Can Game Development Impact Academic Achievement?


Electronic educational gaming has received a tremendous amount of attention within the last few years. This excitement is owing, in part, to theoretical arguments and empirical findings about the possibilities of using videogames in teaching and learning (e.g. Squire, 2006; Squire & Jenkins, 2003; Gee, 2003; Prensky, 2001). Several articles in THE Journal have also drawn attention to video game use, highlighting concern (Weinstock, 2007), health and fitness issues (O'Hanlon, 2007), multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) & simulations (Blaisdell, 2006), and the promise of digital game-based learning (Deubel, 2006).

One area within the video game arena that has received considerably less attention is the concept of student development of games. The work that has been done (e.g. Kafai, 1998; also see DiPietro, Ferdig, Boyer & Black, 2007) has shown tremendous promise for motivating students, building conceptual knowledge, and improving content knowledge acquisition. Squire (2006) argued that educators "ought to pay closer attention to videogames because they offer designed experiences, in which participants learn through a grammar of doing and being" (p. 19). We concur, but add that educators also ought to pay closer attention to student development of videogames because it offers design experiences that can impact classroom learning.

In this article, we highlight the pedagogical basis for student videogame development. We also provide examples of free tools for teachers to integrate into their classroom.

The Pedagogy Behind Student Videogame Development
In addition to the practical and theoretical reasons why gameplay is important (e.g. Squire, 2006; Gee, 2003), there are a number of reasons why videogame development can also serve as a significant pedagogic practice. This is particularly true as teachers encourage students to build content-based games used to teach others. First, as Squire (2006) has suggested, games "are uniquely organized for a functional epistemology, where one learns through doing, through performance" (p. 22). The same can be said about game development. Students interact with the content as they are building curricular experiences for themselves and for other students.

Second, research has provided evidence that peer and collaborative learning are important pedagogic concepts. Collaborative learning builds on Vygotskian (1978) notions of the zone of proximal development. Vygotsky argued that the ZPD is the distance between what someone can learn on their own versus what they can learn with the help of the more knowledgeable other. This "more knowledgeable other" can be a teacher, a computer, or a fellow student. Collaborative learning lets students who are good programmers work with good artists, and content area experts work with game designers.

Peer learning or tutoring is a similar condition where students teach other students. It "has been found to be an effective way to learn school-related material" (King, Staffieri, and Adelgais, 1998, p. 134). The basic argument with peer or collaborative learning is that teachers have content-based expertise, but students can also learn from their fellow students. In many cases, students can present content in a format that engages their colleagues at levels they understand or appreciate (Collis & Moonen, 2006). This is an extremely important point because for the most part, children spend far more time in direct interaction with their peers than they do with adults (Rogoff, 1994).

Ownership is a third important pedagogic concept. Self-regulated learners must develop the understanding that they in control of their learning, mastery of tasks, and attainment of goals (Sandford & Richardson, 1997). Videogame development lets teachers offer content area focus (e.g. develop a game that teaches history or math), but it lets students determine what the game looks like, the main characters in the game, the surroundings and background, the gaming rules, and the storyline and context of the game.

Finally, videogame development is important because it gives an opportunity for students to have active (part of a constructivist approach), hands-on learning as they publish artifacts of their cognitive processes. Publication allows for subsequent reflection and analysis, allowing students to revisit and revise their artifacts, thus enriching the learning experience (Olson, 1994). Hands-on activities help students "blend theory and practice, success and failure, and school and society into a mental foundation for future thought" (Korwin & Jones, 1990, ¶ 9; also see Dewey, 1980).

Benefits of Student Videogame Making
Videogame making can be pedagogically sound, but there are also other, direct benefits to having students create games. Some of these have been validated by research; others are simply possibilities that need further examination and exploration.

The use of videogame making helps students become producers rather than just consumers of information. Research has suggested that videogame playing can help with teaching and learning. In many cases, students are consumers of those products; some videogames, particularly multiplayer games, do allow students to create content. However, videogame development enables students to become producers of content for consumption by others. This process allows them to examine content not just from a learning perspective, but also from the perspective of someone that has to teach it to someone else.

(We encourage teachers also to do their own game making using many of the tools discussed in the next installment in this article series. However, it should not take the place of student development because of the innovative perspective of content it provides students.)

The use of videogame making helps students become subject matter experts. In game making, students are given a unique perspective on content. Instead of simply consuming the content, they have to examine how they are going to use the content to teach someone else. This process requires students to become subject matter experts. A student who creates a role-playing game based on the United States War of Independence and a student who develops a flash-based game on learning equations both have to become experts with that content. So, a teacher who gives a game development assignment related to particular subject matter is actually encouraging development of content area expertise.

The use of videogame making help students integrate content across the curriculum. When teachers think of game development, they often think of programming and computer science. However, game development is an innovative way for teachers to create thematic units. Game development can include work with sound, video, pictures, and virtual reality. However, it can also include literature, spelling, math, history, and science. The key for the teacher is not necessarily to be an expert at game development, but rather to be thinking critically and openly about assignments that blend content areas. Students begin to use the game as an artifact for the blending of learning from multiple classes.

The use of videogame making potentially helps students become better at math. Our research has already provided evidence that some types of programming skills result in higher mathematical literacy (Papanastasiou & Ferdig, 2006). Computer-based activities that draw on higher-order thinking skills can improve mathematical literacy and comprehension. The tools used for videogame development all provide varying levels of computer programming expertise and opportunities for exploration. Future research needs to clarify exactly how much math students can learn, but preliminary analyses suggest game development gives them hands-on application of mathematical concepts.

The use of videogame making potentially improves self-esteem and confidence. Students who create videogames have done two things. First, they have developed skills that their friends or relatives do not have. Second, they have created a project, with the right direction, that is intended for an authentic audience. Having the ability to teach others what they have learned, or simply watching others use something they have created, can lead to a greater sense of self-worth and may increase confidence.

The use of videogame making may increase student career choice in the computer sciences, particularly for women and minorities. Our colleagues at the London Knowledge Lab have provided evidence that computer gaming is not just for boys. Researchers are currently examining race along with gender. The hope is that these early introductions to computer science will not only make students more marketable but may also guide their choice of careers and majors. This could provide growth for a field with a relative dearth of women and minorities (see


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About the authors: Richard E. Ferdig, Ph.D., is an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida. He was awarded his doctorate in educational psychology from Michigan State University in 2000. His teaching-research agenda includes gaming, online learning, and what he labels a "deeper psychology of technology." Ferdig can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

Jeff Boyer is a visiting lecturer and doctoral student in educational technology at the University of Florida. His research interests include gaming, online learning, and pre-service teacher education. Boyer can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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