CS 6955 - Science of Game Design


In this course we will examine the use of computer systems to aid in game design, drawing upon tools of artificial intelligence and operations research. The effectiveness of video games and virtual worlds depends on a precise interplay between a person’s cognition (an inner environment), the game’s controls (an interface), and a fictional universe (an outer environment); the interplay is concerned with attaining design goals by adapting the inner environment to the outer environment. We will explore the way in which that adaptation of environments in games is brought about, which is the central concern of game design. The exploration will primarily involve the analysis, design, development, and validation of computational models that serve as proxies of inner environments, outer environments, and interfaces to help designers construct artifacts aimed at changing a player’s existing actions into preferred ones.


Introduction to computational modeling of the game design process, including modeling anticipated effects of designs on potential players and constructing virtual environments to elicit particular behaviors.

For students with a primary background in computer science: exposure to theories from other disciplines, including: narrative, linguistics, cognitive psychology, and design.

For students with a primary background in design, social science, or the arts: exposure to representing and reasoning over human-centered design knowledge in artificial intelligence and operations research.

Expected Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course, a student will be able to:

Discuss fundamental issues and perspectives surrounding the design of video games and virtual worlds.

Understand how utility theory and decision theory can serve as a logical framework for rational choices among designed alternatives.

Identify the body of techniques for modeling how players make optimal and satisficing decisions in game contexts.

Model how players seek alternatives and outcomes through means-ends reasoning.

Identify opportunities to precisely structure the design of games to elicit specific behaviors from their players.


None, but there will be a term project.


A — 90 - 100%
B — 80 - 89%
C — 70 - 79%
D — 60 - 69%
F — 0 - 59%


Term Project (50%)
Students will be evaluated using a semester-long group project on a topic of their choosing (approved by the instructor). The project is an 8-week student-directed inquiry. By default, a project will consist of building some software that involves the development of novel algorithms relevant to the automated human-centered design and/or evaluation of analog or digital game content based on topics covered in the readings; exceptions will be made for individuals who request to work on a project directly related to their degree that is related to the class content. The 50% is further broken down into the following deliverables:

Project Proposal (15%)
A two-page executive summary of the novel algorithms for the automated human-centered design and/or evaluation of game content, including prior work, proposed approach, potential risks, and options for evaluating the success of your method. Must also include an anticipated breakdown of individual team-member contributions/roles on the project.

Progress Report (5%)
A two-page summary of the team progress.

Completed System (15%)
A demonstration of the system, along with software that has been developed. 
 Must include installation and operation instructions (preferably, the project should 
 contain example inputs with a description of expected outputs).

Final Report and Presentation (15%)
Both (a) a written report that documents your system, presents examples of its use, and analyzes its scientific contributions, and (b) a 15-minute presentation of your report.

Paper Presentation (25%)
During Week 1, students are responsible for signing up to present papers they find interesting. After preferred papers are assigned, the remaining papers will be randomly allocated across the class. Starting on Week 2, students will present their assigned papers. Each presentation is expected to take 15-20 minutes, and students are expected to lead subsequent in-class discussions of the papers they present.

Leading the discussion means:

  1. Familiarizing yourself enough with the paper to be able to answer questions that may come up;
  2. Preparing potential discussion points if the discussion needs prompting.

In-class Participation (20%)
There will be a set of readings assigned for each class meeting. Students are expected to read all assigned readings before the day they appear on the calendar and come prepared to discuss any or all of them. Students must join in discussion about the papers we talk about and bring your own insights to bear on the comments.

Experiment Participation (5%)
A constituent part of the Science of Game Design is the deployment of human-subjects experiments to validate formal theories of design and/or player behavior. As such, it is important to gain exposure to such experiments as part of a curriculum in this field. To satisfy this requirement, you must do one of the following:

  1. Design a research study in a manner suitable for submission to the University’s Institutional Review Board (see: http://irb.utah.edu/submit-application/new- studies/). The study must involve games and can be wholly original or can be a rational reconstruction of a study that has already been published in a peer- reviewed conference or journal.

    1. Participate in an external research experiment (i.e. not “in-class”). Researchers in the School of Computing and the Entertainment Arts and Engineering program conduct experiments during the course of their games research activities. The instructor will make available a list of such experiments that can be used to satisfy this requirement.



Class Details

Term: Spring 2018

Location: M LI 1715

Date and Time: MW / 01:25PM-02:45PM

Instructor: Rogelio E. Cardona-Rivera


Canvas Link




Graduate Standing in the School of Computing, or permission of the instructor.

Note: The focus of the course is interdisciplinary, and I hope to attract students with interest both inside and outside computing / computer science. While the emphasis of this course will be on computational techniques from artificial intelligence, the scope encompasses human-centered theoretical, design, and engineering issues that arise from designing video games. Thus, the course will benefit from the participation of students with diverse disciplinary traditions.


Class format is a combination of seminar and lecture, drawing from texts from artificial intelligence, game design, cognitive psychology, computational narratology, linguistics, narrative and film theory, and sociology. Grading is based on class participation (via discussions and in-class presentation) as well as a term project.


None. All assigned readings will either be made available by the instructor or by the university library.

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