This is not fun…
Your students are programming ninjas. They’ve spent the last nine weeks iterating, code tweaking, and testing their programs. Having them design games turned out to be a great move. Not only have your students been engaged, but they’ve also been applying and comfortably discussing core computational concepts, such as sequences, loops, parallelism, conditionals, and operators. The time has come for beta testing. As you and your students view and play the final products, something feels wrong… Yes, they exemplify mastery of core computational concepts. Some of them are even pretty darn awesome looking. The problem is, they’re not fun to play. What went wrong?
The reason games are wildly successful is their engagement factor. A big part of game design is the study of the concepts behind the basic elements of a game, and how the balance of ease and challenge in games creates fun, engaging experiences for the end-user. Games are made for other people to play. If other people don’t enjoy a game, it isn’t designed well. When you make a game for someone else, you have to balance it, consider the elements that make up the game as a system, and how the experience will affect the user (the player). In other words, games are a complex system designed around creating an intuitive, immersive, and satisfying user experience. To be successful as a game designer, you must approach this complex system holistically. Skill and drill coding exercises and practice will not help here. Students need a solid perspective on systems to design great games and any great interactive experience. This is as important to STE[a]M as the ability to write solid code.
What makes a game fun? What gives a game its addictive qualities? Great games induce a cognitive flow state in players. A game is actually just a complex system, made up of various elements that work together to produce a satisfying experience. Cognitive flow is created when all of the game’s elements are working together in perfect harmony to create the ideal balance of ease and challenge. As an educator, you may be familiar with the ZPD, or Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. This is the same idea. “A game is balanced when it is easy to play, but difficult to win” (Gamestar Mechanic learning guide).
So, how do we teach students how to design fun and engaging experiences? When I started my first game design project, I gave students three blocks-based programming tools, a video on cognitive flow, and an article on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. This did not work. You’re surprised, right? Seriously, feel free to make fun of me.
One of my students actually asked me during my first run of this project if he could use a tool he found, called Gamestar Mechanic. I said, “Sure.” I immediately Googled Gamestar Mechanic myself and made a teacher account. I was immediately stoked to find that Gamestar teaches flow! It approaches this problem by teaching students about the systemic nature of games and how to use the elements of the game to bring balance. Further, it does all of this with game-based lessons wrapped in a gamified narrative scaffold. Students begin by completing the quest, Addison Joins the League, which introduces them to three important concepts in end-user experience: systems thinking, user-centered design, and the iteration feedback loop. By the time students have finished, they’ve balanced multiple games in repair missions and have designed and published their own game in a space where they can get feedback from fellow designers.
STE[a]M, fun, and the future.
In the grand scheme of things, making an experience engaging (fun) may not seem as important as teaching students to code, understand programming logic, or build a working circuit. The companies and designers who are most successful–whose devices are in our pocket right now–are not successful because they build utilitarian functional items. They’re successful because they make stuff that’s fun to use. They design end-user experiences that are intuitive, immersive, and satisfying. Learning to design fun engaging experiences, whether in games or otherwise is a pathway to career success in multiple fields.
This is something that I want for my students. I want to prepare them to thrive, rather than survive. I want them to know how to innovate. I want them designing the next game, device, tool that I didn’t even know I needed or wanted but that I just can’t live without. I need to empower my students to be entrepreneurs, industry leaders, and sought-after creative consultants. That’s a 21st Century skill, and that’s what STE[a]M in education is all about.