Games design for teaching: why and how
The pitch: “It’s called Smash Maths. You play a potato that has to escape from the kitchen, and your enemies include a potato masher. If you get hit by the masher, you can put yourself back together again if you can answer 5 maths sums really quickly.”
Sounds fun? This is one of the memorable game pitches from a Primary 6 pupil at our local primary school.
When one talks about game-based learning to those outside of teaching, they automatically assume that we’re talking about teaching kids through the playing of games. Games like Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training which encourages kids to practice mental arithmetic. Or any of the numerous mobile educational games that are available for our smartphones and android tablets.
Yet, that’s equivalent to thinking that all art is painting.
The Maker Movement
The maker movement in the past few years has championed the idea that anyone can make, tweak, and edit anything else in the world. In education, one of the most popular (and famous) tool is Scratch – a kids orientated programming language.
Secretly, I think Scratch is a fantastic resource, but its focus on building a real game focuses children on only one aspect – the coding. What happens if we freed them from the realisation of the game, but instead encourage them to be creative with the game ideas – a bit like 21st century creative writing?
Games design as a teaching tool
When we playtest our collaborative learning games, we often partner with local primary schools. In return for some of their time, we offer the class something in return. Alongside the playtesting, we’ll run a ‘Games Design Workshop’: a way to engage kids with a topic, by getting them to build a game teaching others that topic. It is a process which forces the children to think about what learning is, what are the best ways to convey a skill or piece of knowledge to someone else and, most of all, question what makes something engaging or compelling for someone else.
To start, we talk about games that the children have played recently. Minecraft, Temple Run, Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, are the popular answers.
Then we’ll ask them what they think makes a good or a bad game: what makes something exciting or fun to play; how long they would spend playing it, and why; what makes someone coming back to the game over and over again. Throughout this discussion, the emphasis is placed on deconstructing what makes a game fun.
This is followed by a further discussion on what constitutes a game. Games are there to be won or lost, so goals and objectives are a key part. Characters and story are important in other games. Not forgetting about difficulty and challenge: that puzzle or platform based games get more difficult in the higher levels – how do they achieve that? What are the differences between different types of genres of games (e.g. puzzle, action, adventure, casual).
With the class buzzing with ideas, we put the children into pairs and ask them to come up with their own game. However, there are some constraints to this – they are told to select a skill that they want to get across, come up with a setting (and characters), and decide what the win conditions are. In social science classes like History, the focus on scenario can be a springboard to motivate children in researching about a particular era or event.
Finally, we give them some storyboarding paper - a simple A3 sheet with 6 boxes horizontally – and get them to draw out their game. At the end of the class, each pair presents their game back to the class and asks for feedback.
In case you’re sceptical about this approach, you should check out Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure – an adventure game made by a 5 year old and her dad. You’ll instantly fall in love with it.
Using games design as a teaching tool, we can engage the children in creative thinking, and stimulate higher functioning skills in a variety of ways. The children will develop their critical thinking skills when they’re critiquing other games; collaborative skills when working in pairs; research skills if they’re choosing a particular topic; creativity skills in creating a game; problem solving skills in working out how to make a game more challenging.
Games based learning is so much more than just playing games. Encourage our children to be the next generation of game makers.
Some tips for teaching through designing a game:
- Narrow down a topic for the game. Placing constraints on the brief helps the children become more creative.
- Encourage a discussion around what makes a good game.
- Talk about game systems. Maybe get them to play some games.