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A Note to Professors

About those forum-post assignments
by Tom Sloper

Sloper, from "Kindai Majan" (2007年10月1日 issue, in the comic strip "愉快な人々," by artist 有元美保.
Color and pandemic mask added by Sloper, who recently started wearing the mask again because Delta variant.

August, 2021

In my volunteer activity as a moderator on a game development forum, I see a lot of unwelcome behavior. Blatant spams of all sorts. SEO types starting off with an innocent-seeming post (maybe a new thread with a legitimate game dev question, or maybe a bland response in an existing thread) who then come back later and insert commercial links into their post. Job-hunting posts. Recruiter posts. Composers who post "hire me!" posts in a forum where other composers share composing tips and freelancing tips with one another. (Those other composers do not need to hire any composers! What are you thinking?) Members who enjoy arguing about everything, or start arguments because they enjoy the drama caused ("trolls"). Name-calling. Dumb questions, somebody asking something that they could find out by using Google, or a question so broad and unfocused that it would take a thick book to answer completely.

But lately the forum has received a spate of questions similar to each other (different new members asking the same question), or questions out of the blue.

For example, one guy posted a thread he titled simply "Philosophy." He posted it in a forum dedicated to developing networked multiplayer games. He wanted to discuss "the Philosophy of Future Computing." He didn't give an example of what he was talking about. I don't know what "the philosophy of future computing" even means! He may have innocently expected that game devs who hang out in forums were sitting just waiting for such a juicy area of exploration, but that's not what he would get.

In the post, he then ineptly asked readers of his post if they had blundered into their game dev careers through some arcane deus ex machina magic, or if they had followed some sort of plan to break in. Completely unrelated question!

It quickly became apparent that the spate of disruptive posts were from students doing a class assignment. Their professor, one of them told me, had encouraged the students to go on a game dev forum and ask questions.

Professor, what are you thinking? You can't seriously expect that four students who all ask "how do I pitch my game concept" one right after the other are really going to get helpful and thoughtful responses. Come on! Inept and sometimes random questions cause a disturbance in the forum's force. And then we get a flurry of them every August!

We forum regulars are genuinely interested in helping newcomers who are genuinely in search of specific hard-to-find answers. But when five or six people join at the same time and ask clueless questions (whether or not they ask the same questions), regular forum members complain. On some forums, student posters can get downvotes. The unwelcome activity causes posts to get locked, and the users warned for rule violations. Sometimes they even get booted and banned. If only they had known about forum netiquette before joining...

All a student can learn from this assignment is "game dev forum people are prickly". And they become discouraged from ever wandering into a forum again. Ask yourself, is this a good way to enhance a student's useful knowledge of the game industry and how it works?

Attention, professors: there is a better way!

I believe that forum participation is a useful life skill and work skill. Students should learn about it. I taught game dev classes at university for 15 years (I just recently retired). I never asked my students to just meander into a forum and ask questions ineptly. It's not a good pedagogical assignment, in my opinion. Isn't it just make-work, to give the students something to do? (Is this a graded assignment? Are you grading them on just doing it, or on a valuable tidbit of information they might get on the question? How do you grade them if they get yelled at, or worse, banned?)

But if you genuinely see an upside in a forum-posting assignment (you see something pedagogical in it that I don't), then do it right. It's more work for you, but it benefits everyone else, especially the students but also the regulars and moderators on those online forums.

First, make a list of good questions the students can ask. Each student must be assigned to a different question, no two students asking the same question. Poll them on how to word the questions, and guide them towards effective wordings.

Second, make a list of forums where the students should ask. Each student must be assigned to a different forum, ideally. At least a different board, if there aren't enough sites to go around.

Third, teach forum etiquette to the students. Tell them necroing is bad, and why. Tell them hijacking is bad, and why. Tell them off-topic posting is bad, and why. Tell them that lazy, unresearched question-asking is bad; tell them that forum regulars can get prickly to obvious n00bs who blunder around breaking netiquette rules like a bull in a china shop.

Actually, that third thing is the most important. Knowing forum etiquette is much more valuable than any answer a student is going to get on a forum. Teach them about forum etiquette. Don't just throw them into the shark-infested deep end. It doesn't educate the students in a good way, and it irritates the sharks. Teach your students how to get along with sharks; that's a useful life skill to teach them.

As a forum netizen and a professor, I am able to see both sides of this issue. The assignment is seriously flawed pedagogy. It needs a total rethink. A student asking a question on a forum for a school assignment depletes that forum's members' willingness to help someone asking that question out of a genuine need. Maybe you don't need your students to ASK something but to READ and LEARN something. Posting for posting's sake is anathema to the harmony of the forum. Maybe the students should find a recent thread of interest to that student, and the student can post a relevant and reasonable follow-up question in that thread. Don't be lazy. This is a lazy assignment. The students know it's lazy, and they can be lazy too.

I don't know which educational institution these recent students come from, or who this professor is who thinks it's a good idea, but if it keeps on happening, I'm gonna get mighty curious, and I might even investigate. Email addresses of professors are usually pretty easy to find on college websites.

'Nuff said.

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