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Students as Game Designers

by Madeleine Brookes


Thomas tells about his experiences about designing apps including games; the possibilities for students are endless (Suarez, 2011).



Learning activities in schools have not supported engagement of … gamers, who are often students in schools (Lim, 2008, p. 997)

This work acts as a provocation for schools that are considering introducing students to game design as an educational learning experience. The provocation was triggered by the unexpected outcomes of a recent high school mobile app design course where a significant number of teams utilized the creative opportunity to design games. The concept of students as game designers captured the attention of the teaching team due to high levels of motivation exhibited by the game creators. The ease with which students employed and realized a range of gaming mechanics in their game designs and the subsequent development of complex problem-solving skills far exceeded the team’s expectations.

This work supports the argument for introducing game design in K-12 school through an examination of the current research and a presentation of the key components and considerations. For the purpose of this work, a digital game is referred to as a game, likewise, game design refers to digital game design; game making and game design are used interchangeably. Offered in multiple parts, this work will:

  • frame the provocation through a concise overview of the case study and the current support for game design in schools;
  • present the features of games, and an overview of popular game authoring tools;
  • discuss learning theories that underpin digital game design in a collaborative context;
  • suggest strategies for implementing game design in schools.


Framing the Provocation: the WAB case study

In semester two of this academic year the ‘App it Up’ unit was introduced in the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program Grade 10 Design class at the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB). The goal was for students to design and develop apps for mobile devices. With almost no limitations placed on the design of the app, the students were required to produce a working prototype of the key features of the app to demonstrate the proof of concept.

The unit was delivered in two key phases. The first phase consisted of students learning how to program a simple app using the Xcode IDE (Integrated Developer Environment) and Swift programming language. This was followed by an exploration of the design theory focusing on the User Experience (UX), how the app feels, and the User Interface (UI), how the app is laid out. In phase two the students moved into self-selected teams, generally pairs, with one as the programmer and one as the designer, to develop their app.

Some teams adapted and extended an existing, highly popular and addictive game know as Flappy Bird; some designed simple educational games for younger students and one team challenged themselves to recreate a popular game, Tower Defence, by developing their own original code despite the encouragement to adapt existing code readily available online. There was no formal instruction about game design although there were discussions and prompts about potential gaming mechanics including sound for feedback, scoring systems, levels, use of stories for context and choices.

The following are examples of the students’ work:


Students offer their first level of Tower Defence (Brookes, 2016b).


Amy, Haley and Seoyoun create a reading game for Grade 1 students employing simple gaming mechanics including sound for feedback, a progression through levels and randomized images and responses for each level (Brookes, 2016a).


The case for game making

There has been a growing push for introducing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. STEM is an interdisciplinary approach to learning, simulating the ways in which subjects “naturally connect in the real world” and provides the means to “boost innovation and bolster national economies” (Johnson, Adams, Estrada, & Freeman, 2015, p. 18). With schools looking for ways to integrate arts into STEM activities, game design is one of the many alternatives that schools can consider and a “first step towards challenging the nature of schooling” (Lim, 2008, p. 1003).


A deeper dive into STEM, STEAM and game design (Cox CA, 2015).


Research suggests that game making has a number of advantages over game play in education. Baytak, Land, and Smith (2011) suggested that while game play can be a solitary activity, game design offers collaborative learning opportunities as students interact with each other and seek feedback for their games. Hwang, Hung, and Chen (2014) offered that a game design approach may foster higher engagement in higher order thinking skills than game play alone.

Although research to support game design rather than game play has been slow to emerge over the past decade (Akcaoglu & Koehler, 2014; Akcaoglu, 2014, 2016; Denner, Werner, Campe, & Ortiz, 2014; Kafai, 2006), findings in recent studies in game design have shown benefits that include:

  1. Problem-solving, increased knowledge (Hwang et al., 2014);
  2. Improvements in attitude towards subject content, engagement (Ke, 2014);
  3. Purposeful thinking and metacognition (Bentley, 2015; Ke, 2014; Vos, van der Meijden, & Denessen, 2011);
  4. Increased intrinsic motivation (Vos et al., 2011);
  5. Promotion of literacy and story telling skills (Bentley, 2015; Thomas, Ge, & Greene, 2011; Yang & Wu, 2012).

