Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Why learn game design?

The context

Why are we learning game design? I asked my seventh grade students this question last week. On page 61 of "The Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument", it is noted that in a classroom that reflects distinguished instruction, students should be able to identify what is going on and why. "If asked, students are able to explain what they are learning and where it fits into the larger curriculum context" (Danielson, 2013). I provide some context for this on a regular basis by reviewing objectives and broader essential questions and standards.
Gamestarmechanic.com focuses on
the game design process.


My students, though, are thinkers. I'm trying to foster that. They really want to know, "why are we learning game design". Many of them did exactly what I would want them to do when given a discussion question like this. They Googled it. The results of their search were less than stellar. They found very little and expressed their frustration. These are students who know how to use advanced search strategies and even change the reading level of their results.

It turns out that there's actually a lot of very solid information for teachers and even parents out there on this topic. The excellent video below, for example, from Gamestar Mechanic is great for getting teachers and parents on board. Now, what do we tell the kids? As teachers, we can sit around and talk about STE[A]M, "Systems-Thinking" and "User-Centered Design" until we're giddy with 21st century awesomeness, but students will just tune such phrases out. Below, I have tried to lay out the context for game design in a way that a twelve-year-old can read, understand, and explain to peers, parents, and teachers.



Why learn game design?

There are hundreds of great reasons to study game design. Here are three that aren't "becoming a better computer programmer".


Reason 1: Game Design makes you a more creative problem-solver.

Okay, so you've probably heard your teachers talk about 21st century skills. A big part of that is creativity and critical thinking (problem solving). The thing is, when someone points to creativity and critical thinking (problem solving) as modern survival skills, they're not talking about the ability to create beautiful watercolor paintings or solve the word problems on your state math exam. Those are cool skills to have, but when we're talking about the 21st century, we're talking about complicated stuff, often referred to as systems. We're surrounded by complex systems, from computers and the power grid to natural systems, such as ecosystems or your digestive tract. If you change one part of a system, everything else changes too, often in surprising ways.

Games are complex systems, that are made up of inter-working elements. Game Design helps you learn about how systems work and how they can be modified or changed. Often you have to come up with very creative solutions to solve problems within the design of a game so your end product works and is fun for the people playing it. 

Reason 2: Game Design helps you learn to work with and for others.

Another thing you've probably heard your teachers talk about is collaboration. There's a good reason for that. Someday, you're probably going to have to work as part of a team to get stuff done. You're not going to learn to work well with others by being forced to do class assignments that you could do just fine on your own in a group of random peers. You'll either just divide up the work like a pie, ending up with an end product that looks like five different people made it, or you'll just have one member do all of the work while everyone else sits there and argues or gossips. 

When you make a game, you need other people. Even if you make the whole thing yourself, someone is going to have to play-test it and give you feedback. You know how your game is supposed to work. Your audience may not. You may get unexpected feedback even by watching someone else play your game. You will have a lot of "oh, I never thought of that!" or "oh, I didn't notice that!" moments when someone starts working through your game. Everything you'll ever design for a paycheck will be used by someone else. 

If you're working with a team, which may be as simple as "I'll do story and graphics, and you do programming", you will have to work out how to build on each other’s ideas, use your various strengths, and work out differences of opinion on how you think part x should turn out.

Reason 3: Game Design gets your thinking out of the box.

Think outside of the box has become a popular phrase. For now, ignore the origin of this phrase. Let's look at how it applies to school. Most schools put everything in a box. You go to Math class, then you report to Language Arts, then Social Studies, and so on. Occasionally, when not preparing you for State tests, your teachers will get together and make you do a project that includes all subjects, but the math teacher grades the math component and so on. 

Game design often gives you problems that require you to grab stuff you learned everywhere. Think of the games you play. There's often elements of history and science in the setting and mechanics of the game. The characters are developed as well as any literary character. The soundtrack is carefully put together to affect your mood and involvement in the game. To design a good game you have to learn how to find and use information from all subjects in ways that add realism to your game and make it more fun and interesting. 

What I haven't said

As mentioned earlier, I didn't say anything about coding or programming. I'm a computer teacher, and I believe that coding & programming are important skills that everyone should know. I teach game design separately from and before game development (coding / programming), however. This is simply because making a system entertaining for others requires understanding what an entertaining experience is and how it can be created. That is where the items listed above come in. 

Good luck, and great gaming...

References:

Here's some stuff I read / watched before writing this piece.