Making games as a pedagogical activity: how and why

When talking about games for education one might think about serious games or game-based learning. Or, if you’re familiar with our project, the use of traditional games with educational values. But that would be overlooking another aspect of games in education: making games with students.

There are indeed many educational benefits to making games. It encompasses several art forms and STEM subjects. To make a game one needs graphical assets, whether 2D or 3D, and an art direction to give the game its identity. It also requires music and sounds to support the ambiance and storyline within which characters evolve and develop. All these assets are orchestrated by physics and mathematical engines that permit creators to move, rotate and collide game elements. We can go even further by mentioning that designing the game’s rules, economy, and reward systems requires knowledge of psychology and behavioral economics. Finally, working on such projects in a team develops students’ soft skills like social and teamwork skills, as well as problem-solving skills.

The learning goals you want your students to achieve can be related to the content of the game or come from the creation process itself. For the first case, if the game involves a curricular element (i.e. a historical period or event) students need to learn about it to put it in the game. For the latter, students need to learn technical skills to be able to implement the game (mathematical tools, for example).

But this brings us to the question: isn’t making games super difficult and reserved for big companies? This was the case a couple of decades ago, but the emergence of low-code or even no-code engines made the game creation process available for anyone. With this lowering of the technical barrier, we have seen an explosion of indie games. This is what makes video games enter the domain of art, and more and more people can use this medium to share and make their experience or vision playable.

Like any other technological tool or device, video games are something very widely used by children and teenagers, but they don’t necessarily know how they work. Learning how something so familiar is made, that is, knowing what goes on “behind the scenes”, is very valuable for them to understand how the world works, to realize that this “magic” is, in fact, technology and that they can do it, which can trigger the desire for a career in STEM. Learning the behavioral economics aspect of game design can also help younger players make better decisions toward free-to-play games and their well-crafted mechanics that push players to make in-game purchases.

A game creation project at school that is spread over a longer period can be a powerful tool for teachers to promote students’ engagement and motivation. Learning math is no longer an abstract concept when you use vector addition to shoot a bullet in your game or the dot product to test whether you are stealthily backstabbing an enemy. Everything you learn in class triggers the question, “Can I use it in the game?”.

Teachers can gather a small multi-disciplinary team where each one takes the responsibility for the game elements that involve their specialty (music teacher for music, English teacher for story writing, math teacher for game engines, etc.). But if a teacher is alone, they can still use one part of the game creation process to illustrate the use of their course or as an introduction to a topic.

The game creation workflow is the following:

  1. Preliminary phase: collecting the information that will be necessary to create the contents of the game. This information can be historical context, elements of a fictional or literary universe, a theme, or curricular knowledge to be transmitted, etc.
  1. Design phase: preparing the necessary information and organization before making the game. This means creating a script, a storyline, a storyboard or any other documents that reflect what the game will be about. What is the story, if any, what kind of graphics the game will include, what the game mechanics are (obstacles, difficulties, and rewards), how the information of the preliminary phase will appear, etc.
  1. Production phase: here you use any kind of software to make and program the game. This is the moment to implement the design work and turn it into the actual game. Normally, the program used to create the game should be chosen at the beginning, as its technical possibilities usually determine what kind of games can be created. Also, there are more complex programs that require higher technical knowledge but are much more versatile.
  2. Post-production and communication phase: these are the actions that bring the game to the players. Mainly, these are: testing, communication and distribution. It is important to test the game to avoid errors (for example, to make sure that the game can be beaten!). Create a cover or any other kind of material to share with the community, upload the game to a digital platform or share it in any way you choose so that others can play it.

If you are a teacher and you want to start creating games with your class, we provide lesson plans and workshop ideas to help you with every step of the process, from story design to animation, as well as help to choose your game engine. For more information, check out our sequences: