Gamedev & Education

Game Development is a wonderful tool for education. While coding is an obvious benefit, and now part of the curriculum, there’s a lot of great benefits and reasons for including game development in your classroom whatever the grade level. Game development isn’t just about gamification as a learning tool, it’s a range of methods and opportunities to teach critical 21st century skills and thinking. We’ve helped teach over 4000 kids directly and 1000 teachers to incorporate coding and game development.

The Benefits of Gamedev in Education

Computational &
Design Thinking

Developing a game project is a great way to have students engage in both Computational Thinking and Design Thinking. Both are considered core 21st century skills. These two distinct but related methods are critical to developing software, but have important roles in developing critical thinking skills. For those unfamiliar with the exact terms lets look at them first.

Computational thinking involves taking that complex problem and breaking it down into a series of small, more manageable problems (decomposition). Each of these smaller problems can then be looked at individually, considering how similar problems have been solved previously (pattern recognition) and focusing only on the important details, while ignoring irrelevant information (abstraction). Next, simple steps or rules to solve each of the smaller problems can be designed (algorithms).

BBC Bitesize KS3 (an educational website by the BBC for ages 11-14)

Game development is built on these two methods of thinking. Developers come up with experiential concepts, vague conceptions of what their game would be, what it will feel like to play, then flesh out these concepts into a design using the Design thinking process, even if they don’t realize it, the experience-driven goal creates a naturally empathic-design focus they need to ideate, define, then prototype and test and refine. They do their defining, prototyping and refining through the computational thinking process – taking the goals decomposing them, recognizing patterns and components, abstracting models, and then building algorithmic processes to create the game world and its component functions.

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test—it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown.

Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation

Digital Literacy & Digital Citizenship

Game Design doesn’t have to be, but generally is, digitally-based. Video games are a huge form of entertainment for students and engaging with it, rather than avoiding it, can help form both better understanding and better habits regarding it. Ignorance and evasion of the subject just tells students you don’t understand, and makes it far less likely they’ll listen to anything you have to say about it. Engaging with video games can put them in context, can open up dialogues about their use or misuse, and allow for conversations to guide understanding and behaviour towards not only healthy, but positive and creative opportunities.

First step is understanding that game design and game development are not the same thing as game playing. Much like film making isn’t the same as movie watching. They are engaging creative pursuits with high levels of both artistic and technical skills. Learning to make games teaches virtually any and every digital skill there is from basic operating system logic to software interface norms to data handling, programming, user experience design, documentation, and more. By designing systems they don’t simply interact with them, they have to understand their methods, capabilities and importantly their consequences. Design creates a more informed, aware and empowered individuals.

Collaboration & Communication

Games are a great project for building communication and collaboration. Like any creative media they are a natural platform for self-expression, but because of the dynamic potential of a medium with sound, visual, narrative and interactivity, its often much easier to work in a team to explore or cover all the potential of the medium. Game projects will also generally elicit excitement and joy in your students that will lead to sharing and collaboration.

Game development can make a number of great different styles of lessons. From long term group projects emulating the studio process, to simple drop-in lunch or after-school programs to highlight certain aspects or tools. Importantly game development has both technical and creative aspects and can be a platform for any subject or concept you want to teach. Obviously mathematics is easy to incorporate, but science, health and social studies subjects can be modeled through gamedev mechanics, as well as be represented through theme and narrative.
Stumped how something could be incorporated into a game? Ask your students. They’ll offer a myriad of possibilities you’d never come up with. Let them use game development as a tool for exploration and they’ll do the research to incorporate the theme or subject. Reinforce their gamedev projects with guided learning as a research tool and they’ll have immediate value for learning, taking it out of the purely theoretical and attaching motivation and intrinsic value for the students.

STEM & STEAM
(Science, Technology, Engineering, [Art] & Mathematics)

Game development is the product of science, technology, engineering, art and math coming together in perfect harmony. It’s a natural tool to help teach it!

Science

is all about representative models and cycles, these can be made as simple interactive animations or built out using some reactive physics or variable processing to make them “work”. Quizzes and component or label placement puzzles can be great tools to explore any subject but lend themselves very well to reinforce learning science facts. The games the students build not only demonstrate their own knowledge of the subjects, but the implementation helps reinforce memory and contextual learning. When the projects are done, you don’t just have a tool to assess the students making it, but a tool to engage and assess the other students as they play it, can they succeed at it? An engaging game will encourage them to try again, practice makes perfect!

Technology

is an obvious connection. Coding games is the best way to learn any programming language, making it fun yet challenging, with a big reward for completion. Coding isn’t the only tie-in though. You can learn about digital imagery and display technology, data storage, file formats and information processing, even networking and internet protocols at higher levels.

Engineering

includes the often overlooked subdomain of software engineering. Properly planning and designing any game project is a great exercise in engineering using analytical thought and engineering methodologies. You can take things a step further though and build game projects about building. Virtual systems can make it cheap and easy to design and test designs, game companies like Ubisoft, Unity and Unreal are actually world leaders in design software providing billions of dollars worth of support and development for the automotive, aeronautical and industrial design fields.

