6 job because they have other classes and maybe even jobs. This is where the crunch mentality starts to sink in, when students come in at night and on weekends working on their client’s project “internalizing a kind of crunch mentality rampant in the game industry that I abhor,” O’Donnell says. “I can’t make simple interventions that might fight some of the cultural aspects of crunch.”

And as it usually is with learning, students don’t consider time spent with the instructor creating design ideas or having a conversation as learning. It’s just “talking.” “And perhaps the most damning,” O’Donnell says, “they don’t understand that we instructors really do agonize over the structure and complexity of trying to help students learn these things.” This is where O’Donnell’s advice to other capstone instructors emerges: Make a sign post!

Here's that signpost!

Here’s that signpost!

RANT: “When a student has one of those ‘Ah, ha!’ moments in your presence, hold this up. Maybe this one should be the NERF learning gun.

O’Donnell advises calling on the sign posts during moments of learning—whenever you’re sharing knowledge of any kind, offering feedback on design, having an hour-long conversation. He wishes the sign post wasn’t needed, that students would just realize that they’re learning, but they don’t. O’Donnell ends by admitting he doesn’t really hate capstone, he really loves it. He just hates that there are things that “people need to learn but resent being taught…important lessons that will eventually prepare them to be seasoned, jaded game developers.”

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