Game Creation

Don't Play It, Make It!

A new generation of gamers is not just picking up skills by playing video games--they're learning by designing and creating the games themselves.

Using games as a learning tool is not new--research abounds to demonstrate the use of video games enhancing problem-solving skills and creativity. Pioneer educational games, like Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail, have given birth to online, multiuser, digital simulations that would make their forebears blush. Now, in what seems to be a natural evolution, a growing number of schools are taking the concept one step further and asking students to design the games themselves.

Game creation as a learning tool is really just a digital-age take on the old learning-by-doing approach to teaching: Students pick up concepts easier and retain more information when they are hands on with their subject matter. In game creation, students are presented with the task of building a digital learning activity that focuses on a particular topic, such as ecology, mathematics, or social studies. Using a framework and the fundamentals of game design, they create a game that demonstrates their knowledge of the topic.

"If you make the student the creator and have an interest-driven scaffolding around the program, you have a powerful learning tool," says David Samuelson, executive vice president and director of Games and Augmented Reality at Pearson and co-moderator of the game-based learning working group within the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA). "Having students design games becomes more of a learning tool than a learning activity. It gives a path for teachers to layer the learning on top."

It would seem that educators are getting this message: Out of the 17 learning games-related sessions offered at ISTE 2011 in June, six were focused on student-created games.

What makes creating games different from just playing them when it comes to learning?

"When students make a game they have to model the system and have a deeper mastery of the subject. It’s a deeper learning experience," says Alan Gershenfeld, president of E-Line Media, developer of the Gamestar Mechanic framework for game creation. "The process also incorporates 21st century skills--game design requires that. To succeed in the workplace, students will have to have those portable skills. Plus, kids love it; they’re just dying to do it."

Engage, Educate, Empower
Gershenfeld, who previously ran Games for Change, an organization dedicated to supporting and making games for social impact, founded E-Line Media along with CEO Michael Angst to create game-based learning products and services that "engage, educate and empower, helping to prepare youth for lives and careers in the 21st century," according to the company’s website. Gamelab originally developed Gamestar Mechanic, an online game-creation platform for kids, in partnership with the Institute of Play and the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Initial funding for the game and its companion learning guides came from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

E-Line launched Gamestar Mechanic in the fall of 2010, targeting the middle school crowd. Now it is working on a game-building platform for at-risk students and young adults called Talkers and Doers, which will feature a series of social networking games where players overcome the common challenges of becoming entrepreneurs.

Gamestar Mechanic is built on a foundation of pedagogical research that takes into account systems thinking, 21st century digital literacy skills, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning. E-Line regularly works with learning scientists James Paul Gee and Katie Salen to develop the curriculum behind Gamestar Mechanic, and receives regular feedback from teachers on how to improve its learning impact and better reinforce skills. "We constantly optimize it," Gershenfeld said. "Teachers give quantitative and qualitative feedback on the games, which enables us to further its impact and map it to core curriculum standards."

Although the program has been widely available for only a year, Gamestar Mechanic now is being used in 800 schools, "Way more than we ever anticipated," Gershenfeld said. The game is essentially free (instructors pay a nominal fee for the premium version--about $20 per month per classroom--which entitles students to more features such as personalization and additional game-making capabilities), so a large number of teachers have signed up to see what it’s about. "We’re finding we’re getting a very good conversion of teachers," Gershenfeld says.

A Robust Curriculum
Scholastic’s Level UP! uses Gamestar Mechanic and another online game-building engine, Activate!, to promote game creation as a learning tool in the classroom. Sponsored by the AMD Foundation, the site also has standards-based lessons that go along with the programs to teach core language arts, math, and science concepts--as well as pretty much any other subject compatible with the concept of game creation. Level UP! offers teachers step-by-step lesson plans to integrate game creation into their classroom curricula.

"Gamestar Mechanic has a robust curriculum for teachers, more than 200 pages, so we pulled out simple lesson plans to make it more accessible to teachers," says Kerri Schlottman, director of external relations at the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, which runs the Level UP! site. "We try to keep it across the board so any teacher in any discipline can use it, although its sweet spot is grades 6 to 8. Visually, it’s more Mario Brothers than Halo."

