What Students Learn When They Give Up Shoebox Dioramas For Video Games


The flourishing of game-based learning has transformed video games from an entertaining diversion into tools for knowledge-building. Handy for real-time assessment and appealing to students, video games have been welcomed into the modern classroom and online learning environments. Unfortunately, video game design and coding has so far been mostly relegated to the computer lab, if it is offered in schools at all.

Designing and building a video game is highly challenging; however, it need not be a specialized technology niche. Sure, the process of game development involves technical abilities in digital design, programming and animation. But in actuality, learning how to make a good game requires many other skills too--skills that apply broadly to the best kind of learning.  

Creating an engaging game, with compelling content that people want to play, requires thinking creatively and approaching content with new epistemological lenses. Specifically, students making games exercise processes of knowledge representation, perspective-taking, storytelling, critical thinking, deep content-understanding, problem-solving, and research. The technical skills for building a computer game are just part of bringing a creator’s vision to life.

A 21st Century Class Project

Think of video game conceptualization, design and development as the 21st-century “class project.” Decades ago, we crafted shoebox dioramas to represent moments from history, or built poster board versions of games like Jeopardy to show our breadth of knowledge. Now, students can represent their learning by building a video game.

Video game creation requires a student to assume the role of both a researcher and a teacher, and to understand newly-learned knowledge deeply enough to create an interactive object with it. Moreover, putting students in the role of the game designer gives them ownership over the representation of concepts and complex content, and provides a new platform for exploring and sharing new learning.

It also takes time and patience, attention to detail, and work on many levels: researcher, learner, teacher, and user/player. As such, creating a video game may be an ideal project-based learning opportunity that suits all classes and subjects, not just science, computing, or technology courses.

Consider some of the steps of video game development: topic research and reading; story development, illustrations and writing; prototyping, coding, demonstration and publication. As student game-designers develop a story with characters around content knowledge (as the basis of gameplay), build interactive characters and story lines to drive that gameplay, and strategize how to represent content concepts in the game, they are mobilized as learners to deep understanding and empowered creators.

Take, for example, Super Toaster!, a game about global warming created by four middle-schoolers from Avondale, West Virginia, using the Globaloria game-design curriculum and learning platform. The video game has a lead character the kids named “Super Toaster” and sidekicks (“Magical Trees”) that transport the clean energy that powers Super Toaster. The player must navigate these characters through situations that either fight or feed global warming.

The students exercised control over what to share about the complex topic of global warming by clearly asserting the perspective that citizens should be responsible for aiding the ailing environment. Their next steps to explore and convey this idea included inventing these heroic characters to symbolize factors of global warming in society as well as prototyping and publishing a storyline and setting that would illustrate environmental concerns in meaningful ways. Here is a video clip that tells that story:

Two eighth graders from Durham, NC won the 2013 National STEM Video Game Challenge with Etiquette Anarchy. This Industrial-Age-themed platforming game puts the player in the role of a character called Jason McQuillan, who encounters obstacles that challenge proper Victorian etiquette. To author this game, the creators read, visualized, wrote, and expressed content around Victorian etiquette rules. The iterative design process of video game development allowed these students to test solutions to such problems as how to represent proper etiquette of the era in an engaging, gamified format.

Through video game design and development, students are empowered to visualize complex concepts and to re-imagine a world that they then explain to others.

Educators should recognize video games as a medium for more than just technology skill-building. The ability to develop and code video games is a new literacy, involving deep knowledge understanding and content representation, as well as critical thinking, digital storytelling, interactive character development and authorship in general. And this should already be clear to every good teacher: it is a much deeper epistemological learning experience than fabricating one-dimensional poster boards or pasting construction paper to a shoebox.

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