Game Designing to Support Learning

IDSC_0508f you were to walk into my classroom last week, you might have been shocked by what was happening.  The sound of laughter and a little competitive talk filled the air.  Dice were being rolled, cards were being shuffled and darts were being thrown.  Traditionalists would have walked away shaking their heads thinking: “kids can’t play games and learn at the same time.”  But those who were willing to step in and take a
closer look would see that there was genuine learning happening.  Students were being motivated by the games that had been created by their peers.  These games caused them to speed through math problems involving adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing positive and negative numbers in an effort to win a game.  Students who often struggle to find the motivation to complete a few problems were engaging themselves in 10 or 20  problems in just a few minutes.  Students were helping and correcting each other on mistakes that had been made in problem solving.  The best part of the work was that they were doing this without any prompting or for fear of a bad grade.  The motivation had already been provided by the games of the students own creation.  

To the traditionalist out there: kids can learn through playing games and they do!  In fact, I have learned first hand that one of the best mediums to learn is through game play.  When first introducing the unit, I took a show of hands to see how many of our students enjoyed playing games.  There wasn’t a single hand in the room that wasn’t up.  Everyone, at some point in their lives, has enjoyed gaming.  Even more remarkable is the fact that when I asked the question: “How many of you have created your own game and played it?” every hand in the room remained high in the air.  I was shocked. I could remember creating a lot of my own games when I was a kid, but I thought that this level of creativity had gone by the wayside with a lot of the other things in the digital age.  I’m glad they proved me wrong.  The fact is that our students our natural game creators and players.  It is a part of what they do and who they are.  Why not create an educational system that honors this truth and allow students to learn through a medium that is a part of who they are?

While telling someone about what we were doing in class this week, they suggested that they had tried it but had little success in getting the students to create a game that was structured in the way that it needed to be in order to provide the necessary learning outcomes.  The conversation got me thinking about what it was that made our game design unit a powerful learning experience for our students.  Here are a few ideas to help guide others who are seeking to incorporate game design into their curriculum:

Identify the Elements of a Game

IMG_6481When we first launched our unit, it was important to establish what makes for a good game.  We started by creating a list of our favorite games.  I began separating their suggestions into lists that were in line with the platform on which they were created.  As you might imagine, the list started to getting pretty heavy in the digital game category.  When games like 2K or Call of Duty came up, everyone in the class wanted to talk about why they loved the game so much.  That’s one of the beautiful things about a really awesome game, it has the ability to unite people and engage them in something despite their differences.  Knowing that many of our students were engaged in physical games such as sports, I tried to push them in that direction.  After about 10 minutes of discussion, we had a solid list of a variety of different games.

By striking up this conversation, we were attempting to bring out a few big ideas.  The first was to get the students excited about the upcoming unit and have them realize that no matter who we are, we have enjoyed playing a game at some point in our lives. The second was getting the students to start thinking about what makes for a great game.

In the next lesson, we took a deeper dive into the world of game design.  We cannot expect the students toIMG_6484 create a game that is complex if they cannot first synthesize a playable game in its simplest form.  We used the Institute of Play’s Game Kit Challenge pack in order to explore the concept of simple game creation.  In one of the challenges, the students were asked to create a game by using 3 random household products that were stuffed into a bag.  At the outset of this process, it was impressive the creativity that the students exhibited.  With the use of three basic materials and drawing from their prior knowledge of games, the students were able to imagine brilliantly creative games that worked to engage the player.

Create the Mindset of a Game Designer

IMG_0017We asked the students to take on the role of Game Designers.  There is a mindset that needs to be developed while assuming this role.  We took a closer look at what the work of a game designer looks like in order to help guide the students in assuming the role.  As a class, we studied how game creation happens and aligned our design process with that of game designers.

We drove home the idea that game design is an iterative process that involves many prototypes before we can have a copy that is ready for Beta testing— the stage of game design at which our games would be presented. By allowing the students to engage in the game design process, we normalized failure and allowed room for critique of the games that were created.  Having the students understand that the first prototype of a game would need to be iterated in order for it to be an enjoyable and playable game was an important step in getting them in the mindset of a game designer.  The students understood from the beginning that no matter how awesome their prototypes were, there would be room for improvement.