Overall, game making provides opportunities for students to design systems and understand human behaviour through formulating complex problems for game players to resolve (Denner et al., 2014). Indeed, Prensky (2008) advocated for students as game designers suggesting that game making is an ideal context to promote metacognitive and problem-solving skills. A number of reasons are offered in support of game making as a learning activity that promotes these skills:

  1.  Intrinsic motivation derived from the enjoyment of creating a meaningful product (Ke, 2014);
  2. Constant requirement for decision making to troubleshoot and solve challenges as they emerge (Akcaoglu & Koehler, 2014; Akcaoglu, 2014, 2016);
  3.  Opportunity for computer programming using software with intuitive user interfaces (Denner et al., 2014);
  4.  Immediate feedback of design actions afforded by game design software (Akcaoglu & Koehler, 2014).

According to the NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition (Johnson et al., 2015), game making has become more commonplace in schools with game development being be “a viable means of engaging learners in creation and play at the same time” (p.14). In the same report, Johnson et al. (2015) shared the results of a survey that highlighted “grit, determination, and logical reasoning as values inherent in game design” (p. 14).

Would such compelling evidence not encourage schools to consider game making as a viable option?


What’s In a Game?

Paradoxically, in game design, students are presented with the ill-structured problem of creating a game, which in itself is a complex problem that uses rules and mechanisms for players to interact with (Denner et al., 2014). What defines a game, and what rules and mechanisms do games employ to provide quality gameplay experiences?

Thomas et al. (2011) observed that

“[w]hile gaming culture has evolved considerably in recent years, there are certain elements of computer games that are so ubiquitous that they might be considered cultural memes themselves” (p. 393).

In their study of games design with high school programming students, the researchers identified nine game elements, suggesting a majority of these elements must be employed for an artifact to be considered a game (Thomas et al., 2011). Examples of these elements include: fantasy and story, as stories provide context and allow for “multiple play trajectories”; “win states”; role play; rules; expert abilities and levelling systems and scoring (Thomas et al., 2011, p. 394).

Denner et al. (2014) defined play or game mechanics as behaviours, actions and control mechanisms and describe how the “player interacts with the game rules, including the sets of rules that make games interactive and fun (or not) to play” (p. 14). In a study with students aged 10-14, game mechanics were used to assess the learning of the student as game designers (Denner et al., 2014). Students considered the experiences of the player in the design of a game by assessing the complexity of the problems presented to the player. Denner et al. (2014) identified three types of problem solving experiences that a player may encounter in game play:

  • Dynamic, where the gaming environment is influenced by the actions of the player;
  • Time dependent, where tasks have to be completed within a time period;
  • Complex, where players make decisions that influence the game play and outcomes (p.16).

The authors identified five mechanics that would support the three experiences: player-controlled movement, such as players using the keyboard arrows as input; feedback, for example, the use of sound to acknowledge when the player moves a character too close to an object; conditional change in game state, which required the player to make decisions that will influence game play, for example collecting objects within a time period; multiple outcomes, offering a number of interconnects paths through the game; player experience, for example providing unexpected consequences to keep the players attention (Denner et al., 2014, p. 14).

The authors found that students tended to use game mechanics that provided a dynamic experience, such as feedback and player-controlled movement. Students less frequently used mechanics for conditional changes and multiple outcomes in the game experience as this required a more complex level of reasoned thinking both for the player and the designer (Denner et al., 2014). Correspondingly, in the WAB case study, most games focused on the dynamism in the game design. Students concentrated mostly on two gaming mechanics: player input, for example, using touch-screen buttons; and feedback, for example using sounds. Overall the games were mostly linear and transitioned from level to level, each with an increasing level of difficulty and students avoided more complex gaming strategies such as multiple outcomes and conditional play states.

Schools introducing game design need to consider the complexities of a game in order to provide support for students in each stage of the design process. One suggestion would be to create a game design rubric similar to the instructional tool devised by Akcaoglu (2016) GRASPS: Goals, Rules, Assets, Spaces, Play mechanics, and Scoring (p. 118).

