Every Summer Has a Story: Taking Lessons from Learning with Video Game Design into the Classroom

by Meagan Bromley
September 4, 2012

Gamestar MechanicThey say that every summer has a story, and now at the end of my experience teaching for the Gamestar Mechanic Online Learning Program, it’s time for my students’ stories to come to an end. But it’s wonderful to realize that for many of them getting more interested and involved with game design, this is just the beginning. As we wrapped up the program last week, my inbox was filled with an exciting flurry of final assignments, last chances to get one more round of feedback on the latest iterations of game designs, moments of thoughtful reflection, and earnest thank yous and goodbyes.

As I’ve described in my two previous posts in this series about the Online Learning Program, kids from all over the country have taken the time this summer to be a part of the first ever class offered on game design using curriculum based on the Gamestar Mechanic platform and narrative quests that go along with it. One parent pointed out the advantage of this by saying: “I absolutely love it! There is a clear, fun, and engaging learning path for the students that incorporates the quests. I like that the students are motivated to complete the quests so they can move on to the next task.”

The final assignment in the course was for students to create a game of their choosing, in any genre and with any game mechanics that had been a part of the curriculum, to submit to a professional game designer for review. The game industry pros (from companies as varied as Disney Interactive, Large Animal Games, and Fresh Planet) created some awesome video reviews of student games using Screencast-o-matic so that students could see their own games being played on screen while the reviewer spoke directly to them and provided feedback. I think this was my favorite part of the program because it gave me a chance to see how far my students had come from when they first began, and feel a sense of pride in how great their games turned out!

Click the image above to play Space Jump by StrongChris15

One thing that really stood out in the final games that students submitted to the pros was how focused their game narratives had become. In a program that emphasized storytelling along with interaction design and game mechanics, it was exciting to see that so many students really developed their abilities to incorporate funny dialogue and mysterious plots into the greater action. It seemed that every student ended up having a story to tell and a character, or even whole alternate universe to develop on the Gamestar Mechanic platform. I was even honored as a teacher to have a character named after me! (For those interested, Meagan the Assassin took part in an elaborate drama which slowly unfolded to reveal that she was NOT actually an assassin after all, but someone to be trusted. Score one for Meagan!)

Storytelling in Games - Star WarsStorytelling in Games - Finding Nemo

So what will happen to these game design learning experiences as the summer sun sets into the horizon and cool fall breezes announce that it’s time to go back to school? How can classroom learning benefit from the lessons of the Gamestar Mechanic Online Learning Program?

I asked one of my students what he thought, and it became clear that after going through the Gamestar Mechanic quests, he feels that storytelling has a lot to offer in learning environments:

StrongChris15: It’s better because it covers a lot of topics in a short period of time and it’s more fun. I didn’t mind going through the lessons because the storyline was better and it also had more interesting games. The program pushed me to finish the levels in order to proceed to the next task… If school subjects had a storyline and a good one at that, I would be interested in school more. It would be like I was reading a book all day, but in real life.

A sixth grade teacher taking my class as a student also had some very valuable insight to offer on the role of reflection and thoughtfulness in the design process, as well as in learning processes:

DukeHodgson: I admittedly hit numerous points in some of the quests where it seemed like I was stuck in a task and the path forward was insurmountable. I got frustrated. I often needed to step away from the computer, go over things in my mind, and try again later (sometimes, minutes later; sometimes, hours later). It dawned on me that we don’t allow that much reflective walk-away-from-the-problem time for our students; instead, we see that action as giving up. I wasn’t giving up so much as working things through, but no one could see that but me. My students do that, too. I need to remember that.

The instructional designers of the Gamestar Mechanic Online Learning Program are also trying to remember that, with the program being offered again this fall as an open-ended experience for students with no deadlines or time constraints. When I asked E-line Media’s Learning Content Producer Katya Hott about what changes parents and students can anticipate in the future, she said: The next iteration of this Online Learning Program will focus on scaffolding design challenges so that students learn in a supportive and controlled environment how to make fun and challenging games.  The curriculum will also provide more opportunities for students to reflect on their work and their progression as game designers throughout the course.

E-line media has opened registration for the fall for any parents or teachers interested in getting more kids involved in learning by designing video games: http://gamestarmechanic.com/onlinelearning

Thanks for following this blog series about my experience—it’s been a pleasure to geek out with all of you!