Activate!, she says, is more systems- and programming-based, geared toward students interested in actual game programming. Like Gamestar Mechanic, it also is curriculum-based, but Activate! focuses more on math and science skills, while Level UP focuses as much on the artistic aspect of gaming, giving students an outlet for their creativity.

"When you talk about game creation as a learning tool, there is always a lot of discussion around the STEM disciplines, but it’s also important for art and writing because it involves a lot of imagination," Schlottman says. "These programs encourage kids to think of themselves as artists and writers. They’re valuable in terms of getting kids to think differently about their individual talents and they encourage high level of collaboration, which mimics the real world for kids. Also, these programs combine kids who tend to be more STEM-minded with those kids who are stronger in the arts and writing."

Opening Doors
Another gaming framework that appears to be successful in the classroom is Globaloria Games, developed by The World Wide Workshop, a foundation that supports development of social media technology and game production as learning tools in economically disadvantaged and technologically underserved communities. Several schools in West Virginia; one in Austin, TX; another in San Jose, CA; and two in New York City are now using Globaloria, says Shannon Sullivan, vice president of programs and production at The World Wide Workshop.

"It's embedded into the school curriculums [in the schools where it’s offered]," she says. "Teachers have demonstrated they are eager to engage their students and get them excited about learning, and they know using technology is key to doing that."

Globaloria has been around since 2006 and, like Gamestar Mechanic, uses game creation to teach and reinforce concepts. But Globaloria is aimed at communities that are socio-economically disadvantaged and technologically underserved, Sullivan explains: "We strive to fill in that gap."

East Austin College Prep Academy (TX) serves a low-income population and many of the students who attend don’t have access to technology outside the classroom. "About 50 percent of the students are English-language learners," says Teresa Valdez, who uses Globaloria to teach her students mathematics and social issues. "About 90 percent receive free or reduced lunch, so they don’t have computers at home."

Globaloria has served not only to help these students learn and retain math skills, but in other ways as well.

"Getting them into this technology field will open a lot of doors for them," Valdez says. "When you look at kids who have these technologies at their disposal [such as computers and smartphones], they are already so far ahead. If our kids didn’t have this at school, they wouldn’t know how to use the computer for anything constructive. Now they have more than a working knowledge of computers; they have skills they can take with them into the workforce."

Like Gamestar Mechanic, Globaloria strives to teach more than just the core STEM subjects; students also learn game design, programming, wiki formatting, writing, and multimedia production--all marketable real-world skills.

Additionally, these programs aim to have students practice communication, problem solving, collaboration, and teamwork--skills they can’t obtain from a textbook or a Powerpoint presentation.

"We are graduating through the stage where we’ve accepted that games are now a part of society, and we’re looking for the best ways to incorporate them into the teaching environment," Pearson’s Samuelson says. "It is a natural progression."

Gaming platforms can be used not just to create games. William Dorsey, biology instructor at Capital High School in Charleston, WV, last year used Globaloria to have his students create tutorials about the properties of water and the seven characteristics of living organisms--two areas Dorsey knows are difficult for students to master. Dorsey believes that the tutorial design process gave the students an opportunity to retain more than if he had given them a more traditional project, such as a research paper.

"They got a deeper, more long-lasting knowledge of the topic," he says. "I found a lot of students became better problem solvers."

At East Austin College Prep in Austin, Valdez incorporated all manner of learning into her students’ Globaloria experience, including writing blogs, viewing documentaries, and researching various social issues. "Then I put the higher-level students into groups based on their topics and many of the students ended up working with kids they didn’t know very well," she says. "Because those groups were more self-directed, I gave them the freedom to put into the game whatever they wanted. I didn’t teach them how to make buttons, for example, but I did have one student who desperately wanted to add buttons to his game. I told him to go figure out how to do it and, once he did it, he had to teach everybody. They learned it a lot faster and a lot better because they were learning from him."

Valdez also noticed a sense of determination emanate from these students, especially when their games wouldn’t run correctly. "They wouldn’t give up trying," she says.