Steve Isaacs teaches video game design and development to middle school students in New Jersey, and has been recognized as an ISTE Outstanding Teacher this year. Here he shares his experience in developing a curriculum in game design at his school, and offers tips for educators interested in doing so at their own schools.
When I started teaching at William Annin Middle School (WAMS) in 1998, I offered an after school computer club that focused on Game Design and Development. For the most part, we used an early version of GameMaker. It was great to watch students stay with the club through their three years at the middle school. One student even worked on the same game for all three years, continuing to iterate and add additional levels, game mechanics, and further developing the story. His game, “Ball” became a cult classic at WAMS. It became apparent that there was incredible learning taking place. Students were fully engaged, and taking learning into their own hands in order to add desired elements to their games.
Fast forward a few years. I was asked to teach the seventh grade Gifted and Talented program at school. I saw this as an opportunity to bring game development into the regular school day, at least for this group of students. It made sense as this provided an enriching activity that could tap into their creativity. The students in the program created non-digital games as well as digital games.
They engaged in an iterative design process. They first created a design document to serve as the roadmap for their game. They created the prototype of their game and had their peers test it. Then they made improvements based on feedback. After engaging in the iterative design cycle and feedback loop several times, they created the final version of their game.
Game Design and Development: Pedagogically Speaking
I became increasingly excited about the learning potential of game design and development. At the time, I was primarily teaching technology courses like Web Design, Programming (where I was able to sneak in some game development), Communication Technology, and our more traditional Computer Cycle. I approached my supervisor with the idea of offering a full semester eighth grade elective in Game Design and Development. He was immediately on board and we moved to speaking with my building principal. To my utter delight, she quickly supported the idea. She trusted our plan to provide an engaging approach to introducing students to computer science in addition to the host of other skills that we highlighted as our learning objectives.
Game development could potentially be the most authentic approach to interdisciplinary learning. There’s really something for everyone. The activity lends so well to the creation of design teams with roles including storytelling/narrative, graphic design, animation, sound engineering, project management, and programming. It is also very important to note that game design taps so nicely into the realm of 21st century skills.
The Learning Space
I have learned a lot over the years. In fact, I would say that I completely reinvented myself as an educator. Many of these lessons came from my observations of myself as a learner as well as my daughter (and other students in informal learning spaces). I am essentially self taught. There are tremendous resources out there and I absolutely love to learn. My daughter probably learns a lot like most kids. When she wants to learn something, she seeks out whatever resources she needs. We live in a world of on-demand learning. YouTube, online wikis, tutorials, etc. abound! Whatever you want to learn is just a few clicks away. I have become a strong proponent of leveraging the way kids (and adults) learn in informal settings. I have learned to put the responsibility of learning on the learner. My role is to support students in the process. I provide resources and some instruction, but teaching kids how to learn is much better than teaching kids to rely on a teacher as the expert. Minecraft has certainly been a big factor in this shift. Students come to the classroom as the expert when it comes to Minecraft. I had to let go of control and embrace this fact. (You could read more about my experience letting go here. ) It has been nothing short of wonderful to create a space where I can learn with and from my students.
This brings me to the important point that with game design, the tool is not important. It’s much more about the process. I have strived to create a studio environment that provides a variety of resources. My strength is teaching the iterative design process. As I mentioned, I provide some direct instruction, but most of my instruction is related to the process. I am a firm believer that magic happens when we give students choice and autonomy. Choice in this context can relate to the role a student plays on a design team, choice in the type of game a student chooses to create, choice in the tool the students select, and certainly choice in terms of the type of game the student chooses to develop. When students have choice and agency in their learning, we can help them find and nurture their passion. Game development provides this opportunity, especially when students are in control.
What about the tools?
There are a number of great tools / game engines to consider for sure. I have used Gamestar Mechanic, GameMaker: Studio, and Minecraft extensively with my students.
Gamestar Mechanic has been a wonderful tool for the seventh grade Game Design and Digital storytelling course, which is only six weeks long. All objects in Gamestar Mechanic are pre-programmed. The game designer can adjust the settings of the objects in the game, but the emphasis is not on coding. This works well in a course where the focus is learning about game design elements and creating a narrative.
GameMaker: Studio has been one of my favorite tools for many years. GameMaker requires the developer to program all objects in the game. There is a drag-and-drop approach which is great, as it beautifully models the syntax of a programming language. In addition, there is a full programming language, GameMaker Language (GML) which students can learn in order to program their game with code. It provides for a more flexible and robust development environment. My focus in teaching GameMaker is on the drag-and-drop approach but I have had many students learn GML independently. In fact, one of my students and I co-authored a book that was published in January 2016 on GameMaker Programming with GML.
Minecraft is an incredible game design engine. It is fascinating how this game has taken the education world by storm! The game certainly was not created as a game design engine, but it might be the most flexible game development environment I’ve found. Minecraft includes elements in the game that lend well to game creation. Redstone and command blocks allow game developers to automate functions in the game in order to create fully functional games. Minecraft has a variety of ways to build in narrative as well. Possibly the most amazing aspect of Minecraft when it comes to game development is that it is the only tool I have found so far that (due to the multiplayer capability) works well as a collaborative design tool. Teams can work together in the same world at the same time. Furthermore, everyone is so engaged that I rarely (maybe never) students shirking responsibility and allowing other members to do the majority of the work like you might see with other tools. In addition, the potential to organically form roles within the team is remarkable to watch. Some kids are amazing with redstone, while others are great at building. The fact that kids can coordinate together and develop sections independently that come together so beautifully is pretty awesome!
The National STEM Video Game Challenge
For the past five years, my students have participated in the National STEM Video Game Challenge. I believe strongly in having students publish their work to an authentic audience. Students participating in the challenge get to submit their game. It definitely gives students something concrete to work for in addition to publishing their completed game to some of the online communities like the Gamestar Mechanic Game Alley. I would definitely encourage you to offer this opportunity to your students as part of class, an after school program, or even a lunch bunch.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions you may have. Happy to support you in getting a game design and development program started at your school!
Steve Isaacs teaches Video Game Design and Development at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, NJ. In addition, he developed and teaches an online version of the Video Game Design and Development course for the VHS Collaborative. He is the co-founder of #EdTechBridge, a twitter chat and community working to build collaborative relationships among EdTech stakeholders to create better EdTech for our students. The #EdTechBridge chat takes place every Wednesday night at 7pm EST. He is also one of the founding members of the #games4ed initiative and a moderator of the weekly #games4ed chat held on Thursday nights at 8pm ET. He can be found on Twitter as @mr_isaacs and is happy to connect with other educators who are excited about game based learning and Game Design and Development in education.