When Students Design Their Own Games They Learn Way More Than Coding

Game-Based Learning

When Students Design Their Own Games They Learn Way More Than Coding

By Mike Washburn     May 30, 2018

When Students Design Their Own Games They Learn Way More Than Coding

Last year, my eighth-grade student Nathan made a game that was banned from Scratch. If I stopped there that would sound bad of course, but hear me out. It wasn’t bad; in fact it was amazing. He wanted to make a jump scare game—and boy did he succeed.

If you aren’t familiar with the genre, think of that moment in a movie when it’s dark, and the ominous music is playing, and it is eerily quiet... then BAM! The scary guy in a mask jumps out and your popcorn goes all over the place. That’s a jump scare. This game ended up being so good, people were screaming when they got scared, kids were crying, it was a mess. It was too scary. I don’t think I had ever been prouder.

When Nathan told me his game had gotten banned from Scratch, he was obviously a little disappointed, but you could see that grin in the corner of his mouth. He was proud too. He knew that he had crushed it. He had spent a year making this game, and in the end being banned was a validation for him, and me, that all that work had resulted in an incredible success. And it was a lot of work. But let’s talk about how we got there.

A student game example from the GDC. (Source: Mike Washburn)

Right, Hard Work

There is an obvious need in education to bridge the gap between what students do at home (play video games, watch YouTube, live stream their game-play on Twitch) and what they do at school (none of that). These experiences, for our students, are like having two entirely different lives. At home, students are motivated and engaged to slay dragons, complete levels, solve puzzles and maybe scare their siblings a bit. At school we have a difficult time getting them to hand in their classwork. Yet we know they are capable of so much more.

I want my students to work hard, and love every minute of it. So five years ago I redesigned my computer science curriculum looking for a way to bridge this gap. I had to find a way to make computer science challenging, while also being hyper engaging. I was looking for that "right, hard work" Jane Mcgonigal speaks about in her amazing book “Reality is Broken.” To do that, I decided to turn students from consumers to creators. The game design challenge (GDC) was my way of addressing this need.

The GDC is a year-long project which asks students to combine their knowledge of programming, graphic design, video production and web design into creating their very own video game. Throughout the year students are faced with deadlines and milestones to reach. Early in the project, I ask them to research the gaming habits of their peers, the results of which influence their brainstorming. In mid-March, students complete their “vertical slice,” a pre-beta (or alpha) test of their game to show proof of concept and basic functionality. Students use the feedback from this test to make adjustments and plan their work going forward. The act of “putting their work out there” is an equally nerve-wracking and exciting experience.

At all points in the process they receive grades for assignments, feedback, and support to complete the challenge. Every aspect of game creation is covered: audience analysis, narrative design, animation, promotional materials, storyboarding, game trailer production, music editing, programming and bug testing. They invent the the storyline and develop the functionality, from conception to finished product. By distilling the game design process down to its base components, I have been able to treat my classroom like a game design studio, and my role as much a mentor and motivator as a teacher.

Playing to Learn

The balance of the computer science curriculum, from grades three to seven, was essentially backward-designed for the GDC. Five years before they ever even start the project, students begin a scaffolded curriculum, which gets increasingly complex. Students progress in programming from Code.org, using their great curriculum resources, to Hopscotch and Swift Playgrounds in grade five to pre-made Scratch games in grade six, where they were essentially told how to make the game and then asked to “remix” it by adding in modifications. The next year, students began making mini-games on their own to get ready for the year-long game design challenge. Along the way, they also pick up the basics of photography and photo editing in Photoshop and move into full-on graphic design work.

We've made every effort to give the students all the possible resources they would need to complete the project. I have a robust 1:1 program, which provides my grade eights with MacBook Airs so that they can work on their game anytime, anywhere. Students are also encouraged to seek out their own resources—the discovery of Piskel a year ago to create avatars and characters has been a revolutionary development in the project.

Basically, by the time the game design challenge starts, students are not told how, or when, to do anything. The GDC is centered around student choice and agency. At the beginning of the school year, students are given an orientation in regards to how the assignment flow will work. They are encouraged to focus on their strengths and use their time wisely in order to be as successful as possible. If a student feels they are strong in Graphic Design yet weaker when it comes to programming, they would be encouraged to do their graphics early, leaving them more time to prepare for the alpha and beta testing phases in the spring. I don't think I would be able to do this effectively without a top tier learning management system. I use Schoology to communicate with the students and let them communicate with me when we are outside the classroom.

The game design challenge isn't just about creating a game. By nature of the way the project is constructed, the GDC places a huge emphasis on the 21st century skills we know our students are going to need in order to be successful in the future. With elements of problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication all embedded into the fabric of the assignments, this project becomes more of a lesson in growing up than simply a computer programming project.

Every year my class becomes a game studio. For me it’s about teaching students how to be self reliant, confident and excited about learning. Even if for them it’s just about playing games at school, I don't mind—those students end up making great games too. I've found the right, hard work I needed to find in order for my students to succeed, and the results speak for themselves, even if it means being banned from Scratch.

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