The potential of designing games for learning processes

When it comes to learning, the potential of digital games is often seen in enhancing problem solving skills as games basically are a collection of artificially constructed challenges which need to be solved by taking decisions or actions by the players. Moreover, games provide a safe space to try out causes and effects of actions and processes without having to fear any real world consequences (Gee, 2005). Although learners are also active when playing a digital game (compared to watching a film or reading a text), they need to integrate even more skills when designing their own games. The reason is that they need to learn details about game-design like narrative elements, character and world design, reward system and so on (Perry & DeMaria 2009). Beside learning about game-elements, learners need to work in teams, apply different idea-generating methods as well as being able to let go of ideas. There is even another challenge added if the task is to design games whose primary purpose is beyond mere entertainment (Michael & Chen, 2005). If a game should convey meaning or teach about a topic, game-designers need to dive deep into the contents they want to integrate. Gaming fluencies (Kafai & Peppler 2012) should be an objective of constructivist teaching as learners do not only get familiar with game design but also engage in creative, critical and technical aspects of digital media.

Game design is seen as advantageous by advocates of this teaching method because it can enhance creativity as students need to think of new worlds, characters and rules. Making a game usually is a collaborative task and furthers technological skills. Moreover, games are described as a collection of artificial obstacles – which have to be thought of and solved by game designers. Studies have also shown that content-related learning takes place in the context of game-making activities (Kafai & Burke, 2016). Using game design as a constructionist learning environment (cf. Kafai, 1994) has often been researched from the pupils’ and students’ point of view and their learning progress. However, there have also been studies looking at pupils and pre-service teachers to find out about the potential of teaching and learning by creating a virtual game learning environment for others (cf. Kafai et al. 1998; Ruggiero & Green, 2017). Especially when it comes to teaching MINT-subjects or software engineering, this approach has been widely used (cf. Claypool & Claypool, 2005, Shemran et al., 2017). The advantages sought for when using a game-design approach are the many skills learners need for designing a digital game as for example problem-solving and programming skills (VanEck, 2006). Designing digital games has, however, also been used for teaching about games as a cultural medium (Buckingham & Burn, 2007) or to enhance media literacy (Costa et al., 2018) or to make girls more interested in computer programming (Flanagan, 2006). Compared to digital game-based learning, the creation of games is not that widespread. A reason might be that designing digital games provides some barriers as for example the lack of special knowledge in creating games, the high resources regarding hardware and software that are required and finally, the high amount of time that is needed to produce a working digital game.

So why should teachers use game-design as a teaching method? Basically, you can say that game design means active work with media and thus enhances media literacy of students. Before designing their own games, students also need to be able to “read” existing games and to identify elements of a game, find out about what works and what does not work – especially when it comes to rules and reward systems. Moreover, production processes need to be understood – there are certain steps to be taken to come from an idea to a finished product. Designing a game also enhances creativity – students can realize their own ideas, they need to care for grphics, sound, animation as well as texts, design and coding. Digital games are therefore often designed in teams – which means there is another potential of game design. Teamwork needs communication and collaboration as well as project management and being able to give and get feedback. Looking at this long list of skills that can be taught by designing digital games, it becomes obvious that they should be part of every curriculum.

Sonja Gabriel


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