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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Game Design in the Classroom - Part 1 - What I learned

An early handmade version of my game What's It To Ya?
This is the first in a series. The second is about what others learned from making games. It can be found here. You can find the rest of the series and other articles I've written on game design in the classroom on this page.

I saw an article recently about game design activities for the classroom. It sounded like a great project that students would enjoy. The final product was a non-digital game, so it didn't require programming experience. Right away it reminded me of similar design challenges I've used that I could modify for the classroom, but something was missing in the article.

I couldn’t find much in it about the educational value of game design. Sure, the kids love it, but what are they learning? I even did some searches for lessons learned from making games, but it’s tricky finding anything. Most sites promise lessons about game design.

So before I write a post about my own classroom game design activity, I’ll start with a few lessons that I learned from designing games.

An improved version from a few years later
I’ve been making games as a serious hobby for about twenty years now. Some have been published and played around the world. Looking back, I have learned far more valuable lessons from making those games than I have in many classes I’ve paid for.

I brainstormed a list of lessons in no time. I won't give you a table correlating these lessons to Common Core State Standards, but these are important lessons for success in far more areas than just game design. They’re usually not taught explicitly in school. I can see they would be useful for any teacher in at least three ways:

  • If a teacher does assign a game design activity, the requirements of the project must include the course content standards.  These other ideas I list below should also come out in the lesson, though, because they can help students no matter which path they take in life.
  • If a student shows interest in game design, even if it’s completely unrelated to what’s being done in class, have students read my series of blog posts. The ideas in it will provide a good starting point for his or her success.
  • These concepts are behind much of what I do when training teachers. These lessons apply to all of us educators just as much as they do to the students.

One last note: Before finalizing my list, I realized it also would be great to bring in input from other designers. I posted a short survey on a couple forums. I will post the responses I received in a second part of this series. (Part 2 is here.)

Knowing I’d ultimately have a lot of input from others, I shortened my list and just spoke to some general topics.

Here are just four valuable lessons I learned from making games.


How to be heard above the noise - Gaining attention for my work taught me the important lesson of how to stand out in a good way. Proper use of social media, directing language and images for a target audience and paying attention to feedback are all crucial for success in today’s world.

Technology skills - I was a math teacher when I started making games. I had no idea that by playing around with graphics programs, web 2.0 tools and website design on the weekends would open doors for me to do rewarding work with educational technology. Sometimes I was frustrated because I felt I had to do so much of the design and publishing process myself to realize my goals. Now I’m thankful for all those skills I developed.

Creative problem solving - I’ve already written much about the importance of this. It makes a great foundation for all of what we are doing in school.

Bringing an idea to reality - I write a lot about “teaching like an artist”. Most of what I have experienced as an artist has come from my work with games. It’s that process of having a dream, working hard to make it real and then sharing it with others.

  • When I talk about inspiration in the classroom, it’s because I have seen:
  • how much dreams matter
  • the benefits of working on them to the end
  • they can be contagious

The final edition of What's It to Ya?
I’ve found all students dream big. They also love it when we remind them their dreams matter. The sad thing is most will never learn how to take a big dream from start to finish.

That skill (or combination of many skills) is vital if we want people to live interesting lives and reach their potential, yet it’s not something we teach explicitly in school very often. Living (and learning) like an artist is pure work at times, so we have to encourage and remind students that the payoff is better than just existing off the dreams of others.

As I said, in my next post in this series I will include lessons other game designers have learned.

If you liked this post, here are others you might find useful:

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