Learning by Designing Games (with useful resources, #GBL)
When people think of gamification or game-based learning, they most often envision a classroom with students sitting at computers, playing games. What they never imagine is students in small groups out in the field interviewing people, in the library conducting research, sitting around a table with paper and pencil sketching out scripts and storyboards, or sorting through usability test results. These scenarios all represent the seldom considered side of gamification – game design and development.
Desktop game design software and gaming engines are increasingly prevalent. In a world where the gaming industry and education seldom communicate, and high quality educational games are few and far between, designing and developing games represents one way in which students, even in higher education, can explore rich educational content, develop research and technology skills, demonstrate their understanding of subject material, and get a jump on a post-graduation career. Here is how you, as a student, can take advantage of this medium to wow your professors and jumpstart your job search.
Why Game Design?
Game design and development is a versatile and increasingly accessible process that lends itself to having students use it as a means of expressing their learning. It is flexible enough to be used in any subject area, and provides an interactive way to gain knowledge, enhance technology literacy, and build a portfolio and skills that may help you get hired in the hyper-connected, global, digital economy where employers are always on the lookout for innovators.
The first step in beginning a game design project for a class is going to be convincing your professor that this is a legitimate way for you to express what you have learned. You will need to approach your teacher with a well thought out plan (see, “Planning Your Game,” below) so they know that you are serious and that there is a reasonable expectation that you can have something to give them by the project due date. When you talk to them, consider pitching the idea as an “interactive PowerPoint” or research paper. They will be familiar with these concepts, but be prepared to explain what interactivity will contribute to enhance your project and how creating the game will enhance your understanding of the subject and give you added benefits far beyond the course syllabus. For example, consider mentioning:
- Research – you will need to conduct just as much or more research into your subject area in order to create a quality game. Take dialogue, for example. If you are making a historical game, you will need to understand not just what a figure would have said, but also how they would have said it.
- Planning – Unlike writing a paper where a simple outline may constitute your entire planning process, making a game requires that in addition to writing scripts, creating visual storyboards, and planning game objectives and interactions. Delving into a topic this deeply will both enhance your understanding and help you remember the material much more thoroughly.
- Creativity – Making a game will challenge you to be creative. You will need to use your imagination to plan, develop, and create something which represents a synthesis and simulation of the material being presented. You assume the role of creator in a virtual world and become responsible for imagining all aspects of the way that world functions.
- Technology skills – Beyond subject matter, developing a game for a class will help to improve your technology literacy in some areas that are highly valued by employers, such as visual design, information architecture (planning), and designing interactivity.
- Resume / Portfolio Booster – Having a real deliverable that you can add to a digital portfolio or that you can discuss in a cover letter or during an interview will help employers see that you are motivated, tech-savvy, and well versed in the subject matter of that field.
From Vision to Reality – Planning Your Game
In many ways planning to create a video game is very similar to the academic writing process that college students should already be familiar with. You develop a thesis, do in-depth research, create an outline, and write the paper. For a video game, that work is translated into an interactive visual medium rather than written words. Here is an outline of a basic game design process:
- State Learning Objectives/Goals – Stating clear objectives is one thing that you can always do to help you be successful in anything you undertake. It is particularly important when designing media or any instructional documents. Quite simply, to state an objective or objectives for a game, write down the thing or things that you want the player to learn or find out through the process of playing the game. For example: “By completing __________, the player will understand the ways in which X, Y, and Z contribute to _____________.” State as many of these as is realistic for the game to accomplish, but remember, one semester is not a lot of time to make a complex game with dozens of objectives.
- Conduct Research – As with any academic project, solid background research is essential to designing and creating a coherent, accurate, and engaging game. Use the same research process as for an academic paper or presentation, but be aware of the additional variables that also need to be factored into a visual project such as period dress, dialogue or accent, and historical, technical or other details that will contribute to the authenticity of the game.
- Creating a Storyboard – With sound objectives and background research completed it is time to storyboard the game. This is akin to drawing a comic book version of the game that captures the content, flow, and game play elements that the final product should contain. A storyboard does not have to be a work of art, but rather is a functional document that only needs to capture the essence of the final project, not create it on paper.
- Writing a Script – The script should evolve concurrent with conducting research and storyboarding the game. All three elements work together, informing and enhancing each other to create a coherent narrative that will drive the story and ensure that players can follow the plot and achieve the stated objectives. Even if the game is not going to have dialogue, it is important to have a script to accompany the story board and that helps to maintain the continuity of the story throughout the design and development process. The script will also give you a place to make sure that the background information players will need is delivered.
- Designing the Game Play – Once the story is fleshed out in the storyboard and script the next step is to design the game play. The type of game will dictate the tools used to make it as well as the complexity of the process. There are several excellent resources available online and in print for understanding and creating solid game play.
Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman
Challenges for Game Designers: Non-digital exercises for video game designers by Brenda Braithwaite and Ian Schreiber
The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses by Jesse Schell
Beginning Game Level Design by John Feil and Marc Scattergood
Pixel Prospector’s “Big List of Game Design“
After the project is planned and designed, it will need to be turned into an actual digital game. This is an involved process far beyond the scope of a single blog post, but the resources below provide a starting point for understanding the possible tools and for finding additional resources to guide the process.
Making Virtual Reality
Mapping out the game content and play elements is the background work that will let you dive into the most enjoyable part of making a game – actually making the game. There are dozens of game engines available that can be used to create a working digital game, and many of them are free and easy to use. The Pixel Prospector’s “Big List of Game Making Tools” contains information about, and links to, many of them. Among my favorites are Torque, Unreal Development Kit, and FlashPunk. Exploring their list will introduce you to several others and finding one that you like and that is intuitive is a key to success.
Once you’ve chosen a tool, the Internet provides an unbelievably rich source of information and tutorials to help you get started with the one you’ve picked. For example, this Intro to FlashPunk from Activetuts.com can be completed in 45 minutes and will give you all the basics needed to get started. YouTube is also an excellent source for video based tutorials on any game design tool. Just search the program name and “tutorials” and you will be rewarded with an abundance of videos to choose from.
Putting Your New Skills to Work
Once you have made a game, turned it in and gotten an “A” for your efforts, how will you leverage the skills you have developed for getting a job? Three simple steps will help you turn these talents into marketable skills for your job search process:
- Make more games – Once is not enough. You will need to hone your skills and keep them sharp if you are going to claim that you have them on a job application. Make games for fun, for other classes, and collaboratively online or with your friends.
- Get recognized – Take some free online classes that offer a credential or at least can be listed on your resume to support your claims. Coursera offers a class on Game Theory taught by a trio of Stanford professors, and Udacity offers a wildly popular class on Artificial Intelligence that can be leveraged to game development. Additionally, here is a list of free game design courses from the Education Portal.
- Keep track of your progress – Make sure that you are updating your resume constantly as you learn new skills and tools. Also, start keeping a digital portfolio of your work that can be shared with prospective employers.
If you enjoy designing and making games and are diligent about keeping track of your work, you can easily turn this fun and engaging hobby into a real employment opportunity and impress your friends, professors, and prospective employers along the way.
Talk game design and gamification every Friday on Twitter by following me and posting with the #GBLFriday.
- What Do Kids Turned Learning Game Designers Inspire Us? (#GBL) (classroom-aid.com)