A Peek into my Video Game Design and Development Courses

Guest post by Video Game Design and Development teacher, Steve Isaacs:

Steve IsaacsRecently @techucation reached out to ask for some resources and ideas related to teaching Video Game Design and Development. I responded to his inquiry and realized it would serve as a worthwhile blog post to share with the educational community. Below is a general description of my 7th and 8th grade courses. In 7th grade, I teach a six week introduction to video game design and digital storytelling. In 8th grade I teach a full semester course in video game design and development. I have also developed and teach the full semester course as an online high school course for The VHS Collaborative. I hope you find the information helpful as I would love to see more courses evolve that teach important 21st century skills through game design.

Currently, I am enrolled in the doctoral program in Educational Technology at Boise State University and the focus of my research is the pedagogical benefits of game design and development. Some of the concepts I find most worthwhile to research further include constructionism, design based thinking, increasing female involvement in computer science, and ultimately the notion behind developing a scalable curriculum to teach game design and development from upper elementary school through high school.

Gamestar Mechanic LogoGamestar Mechanic is a great point of entry (and beyond). My 7th graders spend about 3 weeks in a unit using Gamestar Mechanic. In that unit, I have them work through the Free Quest Line (Addison Joins the League) which takes them through the 5 episodes ending with the ability to create original games from scratch. After that I have students create their own game. Typically, it is a 5 level game of increasing difficulty that exemplifies good game design principles. Prior to starting their game I have them complete a design document that is used for brainstorming/pre-writing.

For the 7th graders, I encourage them to earn some of the extra items through the workshop (i.e. the message block, etc.) as I emphasize the importance of the story being told within the game (not just in the game and level descriptions). They can also earn extra credit by doing the two premium quest strands (Addison Joins the Rogue and Dungeon of the Rogue). They also benefit by earning extra items to use in their game through those quests. Gamestar Mechanic also has a number of teacher resources including curriculum, student challenges, etc.

I highly recommend licensing the premium quests for your class. Gamestar recently implemented a new licensing program that costs $2 per student account and the students keep the premium account for life. What a great way to encourage continued game design beyond the course!

Another unit in my 7th grade class involves Digital Storytelling. I have them explore classic folk tales and choose one to recreate as a team of two. Typically we have used storytelling Alice but recently I communicated with Caitlin Kelleher (the project lead) and she indicated that there is now a successor to storytelling Alice called Looking Glass. I plan to shift to this with upcoming students or use Scratch. More likely, I will expose students to both and allow them to choose one of the tools.

Gamemaker logoMy 8th graders primarily use Game Maker and they learn the basics and create at least four original games (a simple maze game, an adventure game, a platformer, and a scrolling shooter). I offer a bonus opportunity for students to engage in reverse engineering and recreate a classic game (arcade or console).

Some of my game maker resources can be found here:

Portal 2My final unit with my 8th graders is a project using Portal 2 and the Puzzle Maker. You can find out more from the Teach with Portals program website. My students play through a reasonable part of Portal 2 to understand the basics of the game and then create their own puzzles using the iterative design process of planning, creating, testing, and refining.

Game Design and Development is a natural vehicle to teaching 21st century skills. One of the key ideas relates to constructionism, whereby students gain a deeper level of understanding of related topics as well as the required computational skills through creating their own games. In addition, collaboration is a big part of the design process as students work on design teams incorporating skills including storytelling, graphic design, animation, sound engineering and computer programming. Iterative design is inherent in game design as students participate in the process of design, development, playtesting, and improving on their games based on the peer feedback loop. Game design requires students to continually evaluate their work and improve upon it.

To take this a step further, higher order thinking skills and problem solving skills are put to work throughout the process as students must troubleshoot errors as they debug their games. Critical thinking and problem solving are essential skills for the workplace and I can’t think of a better way to hone these skills. In an educational climate where there is a push for teaching students to think and develop a passion for lifelong learning, problem based activities like game design spark a level of intrinsic motivation that is often hard to find in education.

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