Kids as Game Designers: Fostering Creativity and Thoughtfulness with Online Learning

Much of what we hear when people talk about games for learning may be behind the potential of video games to teach traditional content, but there’s also a very exciting, and increasingly popular trend in education of kids as game designers. But what do we really mean when we say kids as designers? What skills and perspectives are kids getting by engaging in the game design process? As Aaron Morris recently discussed on the Cooney Center blog, an essential part of “21st Century Skills” or “Digital Literacy” is getting kids to engage within online communities, and build their own interactive media. In my experiences so far this summer as an instructor in theGamestar Mechanic Online Learning Program, a new curriculum being offered by E-Line Media, I’ve seen my students do just that – and as a result, develop a number of competencies beyond traditional classroom skills.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, a major focus of the Gamestar Mechanic Online Program is for students to learn about and practice working within the iterative design process.  This means that designs are always meant to change and be revised according to feedback and new ideas that come out of playtesting, brainstorming and more playtesting.  Just like professional game designers do, students are encouraged to continue reiterating their design in response to critical feedback they receive as a part of the program.  For students, this means that sometimes they work for hours or days putting their heart and soul into a new game design, and then as soon as they turn it in (along with their requisite blood, sweat and tears) the instructor comes back at them with a “revise” message full of suggested changes, and they have to, oh so gracefully, go back to the online workshop, think a lot more, and change things.


As many students have discovered, game design doesn’t happen overnight — a designer’s work is never done!

For a lot of students, this has also encouraged a shift in thinking from “I’m done” or “I got an A” to more of a workshop approach where theoretically, a design may never be fully “done.”  Essentially, it’s an approach that tries to communicate to students that they are designers, and as such, their designs are not “right or wrong” or even “good or bad” but rather just at different stages of what is a much larger design process. By this same token, because every student of game design in the Online Program is a designer, everyone in the online environment is a fellow designer with valuable feedback to offer as a part of the iterative design process. This approach begins to replicate the diplomatic experience of designing with collaborative working groups and, as many of the assignments term it, give kids practice in “being a thoughtful critic.”  And everyone has something different to offer!

Creativity comes in many forms

Through the different assignments in the curriculum, students practice planning and building designs with special care given to game mechanics and player interactions, as well as the development of characters and stories. They have a lot of opportunities to thrive and really develop a skill that they may be especially interested in, while getting a lot of practice with other important aspects of design. While some students place a lot of emphasis on the story or look and feel of a game, others are incredibly focused on how to create a tricky puzzle or create the proper time patterns for a player to get through rows of blasting enemies.

For example, in an assignment that asks students to recreate a classic game, I’ve been amazed to find versions of games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong and PacMan that replicate the same look, story or functionality as the original using combinations of sprites in creative ways. And, as a member of the furiously-blow-into-a-Nintendo-game-cartridge-to-“fix”-it generation, I’m a pretty tough critic!

So, what next?

With a number of promising platforms available for kids to design their own games (among them GameMaker,Multimedia FusionMicrosoft KoduScratchLittle Big Planet, and of course Gamestar Mechanic!) it’s no surprise that more and more opportunities like the Gamestar Online Learning Program are springing up in schools, summer camps and after-school settings. For parents and teachers interested in getting their kids involved, registration for the fall session is now open on the E-Line Media website:

Also, for ambitious young designers, there are also numerous challenges and competitions to showcase their game designs and win cash prizes to support themselves financially in future projects. To name just a few, over the last 2 years The Microsoft Kodu CupThe National STEM Video Game ChallengeBAFTA’s Young Game Designers Competition in the UK, and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards sponsored by the AMD Foundation have given out tens of thousands of dollars to young designers for their work in this field.

In the meantime, stay tuned for more news from me as the summer winds down and my students prepare for the last part of their summer experience — getting their final games reviewed by a game industry professional!


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