Art

is what turns STEM into STEAM. While there’s been a big push for core fundamentals of STEM, adding art is a valuable and meaningful addition. The STEM subjects are great, but those fundamentals need guidance. Without imagination we can’t have innovation. Daring to dream is what led to powered-flight, and then to space travel. Art provides the spark of creativity that unleashes the potential of STEM. Gamedev is a wonderful artistic field. You can explore visual art, music, and narrative, and even film concepts of direction, photography and cinematography. The interactive and technical depth of game development can let you explore colour theory, camera angles, perspective, voice, tempo or motif to change the feeling of scenes. Many educational districts consider all coding as a practical and applied art.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

Albert Einstein

Math

is again a pretty core concept to game development. Any coding based activity is of course reducible to simple Boolean logic, but there’s plenty of ways to explore math in games. Game theory is an entire field of mathematics, from which the field of economics derives. Almost all games have a factor of chance involved that can help students explore concepts of probability and lottery systems. Game physics can include any depth of physics, trigonometry and geometry calculations. A game’s mechanics can include any form of arithmetic or logic. Game development is a great way to not just force students to answer questions, but to use the principles of math to explore and solve questions. The get to apply the knowledge, make it their own, see it’s truth, beauty and utility and make it their own tool to explore and explain the universe, or other universes they create. Many districts consider all coding as a math subject.

Coding / Programming

Without coding you can’t have video games. Video game development not only requires coding, but it’s also by far the best way to learn it. It provides interesting, challenging, fulfilling and diverse opportunities to learn and practice any form of coding skill. Game development allows students to be creative and self-expressive while achieving curriculum fundamentals. As per the new Ontario Math curriculum’s requirements for coding education the grade 1 to 8 outcomes: Sequential algorithms, repeat sequences/loops, concurrent events, control structures, debugging, efficient code, and testing, are all integral parts of any game project. Any platform for game development will allow you to learn, practice and master these core concepts.

As students advance you can look at more computer science fundamentals and expand to secondary/high school curriculum and post-secondary/college/university level computer science principles and methods. Game development is a great way to explain, experiment and master knowledge of variables and assignments, if statements, for loops, logical expressions, data saving and loading, data formatting, data structures, and object oriented programming. Almost all game development platforms, even children’s learning systems can cover these issues, with the possible exception of data saving, loading and formatting, which excludes the most introductory coding platforms like Scratch.

Artificial Intelligence

Conway’s Game of Life
Image courtesy of Lucas Vieira

Importantly game development is also the best way of getting involved in developing Artificial Intelligence, or AI systems. For most of AI technologies history, the only commercial application has been game development. Poorly performing, limited scope or unreliable AI is simply to dangerous in real world applications, but in a game world, learning and the mistakes it comes with have been acceptable. It’s no coincidence that many of the big moments in AI development were game related, with chess, go and Jeopardy! providing the platform for AI to practice and learn complex goal planning. In game development students can start with simple automatons, but use that scaffolding to build out more complex behaviour and analysis systems, using increasingly more data and increasingly more sophisticated algorithms.

Concepts such as decision making, pathing, state and property evaluations, situation and map evaluation, process flows, data handling, feedback loops, goal setting, and reward behaviours are all easily understood and explored through game contexts and can be built and tested with relative simplicity and low cost, to master the fundamentals of this breakthrough technology.

Creativity & Self-Expression

Game Development is the most advanced and capable form of media ever developed. When crafting a game the developers can engage in all seven classical fine arts: Architecture (building constructs for their game world), Sculpture (using 3D modelling to create meaningful forms), Painting (creating textures, backgrounds or sprites for the game), Music (creating both sound effects and musical compositions for game soundtracks), Literature (writing prose and or verse to convey description, instruction, dialogue or narration for the game), Dance (coordination of movements and poses for objects expressed in game time), Theatre (presenting dramatic interpretation of the story, emotion or other meaning through the interaction and exposition of components), Cinema (using the game camera to capture and convey the world and story). Not all projects will include all these things, but all these can be explored through game development.

Many jurisdictions consider coding a part of practical and applied arts education because it so often is explored through game development. You can easily use game development to explore any art and creative writing subjects in school. Great subjects to investigate include creative writing, visual art styles, art theory, music, character design, world design, narrative, theme, motif, and solely in the domain of interactive game development; game theory, narrative design and ludo-narrative harmony/dissonance.

You will often find much higher rates of engagement and retention using game development as a tool for exploring any subject, because of the creative and communications aspects involved. Students are given a medium to explore the theories and practices of a subject while being able to self-express. It fulfills more of their human needs and provides a method of engagement with the content at a higher level, taking rote memorization or drill practice, to interactive design allowing them to express mastery of the subject, and use the principles to create and self-express.

Resources

Head over to our Educational Resources page for great suggestions for tools and organizations to help you teach coding. Our Gamedev Careers page for jobsites, support organizations, game conferences, and our services.

Check out our partner Massive Learning for a direct partner for teaching coding at the individual, classroom or school district level!

Teacher Survey

Help us understand your situation so we can work to improve coding education! Fill in this survey to help inform our work with classrooms and help develop and deliver the support you need to make coding and game-based learning better!

Click here to answer the SaskGameDev Coding Education Teacher Survey!

Need to Know More?

Write to us and let us know what you’re interested in, what help you need, what questions your students are asking about. We’re here to help spread the skills and knowledge fundamental to building the industry, and building the people of Saskatchewan. We’re hear to help with advice, workshops, information, connections, referrals, and even in-class or professional development workshops. Just reach out and let us know what you need.