Kids Can Design Video Games to Power-Up PBL


I remember booting up Super Mario Bros. for the first time. The bright colors.  The iconic theme music.  Jumping on my first goomba. Good times.

What I didn’t think about back then was how many people actually worked on the game.  Someone designed the level.  Someone else composed the music.  Someone else did the artwork and character design.  For me, Super Mario Bros. was an entertainment portal of whimsical fun and exploration.  Yet for a team of people who worked behind the scenes, it was the product of extensive collaboration.

Video games today have grown in production size since those early days of Mario, with some games requiring large teams and years of development. While the tools to make these games remain geared toward the most skillful designers, advances in technology have brought us to a day where video game design is more accessible than ever.  This presents opportunities for people who are not video game designers – particularly youth – to engage in the opportunity of working together to design video games.

Can this opportunity be leveraged for project-based learning in K-12? Certainly the team-based approach inherent in designing video games lends itself to PBL, but there’s still the matter of fostering inquiry and discovery.  Perhaps we see a model presented by students at Ball State University.  A multidisciplinary group of students have collaborated to design an educational video game (Collaboration Station) which teaches players about living and working in the International Space Station.  The students contribute everything from artwork to sound effects. The game explores NASA learning objectives and  fourth- and fifth-grade science standards. In order for the game to teach this, the student designers needed to, at some point,discover and learn the information in order to put it in the game.

We are seeing more Universities leverage space and student abilities to create academic game studios to design and publish their very own games.  These games are primarily learning based, meaning they are filled with gameplay and content that help players achieve certain learning goals.  In order to do this, the designers need to at least be aware of the information that the game is trying to teach.

K-12 schools can benefit from following this model by encouraging students to research and learn about information they want their game to teach.  As the students learn, they can work together to present a product that will demonstrate exactly what they have learned  – an actual, playable video game. What Ball State University and other universities are doing with video games is certainly something worth considering in the K-12 space.  The primary obstacle would be teaching children the skills to design the games, and affording the technology and space to do so.  Luckily there are free tools available that allow people with no programming experience to create games (such as Scratch).  Additionally, video games have such value and meaning to the youth of today, that even if teachers do not feel comfortable teaching video game design, the students could take the initiative to learn for themselves through YouTube videos, discussion boards, and other “do-it-yourself” environments.  There’s also good ol’ trial and error!

These games would be of small scale, but could have enormous impact on the students and their learning.  Not only do they collaborate, not only do they inquire and discover about material they would like their game to teach – but they also just get to do something really cool.  With the right structure and planning, designing games could provide another exciting way for students to learn.