Making Games: The Ultimate Project-Based Learning

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Gamestar Mechanic
Gamestar Mechanic

Part 6 of MindShift’s Guide to Games and Learning.

As game-based learning increases in popularity, it's easy to get pigeon-holed into one particular way of thinking about it or one way of employing it. This is true regardless of how teachers feel about gaming in the classroom, whether they’re for or against it.

One common objection to game-based learning is that students will sit in front of screens being taught at. Sure, games are interactive, but on some level, don’t they still just replace the sage on the stage with the sage on the screen? Does a joystick really change the nature of pedagogy?

In previous posts in this series, I’ve argued that because games involve systems thinking, they contextualize learning. Game-based learning could bring us a step closer to John Dewey’s call for “learning by doing.”

Games are just simulators with an internal incentive structure (often dopamine based). That means they tap into the way humans, and all living creatures, are hard-wired to learn: by doing,” says Keith Devlin, author of Mathematics Education For A New Era: Video Games As A Medium For Learning.


However, virtual simulations of hands-on experience are not the same as tangibly engaging with the world. Simulating doing is, by definition, not the real thing. Plus, some of game-based learning’s strengths can also be seen as weaknesses. Games provide sequenced instruction blended with practice, feedback, and assessment. But even adaptive games have a finite number of sequential variations. Structures, and therefore, frameworks and perspectives, all remain fixed in a game. Certainly it is part of an educator’s job to frame content, but we don’t want to do it in a way that prevents students from figuring out their own way to make meaning out of the material. In order to model a respect for diverse perspectives, we need to employ a variety of teaching methods.

Fortunately, few people are calling for games to replace school as we know it. Kids shouldn’t sit in front of screens all day. Games are just one of the many tools that teachers can use in the classroom. In addition, there is more than one way to teach using games. It's not just about playing the games, it's also about making them. Game making is one way to create a space where students are empowered to freely experiment with their own way of framing ideas and choosing perspectives. In this way, game making is tantamount to project-based learning.

Just as there are many apps and platforms designed to teach kids coding, there are also many apps and platforms that make it easy for kids to design their own games. Gamestar Mechanic is one of the better examples.

Created by E-Line Media and the Institute of Play, with initial funding from the MacArthur Foundation, Gamestar Mechanic is currently used in more than 7,000 schools, with over 600,000 youth-created games published and played over 20 million times in 100+ countries. It was created, the company states, “with the understanding that game design is an activity that allows learners to build technical, technological, artistic, cognitive, social, and linguistic skills suitable for our current and future world.”

Gamestar Mechanic is a web-based software platform with a drag and drop interface that makes it simple for kids to make their own games. Successfully manipulating Gamestar Mechanic requires that students learn pretty sophisticated “systems thinking,” or systems-based problem solving. “Game mechanics” learn to adjust settings and manipulate the relationship between components within a particular framework.


Brian Alspach, Executive Vice President at E-Line Media, explains that “a game is a system designed to create a fun, challenging experience for the player. Within the systems they design, kids get to set how things work, and their rules can be very different from the real world. Kids have to understand how all the pieces of the system they design will fit together. This system based thinking -- which can let you create a really fun, well-designed and unique game -- is also vital in understanding how systems in the real world work.”

Just fiddling with Gamestar Mechanic, or some other game design platform is a great way to get students thinking about how separate components relate to one another within a fixed system. On a general level, it might serve as a way to convey the nature of bio-systems or economic systems. By constructing their own games, students get a tangible project-based introduction to the big abstract concept of systems thinking. But there’s no reason to be so philosophical. It can also be concrete. Teachers have also created game-making exercises that “provide reinforcement and review of concepts related to ratios, proportions and percents.”

Additionally, game design is one way that the arts and humanities can benefit from game-based learning. In a world of non-linear networked communication, modes of self-expression take on new forms. The personal essay, the autobiography, and the self-portrait are no longer sufficient by themselves. Intelligent educational models need to consider how to provide meaningful creative and interpretive skills that embrace interactive social technologies. Forward thinking teachers in so-called “soft” subjects might begin to see video games as a new narrative genre. Perhaps we can reimagine some of our creative writing assignments so that students design games, exploring nonlinear narrative conventions in addition to linear ones. Both are forms of self-expression.

Scratch, from MIT media lab, is another simple platform that allows students to build their own “interactive stories, games, and animations.” Based on basic coding, or algorithmic thinking, “Scratch helps young people learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively — essential skills for life in the 21st century.” Scratch emphasizes the way coding can break down the boundary between STEM and ELA education.

Although coding, as a skill, is usually classified as a STEM subject, game design shows kids that it is ultimately a semiotic system. That is, it is about language. Through design-thinking, coding allows folks to put together specific metaphors, signs, and systems in ways that enable the articulation of experiences through a shared system of meaning-making. Whether they belong to STEM or ELA, metaphors are all we have. We represent the universe through analogies that make social, technological, and medical accomplishments possible.

The great thing about any kind of project based learning -- whether it involves game design or not -- is that when students make meaning through creative articulations, they have to make active and intentional choices. Just as students need to choose paint colors or media in a fine arts class, they need to choose components in order to make a game. While these might seems like simple aesthetic choices, the right mentoring can show students how they are constructing their framework, how constructing a system is like constructing a viewpoint. When we challenge students to consider and explain why they make each choice, a sophisticated lesson in perspective is learned in a fun, engaging, hands-on way.

I’ve written a lot about metacognition in this series, emphasizing the importance of teaching kids to think about their own thinking. With game design students take metacognition to the next level, learning that ideas are constructed. They understand that knowledge is always framed from a particular perspective, with a particular kind of intention. The benefits of this kind of reflexive consideration are intellectual, social, and emotional.

Intellectually, students learn that all information is presented in some way -- a lesson in methodology and epistemology. Socially, they become cognizant of the ways in which others construct knowledge -- a lesson in tolerance and empathy. Emotionally, they understand that feelings are part of a complex meaning system within which individuals are empowered to make their own decisions -- they have emotions rather than emotions having them.

Imagine a classroom where you swap back and forth between books, essays, lectures, and games. Imagine if your students sometimes demonstrated understanding and retention by expressing themselves using game design platforms. Students might even begin to design their own learning games, constructing game-based curriculum for other students. Every teacher knows that the best way to learn is to teach. If an individual can create a game that delivers the content, you can be pretty sure that he or she understands it in a comprehensive way.


The MindShift Guide to Games and Learning is made possible through the generous support of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and is a project of the Games and Learning Publishing Council.