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Game play and game design require learners to think critically about contents within the game and to solve problems. We suggest that engaging learners in game design projects helps them understand school subjects deeply and develop important skills that individuals need in all situations in life (e.g., creative designs, strategic thinking). In this paper, we discuss what game design practices can afford for learners’ experience and development based on the recent game design projects that took place in two junior high schools in Western Canada.
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2017. In P. Preciado Babb, L. Yeworiew, & S. Sabbaghan (Eds.). Selected Proceedings of the
IDEAS Conference: Leading Educational Change, pp. 7-16. Calgary, Canada: Werklund School
of Education, University of Calgary.
Beaumie Kim, Reyhaneh Bastani, and Farzan Baradaran
University of Calgary
Game play and game design require learners to think critically about contents
within the game and to solve problems. We suggest that engaging learners in game
design projects helps them understand school subjects deeply and develop
important skills that individuals need in all situations in life (e.g., creative designs,
strategic thinking). In this paper, we discuss what game design practices can afford
for learners’ experience and development based on the recent game design projects
that took place in two junior high schools in Western Canada.
Keywords: Game design; interdisciplinary learning; interest-driven learning
Playing and creating digital games have gained attentions for their learning potential to foster
critical thinking and deep understanding of contents in a game (Gee, 2008). For example, games
depicting complex social-historical phenomena (e.g., Civilization) could support a rich learning
experience and outcomes (e.g., DeVane, Durga, & Squire, 2010; Salen, 2007). Designing games,
on the other hand, provides the opportunity for students to create their own sharable artifacts and
“to construct new relationships with knowledge in the process” (Kafai, 2006, p. 36). It requires
students to develop and integrate their own ideas and to engage in an ongoing knowledge synthesis
and reflection to create a complex set of meanings (e.g., background, knowledge, aesthetics, rules)
and anticipate how the meanings transform in a social play setting (Salen, 2007; Vos, van der
Meijden & Denessen, 2011). Students learn to acquire and appreciate a rich set of skills such as
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IDEAS 2017 8
systems thinking, problem-solving, art and aesthetics, storytelling, and game logic and rules when
designing games (Peppler, Warschauer, & Diazgranados, 2010). Ke (2014) emphasizes the
storytelling and identity expression in the process of students’ game design, and how this
encourages students to persist in “design and development-oriented problem solving” (p. 37).
Designing games to learn curricular topics, students could construct their understanding and engage
in disciplinary and cross-disciplinary reasoning. Students’ personal preferences, their past gaming
experience, or their competencies in coding and making digital or non-digital media would become
important resources for their game design (Kafai, 1995; Ke, 2014). Students may come up with
unique approaches to integrating the content, aesthetics, game mechanics and a complex set of
game dynamics based on their own experiences. In this paper, we describe various learning
opportunities that we observed in two schools’ game design projects.
Research on designing digital games for learning showed that students often created games to test
players with knowledge (Kafai, 2006). With limited skills and their perception of “learning”,
students may not engage in creating the complex systems depicted in their school subjects. We
support that teachers can engage learners in various types of game designs to support their deep
learning. We worked with two Western Canadian junior high schools with different curricular
goals. Lake View School (pseudonym) explored learner-centered interdisciplinary learning of
Science, Math, Humanities, and English in two 8th grade classrooms. This project accompanied
teacher-led lessons of going over the subject contents. Students were assigned to groups and created
card or board games for the Renaissance period. They went through the process of playing and
analyzing games to learn game mechanics, becoming experts in subtopics, creating and testing their
prototypes, and inviting other classes to play their games. Teachers assessed students’
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understanding of the topics through student-teacher conferences, their daily online reflections, and
observing their presentations and game playtesting using rubrics throughout the project.
In Western Prairie Junior High School (pseudonym), a 9th grade Career and Technology Studies
class supported students’ interest-driven skill-development and an exploration of careers that use
these skills. Game design was an overarching theme to achieve these goals. Students formed their
own groups, and came up with ideas for digital games based on their interests. They negotiated
ways to test out feasibility of their ideas considering their skills and timeline by creating diverse
types of games (e.g., digital, card, board, Minecraft-based). We collected ethnographic data of
lesson planning documents, classroom videos, game design artifacts and reflections, informal
conversations with teachers, and interviews. We looked for patterns of students’ decision-making
and design process, which show their problem-solving and development of knowledge and skills.
In LVS, we observed that students engaged more deeply in their board/card game design practices
when their game ideas depicted more dynamic systems for play. In other words, students who
heavily incorporated knowledge-testing elements in their games found this project less engaging
and redundant to their content-focused reading and practice school learning. We illustrate four
examples of learning and development opportunities for more complex game designs.
