Game Plan: Part 2, Student Gamecraft

Part 1 of this feature looked at the burgeoning body of research supporting the use of games as teaching tools. In particular, the article focused on epistemic games such as Firaxis's Civilization, which immerse players in virtual worlds with societies and cultures to which they must adapt for survival and success. This second part considers games from the perspective of what kids learn when they create their own games.

Considerable obstacles to integrating games into school settings still remain, not the least of which is the question of how to accurately assess what students are learning. So it's not surprising that both game play and game creation have gained their strongest foothold in non-classroom settings like computer camps and after school clubs, which are less constricted by accountability demands.

One company with in-the-trenches learning game experience is Vision Education and Media (, a New York City board of education vendor offering curriculum, professional development, and technology-infused after school programs to the Tri-state area. Vision, which works with about 60 clubs a year, 30 of them focused on games, has been introducing K-8 youngsters to gamecraft for seven years. In its program, students develop their own interactive storybooks, create animated characters, complete illustrations, import graphics, and then program these elements using LOGO.

Vision President and CEO Laura Allen is a strong evangelist for game building's power to teach and engage students. This self-guided approach to learning engenders deep dedication, she says. "It is their creation...they care deeply about the product. It is very empowering to make something."

A case in point is Allen's example of a kindergarten classroom where she worked with children to help them create simple animations. When the teacher later wanted them to use "canned" software, one student protested, "Last week I got to make my own thing!"

If we want children to be innovators and use higher order thinking skills, insist Allen and other game experts like authors James Paul Gee and Marc Prensky, then having students produce their own games is excellent training. Allen says that the skills students learn when they create their own games include: how to conceive of a large idea and then break it down into small parts; how to build each part and connect it with the other parts to make it work; how to work collaboratively with other kids, either as team members or critics of the process; and how to deconstruct and look critically at commercially produced games.

At McKinley Technology High School, students use special effects and rendering tools, such as e frontier America's Poser.

Instant feedback — and the nature of that feedback — is another advantage, says Jennifer Wardell, also of Vision Education. She points out that in contrast to the didactic responses elicited by games users simply play, project-building software lets users discover for themselves what's not working, allowing them to make their own reprogramming decisions as needed.

Drivers Needed

Where game creation is being used within the school day, it's normally in programming classes or other special areas. An exception is Washington, D.C.'s McKinley Technology High School, where principal Dan Gohl has pioneered an aggressive tech-infused curriculum that features game development as a central element. Under Gohl's leadership, this inner city school, which serves a 99 percent low income, minority population — half the students have no access to technology at home — has become a model of technology-based reform. Gohl has broken with the traditional high school model, upping graduation requirements from the usual 24 credits to 34 and giving students a choice of three technology academy pathways: biomedical, broadcasting, or game development. Currently, 150 students are enrolled in game development, which includes 10 semesters of instruction with game company internships and academy certification as part of the package.

According to McKinley Technology Curriculum Director Rick Kelsey, Gohl's leadership has been key to McKinley's success. Gohl, a former technology academy director in Austin, Texas, has backed up his vision with impressive investments in the areas of time, money, and professional development. Last summer, for instance, Gohl instituted a student game developer camp, which was attended by 250 ninth graders, 100 of whom were female. For the camp and school, Gohl invested in the kind of high-end tools real game developers use for consumer products, like 100 seats of Alias's Maya, a modeling, effects, and animation program retailing for $150 a box, plus site licenses for video animation and design tools Macromedia Flash and e frontier America's Poser. Gohl has made James Paul Gee's book, What Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, required staff reading.

Like Allen, Gohl and Kelsey have observed firsthand the power of games to engage, and their plan is to fully integrate games across the curriculum. In the interim, teachers already incorporate games into their classes. For example, after students in a science class learned about NASA's Deep Impact experiment, in which scientists shot a rocket at a comet, kids developed their own games on the topic using Flash. And in social studies, students write essays about what their ideal learning game design might look like.

"When students are involved with a game," Kelsey notes, "they live it." He says students consistently elect to spend extra hours learning about genetics, so that their characters in EA's NFL game, Madden 6, can more successfully manipulate genes like peripheral vision in order to be better football players. And he has seen students in 3-D modeling class spend four hours or more for the two-second reward of having their character perfectly perform a function like standing or crouching.


Although games may be getting increased recognition as effective learning tools, a remaining barrier to their acceptance in schools is the dearth of solid research on what students learn in specific content areas when they create games. Yasmin Kafai, associate professor at the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, has long experimented with games to teach, having founded the Minds at Play video game project for children at MIT in 1990. Kafai acknowledges that the numerous variables involved in games can make evaluation difficult, but she doesn't see creating an accurate measurement tool as "brain surgery." Studies like the recently released "The Assessment of 21st Century Skills: The Current Landscape," from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, are helping move us toward designing tools that gauge achievement in higher order thinking activities. However, more studies like these are needed.

Beyond designing better assessment instruments, getting educators to buy into games as legitimate learning tools remains a challenge. As a first step, Allen suggests parents and educators sit down with children and see what games are all about and the kinds of problems kids are solving when they play them.

T&L Managing Editor and avid gamer Mark Smith says that users can often perform complex math computations while playing online games. He cites the database (not recommended for K-12 consumption) where players exchange tips on how to play World of Warcraft. "This site offers detailed algebraic formulas for players to determine the amount of damage their characters do per second (DPS). They can take these basic formulas and plug in their specific character information (armor, weapons, class, level, etc.) to maximize their abilities. Will that Lightforge Breastplate increase your warrior's chance to damage her enemies? Add the information to the formula (Character Level X 3 + Strength X 2-20) and compute away."

Harnessing the Passion

In his paper, "Lead Users and Video Games: Mods, Maps, and Other User-Generated Content," recent MIT graduate David Edery talks about the compelling nature of the collaborative approach to creating and refining existing products. Edery sees this type of open-source environment as central to innovation in all aspects of the culture, including education. "It would be great if game companies opened up the underlying architecture of these games and let educators load them with real historical information," he says.

It is indeed exciting to imagine a world where formal education regularly taps into the same reservoir of enthusiasm that students show for creating and modifying video games. An excerpt from Edery's paper does justice to that concept in a description of the player-created "bible" which lists everything users think the game Civilization 4 should contain. "It is longer than the actual New Testament," he says. "And just as well organized."

Susan McLester is editor in chief of Technology & Learning.

Elements of a Successful Game

Increasingly, corporations are using games to train employees.

Marketing Programs Manager Nadar Nanjiani and Game Designer Marcia Sitcoski of Cisco say using games to train corporate employees results in "sky-high engagement." Convinced that gaming can be applied to all parts of the enterprise, the company is in the process of developing "gamelits," or software components that will allow users to put together their own games. According to Nanjiani and Sitcoski, the following are key considerations:

  • Know the objective. Identify the specific learning need the game is responding to.
  • Decide what skills the game aims to teach. Dexterity? Speed? Strategy?
  • Craft an engaging story around the game. Will it be an odyssey or adventure of some kind?
  • Make sure content is easy to convey to people, and that it will hold their interest.
  • Remember that scenarios have to facilitate learning, not get in the way of it.
  • Make the game "sticky," by integrating features that keep players coming back for more.