May 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Get Kids Designing with Student-Created Games | The Gaming Life

In this Article
The Parsley Game System

Over the last five years, as the gaming and library technology specialist for the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, an educational services agency that supports the libraries of 22 small, rural districts in western New York state, I’ve helped develop a gaming program that enables teachers, in collaboration with myself and the school librarian, to integrate non-digital game resources into their classroom curriculum.

GameWhile this aspect of the program continues to thrive, over the past two years there has been a strong shift from simply using games to having students create them. This change in perspective—viewing games as products—has opened up a rewarding and worthwhile approach to the program that gives students a new avenue to display mastery-level understanding of the curriculum while incorporating 21st-century skills as well as the Common Core Standards.

Although much attention has been given to digital design, non-digital game design is extremely valuable as an educational endeavor. These projects offer students the opportunity for deep, rich exploration of a topic without being limited by the digital toolsets provided by the software or the learning curve inherent in the more dynamic, robust sandbox tools. Instead, non-digital design allows students to focus their efforts on the application of content and skills in the design process and in the finished product.

Game Design Programs

Over the last two years, the game program has developed two distinct design projects. In the first, which is more open and flexible, students are free to explore and construct their own designs, demonstrating their understanding through application of content. While the flexibility of this model easily fits into most curricular areas, the challenge for students is the development of a game space and mechanisms that reflect the curriculum in a thoughtful and meaningful way. This process helps students build and display mastery of the content being covered in the project because of the deeper understanding needed to create playable spaces capable of engaging the audience with the content.

Board Game made by studentsFor example, students in a math class can demonstrate mastery through the application of concepts during the design process as they work out the proper distribution of resources or refine the play experience by controlling the probability of events. Economics classes can create games that incorporate or recreate certain economic models and principles. Science concepts can be explored through dexterity games that rely on laws that govern the interaction of the components or through developing games that require a deductive or scientific approach to solving problems. World history classes can design games that immerse players in key historical settings, researching important figures and events and then developing how they influence the game in a way that reflects their effect on history.

The second project follows a more structured model in which students design their own playable, interactive texts. These can be fiction or nonfiction texts that create a playable story space that users need to explore through a simple language set of commands, such as “go west” or “examine the room.” One person facilitates the story, presenting the information and processing the reactions of the players and the story elements. The other players collectively work through the story, building off each other’s choices as they problem solve their way through the story. Examples include designing a nonfiction game based around Lincoln’s assassination in which the players must follow the clues and track down John Wilkes Booth, or developing a sequel interactive fiction game for a book being read in class.

Kid playing a gameWhile this design project has stricter expectations on format, using the Parsley gaming model (see sidebar) for the project’s structure, it also allows for a more focused exploration of writing elements in a causal, logic-based environment. Also, students need to have a much more heightened understanding of the audience during the writing process in order to be successful. In fact, they will have two audiences for their completed work: the facilitator who will be running the game and the players. So students need to balance creating an engaging, playable story space against the more procedural presentation of those elements to the facilitator. This is a wonderful example of a project that marries more traditional English language arts skills with the shift in language expectations of the Common Core Standards.

Get Kids Designing

Each project begins by introducing students to games that serve as reference material for the course of the project. In the case of the interactive text designs, students play through one or more Parsley games to help them understand the format of the game and the way the audience interacts with the story. For the board and card design projects, I work with the librarian and classroom teachers to select the best resources that demonstrate different ways the curriculum can be represented in the game space, either through theme or game play mechanisms.

After exploring the games used as examples, students are assigned to groups and begin brainstorming ideas. They work together to come up with the nugget of a game and begin to flesh out some of the elements needed to bring it to life. The teacher, the librarian, and I meet with each group as they present their initial ideas. We listen to their plans and give them suggestions for additional ways to incorporate curriculum or interesting game design elements. The students then return to their groups and develop their games based on their initial ideas and the feedback they received.

As the project progresses, we meet with the groups periodically to offer guidance and suggestions to help them overcome any creative or design obstacles they encounter. The students continue to refine and improve their designs based on our feedback and opportunities to test their games by playing them in class. The project culminates with each group giving a presentation about their game and providing a playable copy, with rules, for the rest of the class to play. The groups play each other’s games and provide peer feedback on the design of each game and how it has incorporated aspects of the curriculum.

Evaluating the Designs

At the end of the project, the grading is a collaborative process between me, the librarian, and the classroom teacher. Points are not awarded for how good a game looks or even if it is fully playable. In fact, at the beginning of this whole process we explain that well-designed games often take a long time to develop and perfect. Instead, our expectations are based on the effort of students to apply and incorporate the classroom curriculum into their designs. We also look at the students’ growth over the course of the project and their ability to problem solve and incorporate feedback. Other evaluative factors include the group’s presentation skills as well as their ability to write a clear and concise rules set .

This program has been incredibly rewarding. Analog game design gives kids an opportunity to create tangible, engaging representations of the curricular concepts and skills they are exploring in the classroom. More importantly, they are engaged in a process that initiates inquiry, problem solving, team building, collaboration, cross-curricular connections, informative and procedural language, and content mastery. So, in this time of educational flux, as teachers look for new opportunities to challenge their students, consider showing them a game.

Brian MayerBrian Mayer is a gaming and library technology specialist for Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, an educational services agency that supports the libraries of 22 rural districts in western New York. He is the author of Libraries Got Game (ALA, 2009) and is busy working on another book. His game on the Underground Railroad will be published by Academy Games in early 2013.



  1. Pamela Boyette says:

    I looked for the free sample game mentioned in your article at the website and didn’t find anything helpful.

  2. So awesome. Could you imagine what it would be like if all libraries had this kind of interactive game design? I think what you guys are doing is really changing kids lives for the better. PS I played the underground railroad game at GenCon and it was really fun, I highly recommend it.

    Keep up the amazing work, and keep posting.


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