Students’ initiative to learn beyond the required subject content
Some students searched for more background information to incorporate into their games, and
identified this activity as a significant part of the project. Hans described his experience of creating
their game, Race of Renaissance, using the word “researcher” and stated that “sometimes when we
were doing our game, I was like feeling to [find out] some stuff, so when I go home, I research
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about it to make sure I understand it.” Such notable student-initiated work was not limited to the
assigned topics. To create richer characters in their role-playing card game, the group sought to
develop a thorough understanding of the lives and context of the historical figures (e.g., Galileo)
beyond what was in the textbook. Markus explained, “To create a game or a research paper or
anything on one topic, you really need to understand that topic very well, even the information that
you might not need to know, because once you know all the information you can decide what's
good to add and what's not good to add…We did a lot of in-depth researching, we learned a lot
about things that are not in the game, but we had to research like a lot.
Students’ deeper understanding of complex context and relationships
We observed that some students could contextualize their design ideas for others’ learning of math,
science and humanities within the game. Students applied mathematics in the game rules for using
resources and players’ interactions. One group’s game (Renaissance: Rebirth) used the concept of
ratios for players’ in-game trading, which involved comparing and managing different resources
based on their values. Race of Renaissance role-playing card game (Figure 1) required players to
consider the historical context of the inventors’ endeavors in the Renaissance, and the inventions’
contribution to different fields. The students’ desire to create the settings for complex dynamics
motivated them to incorporate a complex understanding of the overall impacts of inventions, which
showed itself in their game rules. Markus explained how introducing an invention in the game
could benefit everyone: They mostly make sense with the invention. [For example, the Vitruvian
man], the action it unlocks gets everyone a point. That is because everybody gets a better
understanding of perspective and math and the relationships in the human body, so that could help
them with scientific invention like medicine or even just help them paint.”
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Figure 1: Race of renaissance card game Figure 2: X-PLORE-2-CONQUER board game
Students connecting with their real-life context and skills
Another group pursued reenacting exploration and trade in the Renaissance (Figure 2). They
incorporated the trade route of the Renaissance and created rules considering locations and
positions of countries. To simulate real-life situations, they considered costs and benefits of taking
each path to different countries, such as resources and accessibility: “[our game theme is]
exploring… to different continents, and just getting different resources, and seeing how they were
worth different amounts, and the risks and pros and cons that could happen to you while you were
going to those continents, stuff like that said Julio, one of the group members. He asserted that
risk cards “were like the pros and cons. Some things go good for you on the voyages, and then
some turn bad, which is like real life.” Noah explained managing resources in this game: “you
would just strategize and save some of the money that you had so that you didn’t run out.” After
testing with another group, they adopted a “loan” option for the problem of running out of money.
Students creating a context for problem-solving and decision-making
Designing games engage students in creating a game context that required players to compare their
options and make decisions. Julio explained that “sometimes people would say maybe buying
countries close to the ocean could be bad for you because of all the storms that could happen with
the oceans… [but it could be] really good for you because then they were really close to the ports
and people kept paying you.” Noah affirmed, “The bigger countries not necessarily mean they
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were the best countries.” Put it differently, multiple cycles of design and testing were involved in
this process to create a balanced game system. This entailed deciding on rules for buying resources
and trading, and incorporating chances with risk cards that represented probable consequences of
travelling to different countries.
In WPJH, the work of some students clearly expressed their developing identities (e.g., aspiring
programmers). Game design practices afforded various teaching and learning purposes, and we
recognized that students relied heavily on their gaming experiences and preferences while engaging
in this practice. In WPJH’s context of Career and Technology Studies classroom, we observed the
following learning and development opportunities, especially in two groups of male students who
claimed their affection for video games but took different routes to their final games.
Students using their experiences and preferences as resources
Z-Days, a group of three boys who desired to create a zombie game, had doubts about their idea at
the beginning. Their game had a violent content that involved dealing with zombies and odd
creatures, and they were not sure if the teacher (Megan) would endorse their idea. Megan
remembered that they became interested in the project when she told them they could create a
zombie game. Terry, one of the Z-Days members, mentioned “I love video games, especially
zombie games, and I think it's really cool that we are creating one ourselves.” He explained, “We
took a bunch of ideas from games and shows […] and put them into one, so it was a mixture of all
the different games and shows.” As soon as they found out that they could make such a game in
the class, Z-Days, who did not show much engagement in class, became excited about designing
the game of their desire. Bob, another Z-Days member, pointed out, “We got more freedom to say
what we wanted and make up our own ideas. I find with every other class you’re just using
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everybody else’s way, you can’t use your own, but with this you can make your own ideas, choose
what ideas you want to use.”
Students making their own decisions
Voxel War, a group of five avid gamers, wanted to create a video game that involved fighting to
conquer more territories. The members of this group described making their own decisions as an
engaging aspect of the project. Zoey explained “I was able to be creative and say, I want to do this
and then make something out of that.” Graham added, “Rather than being handed an assignment
[…] to do this, this, and this and it has to be specifically done in this one way.” Diego, the
programmer of the group expressed that “the experience of learning by designing a game is a lot
more intuitive.” The iterative process of decision making was one of those aspects of the project.