Not all games require sophisticated gaming mechanics and aesthetics (Tan, 2014). Read more in Tan’s post entitled “Flappy Bird and the eight secrets to optimal gameplay”.


Game Making Tools

Game making does not require expensive technologies to provide opportunities for students to develop programming skills and design game worlds (Kafai, 2006). With the increased popularity of game making, a range of game authoring tools have been created to support rapid development of computer games and promote problem solving, critical reasoning and creativity in a “highly engaging and creative environment” (Thomas et al., 2011, p. 392).

According to the NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition (Johnson et al., 2015), popular games design tools in schools include Scratch, GameMaker andGameMechanic (p. 14). Also noteworthy are Alice, Kodu, Game Salad and Quest Atlantis (Akcaoglu, 2016; Denner et al., 2014; Ke, 2014; Thomas et al., 2011).

Game design tools typically offer these benefits:

  1. Downloadable or accessible from the Internet (Denner et al., 2014);
  2. Simple graphical interfaces where students can drag and drop graphical programming command on the screen (Akcaoglu & Koehler, 2014; Denner et al., 2014);
  3. Ease of entry with no prior programming knowledge, libraries of freeware resources (Baytak et al., 2011);
  4. Minimal training, design features including plot development (Yang & Chang, 2013; Yang & Wu, 2012);
  5. 3D multi user environments (Thomas et al., 2011).

In addition, a feature of many game making tools is the access to ability to search, select and modify games that others have shared through various channels. The act of modifying, known as “modding”, allows for variations of popular, proven game concepts and allows for faster development of games as it reduces many of the issues associated with creating original games (Baytak et al., 2011, p. 86). This was a technique used by many of the students in the WAB case study through remixed versions of the popular Flappy Bird app.

With the abundance of free game making tools and the vast online communities and resources available to schools, it is feasible for schools to consider game making as a learning activity.

The following media clips offer a deeper dive into the tools for game making:





Learning Theories Associated With Game Making

When implementing a game design course, schools should consider the environments that are best suited for this learning experience. Many researchers have situated game making in social constructivist principles as they provide an effective learning environment for game design (Akcaoglu, 2014; Denner et al., 2014; Kafai, 2006; Navarrete, 2013; Yang & Chang, 2013). In a classroom situation students are able to work collaboratively allowing the development of knowledge, reflection and problem solving through shared experiences (Yang & Chang, 2013). The key points that underpin social constructivism are: first, learners construct knowledge through a social environment and then internalize it; second, the role of the teacher shifts from source of knowledge to one of guide as the students take responsibility for their own learning; third, the learning environment comprises knowledgeable others who share and exchange ideas and collaborate to solve problems (“Designing games in the classroom: Learning benefits,” 2014; Moalosi, 2013).

The study by Denner et al. (2014) exemplifies a social constructivist learning environment. When working in groups, the authors suggest that students may benefit from social interaction through summarizing and explaining what they know, responding to feedback and asking questions, which are all high level thinking skills that improve performance. Students learn more when they have to explain and reflect deeply upon questions within groups as opposed to working individually/or when working on their own (Denner et al., 2014). These suggestions concur with observations from the WAB case study, whereby, each student first sketched out their own ideas for the game, which were then shared with the team to combine into a shared understanding of the game play.

Proof of learners entering their zone of proximal development (ZPD) (Vygotskiĭ, 1978) was evident in a number of game design studies (Akcaoglu, 2014; Denner et al., 2014; Thomas et al., 2011). A learner’s ZPD is the range between activities that learner can master independently and those that can be accomplished with support or scaffolds (Hamari et al., 2016,Vygotskiĭ, 1978). Thomas et al. (2011) observed that students were required to engage in programming that went beyond what they currently knew. To solve their programming problems, students were offered strategies that included trial and error, searching online for help and consulting with each other as well as the teachers. In some instances, students were heavily reliant on the teacher for guidance whereas others called on the teacher when required (Thomas et al., 2011). This description completely mirrors the learning environment in the WAB case study where the teachers offered partial solutions coupled with modelled troubleshooting strategies to give the students just enough guidance to allow them to realize their own solutions.


