STEAM Education

Not a Gamer? You Can Still Teach Game Design!

Designing games is a powerful way for students to learn transferable and in-demand skills, and teaching it can be as easy as allowing students to demonstrate their learning using tools they choose.

I began my 28-year teaching career as a special education teacher at a science and technology magnet school in New Jersey. All my students were at different levels and, since the school focused on science and technology, we had great technology resources. I had my first "aha moment" there when I saw how technology, and particularly games, could help personalize learning for my students in a powerful way.

The school's tech director and I became friends, and we eventually started a computer training facility business designed to teach creative uses of technology in summer camps and after-school programs. We opened that space up on evenings and weekends for students to come in and play multiplayer games on our network. My next "aha moment" came when we saw these young people exercising their own agency by choosing the space as a second home and finding like-minded kids with similar interests, which was something new for many of those students.

Eventually I went on to create a game design and development curriculum for middle school, and I taught that and digital storytelling for the next 15 years. Since my students used tools like Fortnite Creative to make their games, I eventually contracted with Fortnite's creator, Epic Games, to write lesson plans using their tools. Today I work for them full time by supporting teachers and students who want to bring game technology into their classrooms.

Getting started teaching game design might seem intimidating, but teachers don't need to be experts in game design or general technology to use them in their classrooms. (I certainly wasn't!) Here's why game design is such a powerful learning experience, and how you can get started teaching it even if you're not a pro gamer yourself.

Myths About Game Design Courses

When many people think of game design courses, they imagine students "just playing games." I say, "Leverage that." If students love games and get engaged just thinking and talking about them, use that to support them in becoming creators.

Game design tools are just creativity tools — digital hammers and paintbrushes that students can use to bring anything they can imagine to life. If, instead of a traditional presentation or report, they create an immersive environment that walks people through something they've been learning about, they are also picking up industry skills using industry standard tools. They've still done the research, achieved their learning objectives, and demonstrated their learning — perhaps in a way that's more engaging and creating an immersive experience for their peers to learn from, to boot.

Esports similarly provides an opportunity to learn all kinds of transferable, in-demand skills. Many of the participants on esports teams aren't players themselves, but take on support roles, like creating team gear or providing live commentary on the games.

Regardless of the role individual students take on, so many participating students find their community when they join esports teams. For a lot of them, it's the first time they have ever been involved with an extracurricular activity, and it can provide a sense of belonging that makes them excited to come to school every day.

Esports and game design are also both great contexts for teaching students to safely navigate digital culture and citizenship in a real environment, but with the support of educators.

Using Industry Tools

In a good game design class, students will also learn to use tools employed in a whole host of industries including games, television, film, broadcasting, animation, architecture, fashion, and advertising. They often learn some coding along the way, and they tend to learn world-building skills as they create immersive environments for their games. They can even pair those world-building skills with a sandbox environment like Fortnite Creative to create an immersive experience related to something they're learning in a different content area instead of, for example, making a PowerPoint presentation.

Access to this kind of course is so important because it prepares students for careers with skills that are transferable across a whole host of industries. Since they're using actual industry tools, some of them may choose to go right out and get a job after high school, or they can use those skills to build up their portfolio for college applications. For a fortunate few, success can come while they're still in school.

Success Stories

When I was still in the classroom, I was using a program called GameMaker Studio with an 8th-grade class. It has its own programming language called GameMaker language, which I wasn't very familiar with — you really don't have to be an expert to teach this stuff!

The publisher asked me to write a book about using GameMaker in the classroom. At the time, I was giving my students 20% of their time to work on projects of their own, inspired by Google's famous policy. One of my students was becoming very involved with the GameMaker language as he pursued his passion project. I was about to decline the opportunity to write the book, but instead told the publisher I was not familiar with the language, but that I had a student who had nearly mastered it. I told them that if they were interested in having that student essentially write the book, I would work on it with him as a co-author. Halfway through his freshman year of high school, we finished the book and became authors at the ages of 47 (me) and 14 (my student!).

In another class, I had a student who kept solving these really challenging puzzles quickly. As the semester went on, he demonstrated an amazing proficiency for developing games and thinking computationally. I found out, much to my surprise, that he was not doing so well in his other classes, to the point that some of those other teachers were concerned for him.

CBS Sunday Morning wanted to do a piece about Minecraft in education, and they found out about my class — and this student in particular — and ended up flying him and his mom out to Los Angeles, where he participated in a Minecraft convention and was interviewed by the show. They came back to my classroom a few weeks later, where he talked about how he didn't feel like he was a traditional learner, but was able to thrive when given the opportunity to do this kind of hands-on work.

Tips for Getting Started

I know that it can be scary to begin teaching with tools you don't know well or on subjects you don't feel somewhat authoritative about. It's okay to start small, though.

One way is simply to give students the choice to use a game design tool. You don't have to teach them how to use it or even have every student working on projects that involve games. If they want to create a game to demonstrate a math concept or recreate a famous scene or place from history in tools like Fortnite Creative or Unreal Engine instead of writing a paper or giving a presentation to the class, let them. It's empowering for students when teachers say, "Here's what you have to do, but go ahead and do it in a way that speaks to you."

The biggest thing I learned as a teacher, and something that has profoundly changed my life since, was that I didn't have to be the expert on everything that happened in the classroom.

I was not a Minecraft expert when I started using it. I didn't even play it. I knew it was something my students loved and that it could enhance some of the work we were doing together. By allowing my students to be the experts and me to be the learner, we created this incredible environment in our class.

The first, most important, and sometimes even last step necessary to integrating gaming and game design into your classroom is simply becoming comfortable with the idea that you can facilitate learning instead of feeling like you have to stand in front of your students teaching them all the time.