Zoey mentioned that the project had “been making decisions, going back on those decisions, going
back on those decisions, and making different ones.” Graham confirmed, “While making decisions
for the game, it is like you’re considering a lot of different things.
Figure 3: Z-Days’ final game being played Figure 4: Voxel War game being played
Students developing skills based on their interest
Students were also able to find their own interest and develop skills in creating and designing
unique game elements. For example, Zoey mentioned, “I enjoy writing the stories for each
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character and the lore of the world.” Zoey, in fact, could tell us elaborate stories about the world
and characters, even though Voxel War was not able to design a game at such scale. Through the
iterations of testing, evaluation and modification of design elements, different members developed
different skills, such as photo editing, sound editing, 3D graphics, programming, and animation.
Terry was working on game sound effects: he developed his sound editing skills while designing
for the game. Zoey mentioned, “We learned the skills necessary, such as design, code, even 2-D
design.” Diego expressed, “I enjoy modelling and learning how to use Unity and the programming
language C++.” Zoey added, “I enjoy the development of character models, and how we started
thinking that we would make it a 2D game but now we are doing 3D voxels, and now thinking of
converting to polygons.”
Students determining the final game format based on their interest
In the process of understanding, modifying, and transforming systems (digital game concept to
playable game), students came to understand the complexity of doing multidisciplinary work
involved in game design and development. Zoey found “the scale of the game idea needing to be
done in a realistic timeframe” challenging. Voxel War members, who were interested in design
and development skills, decided to create a final product that was a short demo of the game that
the team members intended to design. The playable version included one of the main characters
and a group of enemies to fight with using the keyboard and mouse (Figure 4). Z-Days members
were more interested in their game design ideas with Zombie characters, and their prototype was
focused on using the full backstory in a board game (Figure 3). The game included cards that were
designed to make a balance between chance and strategy in the game.
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We described some aspects of what game design practices could afford for students’ learning and
development. Even though the curricular goals of the two schools were very different, students
were positioned as problem-solvers and decision-makers in all aspects of their game design. In
LVS, students were not only developing a deep understanding of complex context and
relationships, but also creating an interesting context for other learners to play and learn through
their games. In WPJH, students were deeply engaged in understanding their own interests,
preferences and experiences, and pursuing them within the context of school. For some students,
this was their first time in junior high to be excited about coming to the classroom and to be thinking
about their future careers.
Our research indicates that turning the design decisions to the hand of the learners is important for
bringing their own experience and expertise to their learning. We advocate for adopting game
design practices not only to engage learners in deep learning of content but also to develop skills
that all students need to thrive in their lives. We acknowledge that we could only demonstrate a
part of our findings with a limited number of students in this paper. There was a range of guidance
that came from teachers and researchers. In addition, students and teachers mentioned other aspects
of learning, including how students could evaluate their own development, to learn from each other,
and learn to work together. We are further exploring ways to better support students in thinking
about complex systems that they represent in the game, and to employ the existing gaming expertise
of students more productively in this process.
Acknowledgements: We thank the teachers and students for welcoming us in their spaces, Matt
Tolman, for the offering of his time and expertise, and MindFuel for their collaboration.
Kim, Bastani, & Baradaran
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... Z-Days, a group of three boys who desired to create a zombie game, had doubts about their idea of zombie fighting game at the beginning since they were not sure if the teacher (Megan) would endorse their idea. Megan remembered that they became interested in the project when she told them they could create a zombie game that would have violence (Kim, Bastani, & Baradaran Rahimi, 2017). Later, Terry, mentioned "I love video games, especially zombie games, and I think it's really cool that we are creating one ourselves." ...
... Later, Terry, mentioned "I love video games, especially zombie games, and I think it's really cool that we are creating one ourselves." As soon as they found out that they could make such a game in the class, Z-Days, who did not show much engagement up to this point, became excited about designing the game (Kim et al., 2017). Bob, another Z-Days member, pointed out: ...
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In this study the effects of two different interactive learning tasks, in which simple games were included were described with respect to student motivation and deep strategy use. The research involved 235 students from four elementary schools in The Netherlands. One group of students (N = 128) constructed their own memory ‘drag and drop’ game, whereas the other group (N = 107) played an existing ‘drag and drop’ memory game. Analyses of covariance demonstrated a significant difference between the two conditions both on intrinsic motivation and deep strategy use. The large effect sizes for both motivation and deep strategy use were in favour of the construction condition. The results suggest that constructing a game might be a better way to enhance student motivation and deep learning than playing an existing game. Despite the promising results, the low level of complexity of the games used is a study limitation.
Economists who think like ecologists
  • B Devane
  • S Durga
  • K Squire
DeVane, B., Durga, S., & Squire, K. (2010). "Economists who think like ecologists": Reframing systems thinking in games for learning. E-Learning and Digital Media, 7(1), 3-20.