Can Designing Video Games Help Kids Gain Hard and Soft Skills?

Game-Based Learning

Can Designing Video Games Help Kids Gain Hard and Soft Skills?

By Tina Nazerian     Jan 31, 2019

Can Designing Video Games Help Kids Gain Hard and Soft Skills?

Steve Isaacs has long identified as a gamer. And when he’s not spending time with some of his favorites—StarCraft and Hearthstone—he’s teaching middle school students how to build their own.

Isaacs, an educator at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, teaches two classes on designing video games: a semester-long elective for eighth graders and a six-week course for seventh graders.

Why video games? Isaacs says it’s something many kids are often already excited about. And some research backs up his theory: according to a Pew Research Center survey, 84 percent of surveyed teens said they have or have access to a game console at home, and 90 percent said they play games either on a cell phone, computer, console or cellphone.

Game-based learning is sometimes linked to developing skills around computer science and engineering. But Isaacs tries to incorporate a wide range of disciplines in his gaming classes. Writing and literacy are two major focuses of the seventh grade course, for instance, where students craft narratives for their games.

Students in the six-week course start out rewriting a fairy tale. “It’s almost like a Language Arts activity in a lot of ways,” Isaacs says. The seventh graders then design, and create, at least three levels of challenges that will happen within their story. During the course, they also learn how to use the feedback their peers give them.

In the eighth grade elective, students learn more technical components of game design, from design planning, to graphic design and audio engineering. That course also takes what Isaacs’ calls a “quest-based” approach, meaning students get a lot of choice on what topics they want to focus on, ranging from coding to virtual and augmented reality. Early in the semester, students play and review other games before they begin developing their own. Looking at video games critically, he says, helps students understand what goes into game design, and what makes one game different from the next.

During the second half of the course, the eighth graders focus on creating a full game, ranging from adventure narratives to racing. Students start by creating a design document, and then build the first iteration of a game. Their classmates then test their game and give feedback. With that feedback in mind, the students go back and continue to design their game. They go through a couple of those feedback cycles, record their changes and decisions, and reflect.

“They’re sharing out what successes did they have, what challenges did they have, what did they accomplish this week, what do they plan to accomplish next week,” Isaacs says.

Beyond Isaacs’ classes, organizations throughout the United States similarly use video games to teach kids both hard and soft skills. Take Games for Change, a 15-year-old organization that aims to teach people about societal issues through gaming. Students in its program don’t start off on computers. Instead, they first learn how to make a tabletop game, says Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change. There’s also Game-U, which offers lessons in video game design and robotics to students in New York, New Jersey and Ohio. And Oakland-based nonprofit Gameheads teaches low-income and underrepresented youth the skills they need to be successful in the tech industry through video games.

If educators want to teach using game-based learning, Isaacs thinks after-school programs are a good place to begin. In fact, that’s how his own classes at William Annin Middle School first started.

“It’s sort of a low barrier to entry,” Isaacs says. “Because it’s easy to do something after school, before you’re tying your curriculum to it and getting approval for something like that.”

Steve Isaacs has long identified as a gamer. And when he’s not spending time with some of his favorites—StarCraft and Hearthstone—he’s teaching middle school students how to build their own.

Isaacs, an educator at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, teaches two classes on designing video games: a semester-long elective for eighth graders and a six-week course for seventh graders.

Why video games? Isaacs says it’s something many kids are often already excited about. And some research backs up his theory: according to a Pew Research Center survey, 84 percent of surveyed teens said they have or have access to a game console at home, and 90 percent said they play games either on a cell phone, computer, console or cellphone.

Game-based learning is sometimes linked to developing skills around computer science and engineering. But Isaacs tries to incorporate a wide range of disciplines in his gaming classes. Writing and literacy are two major focuses of the seventh grade course, for instance, where students craft narratives for their games.

Students in the six-week course start out rewriting a fairy tale. “It’s almost like a Language Arts activity in a lot of ways,” Isaacs says. The seventh graders then design, and create, at least three levels of challenges that will happen within their story. During the course, they also learn how to use the feedback their peers give them.

In the eighth grade elective, students learn more technical components of game design, from design planning, to graphic design and audio engineering. That course also takes what Isaacs’ calls a “quest-based” approach, meaning students get a lot of choice on what topics they want to focus on, ranging from coding to virtual and augmented reality. Early in the semester, students play and review other games before they begin developing their own. Looking at video games critically, he says, helps students understand what goes into game design, and what makes one game different from the next.

During the second half of the course, the eighth graders focus on creating a full game, ranging from adventure narratives to racing. Students start by creating a design document, and then build the first iteration of a game. Their classmates then test their game and give feedback. With that feedback in mind, the students go back and continue to design their game. They go through a couple of those feedback cycles, record their changes and decisions, and reflect.

“They’re sharing out what successes did they have, what challenges did they have, what did they accomplish this week, what do they plan to accomplish next week,” Isaacs says.

Beyond Isaacs’ classes, organizations throughout the United States similarly use video games to teach kids both hard and soft skills. Take Games for Change, a 15-year-old organization that aims to teach people about societal issues through gaming. Students in its program don’t start off on computers. Instead, they first learn how to make a tabletop game, says Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change. There’s also Game-U, which offers lessons in video game design and robotics to students in New York, New Jersey and Ohio. And Oakland-based nonprofit Gameheads teaches low-income and underrepresented youth the skills they need to be successful in the tech industry through video games.

If educators want to teach using game-based learning, Isaacs thinks after-school programs are a good place to begin. In fact, that’s how his own classes at William Annin Middle School first started.

“It’s sort of a low barrier to entry,” Isaacs says. “Because it’s easy to do something after school, before you’re tying your curriculum to it and getting approval for something like that.”

  

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