Strategies for Implementation

There are a number of approaches for introducing game design as a learning activity that schools could consider. These include students designing games for their own learning to reflect content covered; games as educational activities for younger students or the creation of games to enhance design skills (Prensky, 2008).

An important consideration is the accessibility of the target audience, namely the players, for seeking feedback throughout the design process. Thomas et al. (2011) noted that students became unmotivated when designing games for younger students as these students were not present to provide direct and immediate feedback on the game design. Furthermore, they noted that the most dramatic change in project designs were a result of feedback from the students. These findings are consistent with the WAB case study, for example, the students who designed the game A Way Home for Grade 1 Korean students learning English only discovered flaws in their design after testing with the target audience.

In schools where there is a significant gaming culture within the student body, there is argument for leveraging these experiences as it provides  a “familiar anchor for an unfamiliar task particularly in terms of a common language and concrete parameters of what a good project would entail” (Thomas et al., 2011, p. 406). Similarly, with the WAB case study, students who were gamer players were able to communicate easily using shared common experiences as seen with the team that designed the Tower Defence. Each student had  versions of the game on their mobile devices and were able to quickly decide on the gaming mechanics and design of their version of the game.

Thomas et al. (2011) found that game making was seen as fun and that the younger students, the target audience for the high school programmers, demanded elements of the game that demonstrated their existing knowledge and experience of gaming. Examples included choices of characters, “cheats” to learn the program, feedback, story backgrounds, good graphics and action. This is consistent with Prensky (2001) who noted that young digital natives and gamers insist on authenticity and meaningfulness.

For schools considering implementing game design, the strategy would be to ensure that the game designers have experience of gaming mechanics either through personal experiences or through sharing ideas during brainstorming sessions.



This work has made the case for introducing game design in schools by demonstrating that game design, as opposed to game play, offers a broader and deeper learning experience for students and a shift to more open learning environments. With students already familiar with the gaming culture, schools can leverage both the students’ motivation and the knowledge of gaming mechanics to introduce complex problem solving skills. However, as Beavis et al. (2014) report, teachers’ beliefs about the learning offered through games are central in bringing games into the classroom. For game design to be a successful learning endeavour, schools must offer support to teachers as they transition from the role of instructor to one of facilitator (Denner et al., 2014; Thomas et al., 2011). Perhaps the ultimate challenge is to utilise the game playing experiences of the students and provide opportunities for the students to take the lead in both designing a course for game making and acting as the facilitators. The question is, are schools ready to take up this challenge?


Schools need students like Rhys to act as facilitators in game design courses (Edutopia, 2013)



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Akcaoglu, M. (2016). Design and Implementation of the Game-Design and Learning Program. TechTrends, 60(2), 114–123.

Akcaoglu, M., & Koehler, M. J. (2014). Cognitive outcomes from the Game-Design and Learning (GDL) after-school program. Computers and Education, 75, 72–81.

Baytak, A., Land, S. M., & Smith, B. K. (2011). Children as educational computer game designers: An Exploratory study. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 10(4), 84–92.

Bentley, T. M. (2015). The game studio: Developing literacy through the lens of game design (Order No. 1597407). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1718228963). Retrieved from

Brookes, M. (2016a, May 30). A Way Home Walkthrough [Video file]. Retrieved from

Brookes, M. (2016b, May 30). Tower Defense App (Proof of Concept) [Video file]. Retrieved from

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Hwang, G.-J., Hung, C.-M., & Chen, N.-S. (2014). Improving learning achievements, motivations and problem-solving skills through a peer assessment-based game development approach. Educational Technology Research and Development, 62(2), 129–145.

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Yang, Y.-T. C., & Chang, C.-H. (2013). Empowering students through digital game authorship: Enhancing concentration, critical thinking, and academic achievement. Computers & Education, 68, 334–344.

Yang, Y.-T. C., & Wu, W.-C. I. (2012). Digital storytelling for enhancing student academic achievement, critical thinking, and learning motivation: A year-long experimental study. Computers & Education, 59(2), 339–352.



Part 2: Provocation

Part 2: Provocation

Case studies, environmental scans, situational analysis, or other activities that illustrate games-based learning in action.

In this section:

Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation) developed by the
School of Information StudiesCharles Sturt University, 2016.
Charles Sturt University