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Imagining the Games-based Classroom

Written by Chad Sansing
January 23, 2011

This post originally appeared on

If we can teach kids to make fun learning games (fun can indeed be measured, and learning can indeed be fun), then we’ll be helping them create experiential learning opportunities for others that have characteristics of narrative (plot, characterization) and informational texts (GUI, games manuals), as well as scripted expository texts that rely heavily on interdisciplinary connections (the arts-infused creation of graphic assets, the logic of programming, and the relationships of math, physics, and engineering to representing motion and interaction).

There are several ways to help uncover students’ talents at making games.

  1. First, we can let students play widely. Just as you get better at writing by reading, you get better at designing by playing.
  2. Second, we can provide students with an authentic outlet for their writing. Game design and programming require students to show depth in thinking not only about what they want to make, but also about how it will work. It takes iteration, feedback, and reflection to finish alpha, beta, and gold builds of games. It takes the writing process to make a game, and it takes the writing process further than a teacher-described genre or multiple choice question about what comes after prewriting.
  3. Third, we can remake our classrooms to feel more like information age workplaces. These workplaces clearly value their workers in ways that classrooms value neither students nor teachers. I’m imagining a place with a lot of natural light, mobile furniture, individual work stations, and a collaborative space filled with inspiration and materials for “reading” and prototyping. There would be several types of tools available for several types of tasks, including maintaining developers’ diaries. It would be okay to eat and drink there. It would be okay to communicate with the outside world there. It would be okay to bring friends and family there to play-test. A GBL space/lab/library space/school-within-a-school/charter would be a workshop that favored collaboration, communication, and spontaneous celebration of failure and success, rather than a classroom that favored competition, monologue, and looming consequence.

Here’s my take on a classroom for games-based learning (GBL). It would include

  • Light, color, art: everywhere.
  • Modular, mobile furniture.
  • Mutable zoning by project.
  • A commons area.
  • A common multi-monitor screen for streaming and presenting student work, class backchannels, and relevant class texts.
  • A dedicated play area.
  • Individual work stations.
  • A library of excellent texts, including books, films, and games.
  • A library of toys.
  • Mobile, kid-level planning surfaces.
  • Multiple copies of class development platforms, games with authoring tools, and software development kits.
  • Mobile communications tools available to every student or hardwired communications tools at every student work station.
  • Permissions policies allowing the teacher to manage student communications and publications with relevant experts and entities
  • Access to an outdoor campus for play, planning, and mobile computing.
  • Differentiated seating.
  • Refrigerators and pantries.
  • 2D & 3D materials for prototyping and making games and asset models. (Has no one done the custom vinyl figure novel character visualization yet?)
  • Architecture and wiring that created discrete sound zones.
  • Rotating roles so every kid produces at least 2 design documents, 2 levels authored in other games, and 2 alpha builds of project in something like Scratch.

Teachers across the world would pitch content needs. Students would pitch back concepts and make alpha builds for feedback from their teacher clients, student play-testers, and outside experts. Kids could change projects in a fluid manner to produce the best products possible. Kids from a poorly reviewed alpha could contribute to the beta build of a project favorited by more peers, clients, and experts, improving its quality and/or shortening its development time.

There would be embedded art, engineering, math, workplace readiness and roles, reading, and writing standards in an open-ended curriculum of iterative development in service to others’ learning needs and students’ communities.

Who wants to play? What are the bugs?

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