Define the Purpose and Experiment

As with most of the things that we do in our classroom, we learn with the students.  This project was no different.  There are several contributing factors to our success in exploring new models.  The most fundamental of these is defining a clear purpose.  There is a lot of detail in the work that we do, but this wouldn’t take place without a clear vision and map to guide us through our journey.

IMG_6608At the beginning of each unit, we determine the standards that are to be covered.  From there, we select the driver in which we will create the ‘need to know.’  The majority of of us would identify this as best practice in backwards design.  Too often, the fundamentals are brushed over as a menial piece of the puzzle. We cannot expect to build a sound structure on a poor foundation.  A house might look good on the outside, but as time passes that foundation will start to crack and the beauty that once was will begin to fade.  Take the time to build a strong foundation to go along with innovative practices.  One of the biggest mistakes that we can make is trying to fit a really cool project into a set of standards that have little connection.

When determining that we were going to be using game design as the driver to help teach the concept of adding, subtracting multiplying and dividing positive and negative numbers, we spent a lot of time visioning the potential outcomes of the process.  Some of the questions that we asked ourselves during this process were:

  • What would it look like for the students to create games?  
  • What structures would need to be in place for the students to be successful in creation?  
  • What are the expected outcomes of game creation?  
  • What might student games look like?  
  • Why are we using game design in the first place?  
  • Are there better alternatives?   

These are just some of the questions that we asked ourselves prior to even engaging in the lesson planning process.  As the unit progresses, we take time to revisit these questions and others in order to reflect on the process.  There are a lot of checkpoints along the way that can be used to reinvigorate or restructure an engaging driver that is falling flat.

Simplicity Creates Brilliance
IMG_0036We encouraged the students to analyze what they enjoyed about games and look to their favorite games as a driver to aid them in the creation of their own games.  After all no matter how original an idea is, it is likely drawing on ideas from games that already exist.  We encouraged students who were designing very complex games that might be difficult for the player to engage in to step back and look at how they could simplify the rules of the game in order to make it enjoyable to a more general population.  One of the reasons for this move was to allow the students to meet the time constraints of the game design process.  The other more important reason is that we were attempting to make games that would be appealing to the general population of people 12 and up.  Generally the more complex the game becomes, the less appealing it is to a general audience.

The game platform of choice for many of our students was digital.  We knew that many of our students would likely want to design a game that was in this realm, but likely did not have the technical ability to code for a game that was flexible enough to allow for all of the requirements to be met.  We did not completely shut them down on digital as a pathway for their game, but  cautioned that they would need to set up a meeting time with one of us in order to explain what their ideas were in the digital realm.  After hearing from many different groups, it was clear to both parties that their technical abilities in coding were not expansive enough to create games that would meet the requirements in a creative format.  By allowing the students to realize this on their own terms, we avoided having our students becoming disengaged from the process while allowing them to engage in the very important process of self-actualization.  In the end, those students who originally wanted to create a digital game were more than happy to shift their thinking to a new platform.

Encourage Them to Play

The best advice that I can give is to have the students play their games early and often.  Before any of our DSC_0531students were allowed to begin their Beta copy, they were required to play their game in a basic prototype form.  For most of them, this was a drawing on a piece of paper along with make-shift cards, and dice.   With a little creativity, even the physical games could be prototyped in the same manner.  They were encouraged to take an honest look at their game and decide where adjustments needed to be made.  For every group, this was a vital step in the process.  There wasn’t a group that didn’t find something that could be improved on prior to creating their Beta prototype.  Many groups had several rough prototypes that they played multiple time before even considering the next step.

Final Thoughts

The game design unit was an extremely engaging way of pulling students into an otherwise confusing and repetitive set of standards— operations with positive and negative integers.  With this set of standards, it was already recognized that repetition is the best way to retain the information.  The game design process allowed the students to engage in an iterative process that made all the integer practice that they were doing seem less repetitive.  Not only did it create the conditions for the true learning to be hidden through contextualization, it allowed the students’ brilliance to shine.  Uncovering and harnessing their brilliance is why we do the work that we do.


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