Live From SXSW: Best Practices for Game-Design Curriculum

Over the course of the South by Southwest Interactive Conference (SXSW), and the education conference that preceded it (you can find the rest of our SXSW coverage here), in Austin, Texas, educational gaming is emerging as the most-discussed innovation in education. Whether using games to help students learn, or using game-design curriculum to teach science, technology, engineering, and math, educators seemed to have reached a consensus that games are an effective way to engage students in a topic they aren’t immediately interested in.
But I’ve been disappointed to see few of those discussions expand beyond, “Games are a good tool for learning” to “Here’s how games can be best used in classroom.”
Thankfully, one panel on Tuesday featured a strong roster of representatives from the most popular game design programs in K-12 education and one of the most popular online game companies in the world. The general consensus is that game design is an effective way to teach computer programming, engineering logic, and even design to students who are more interested in creating the next Grand Theft Auto than the next Newton’s Law.
But here are some suggestions from the panelists on how to create a game-design program that actually works and how to test its results.

  • First, start your game-design programs earlier. Way earlier. If students are first being introduced to game design in high school, you missed the best time to reach them. The panel included representatives from Agent Sheets, Advanced Micro Devices’ Changing the Game, and the all-girl Girlstart, three of the biggest game-design program providers in the country. All offer services to students in middle school or younger. Tamara Hudgins, the executive director of Girlstart, suggested game-design programs for students as young as six.
  • “Games usually are approached from a consumer model. We have to teach kids to think of it as the service to others. It’s not just for you,” said David Gerding, an associate professor in media at Columbia College in Chicago. By asking, “How can I help you?” Gerding says, students will approach games from a problem-solving standpoint, not just entertainment.
  • Game design doesn’t even have to be a lesson in technology. Virginia McArthur, an executive producer at Zynga, the online gaming empire responsible for Farmville and Words With Friends (don’t act like you’ve never heard of them), said all of their games start with extensive paper modeling, before any technology or software is used. “We don’t go to the computer until we decide it’s fun,” she said.
  • And no matter how complex modern video games seem, all of them start with very simple concepts. The framework for Rock, Paper, Scissors, McArthur says, can be the foundation for a game. It’s important for students to first come up with a “core concept, and then build off of it,” she said.
  • Get data and get results. To win over reluctant administrators, it’s important to track demographic and future progress data on students. Girlstart, for instance, is used by 14,500 girls in Texas. Two-thirds are minorities and 70 percent are considered “at-risk,” McArthur said. Despite offering a drag-and-drop software that doesn’t require programming, Agent Sheets has caused an increase in high school computer science enrollment in its customer districts, said Alexander Reppening, its founder.

Stuff to think about before you send your kid to therapy for wanting to make the next Grand Theft Auto.

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