April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Wild World of Gaming | Dustin Hansen on “Game On!”

Dustin Hansen is no newcomer to the video game industry. He has created games for the iPhone, PlayStation One, Xbox One, and more. In his recently published work Game On!: Video Game History from Pong and Pac-Man to Mario, Minecraft, and More (Feiwel & Friends, Nov. 2016), Hansen chronicled video game history for teens. SLJ recently chatted with Hansen about his book, which was an SLJ November Popular Pick (you can check out SLJ‘s review here), and his hopes for the future of video games.


Photo by Jodi Hansen.

Considering how unimaginably vast the video game world is, was it difficult selecting which games to profile?

It was like I was throwing a big party and I wanted all my friends there, but I only had 40 party hats. Not everyone got an invite, but how do you chose who gets the nod?

In the end I took a game designer’s approach. I defined an end goal, crafted a rule set, and wrote a list of requirements and achievements the game had to hit [in order] to make the cut. I stuck with it, and it worked. I could breakdown the entire “how to make your game hit the Game On! cut list,” but basically it came down to this. A game didn’t need to be a huge success to make the list, but it did have to offer an innovation, idea, or mechanic that changed the way we play games or consume media (film, TV, music) forever. And even then, there were so many great ones.

Luckily for me, my editor, Holly West, is a huge gamer and influence here as well. She and I spent hours and hours discussing and debating the list of games. Seriously, Holly’s fingerprints are all over this book.

You’re really able to get into what makes video games not only fun but also culturally and educationally valuable.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with just dropping into Overwatch for a couple of hours and slugging it out with a couple of friends just for the fun of it. For some people that really is enough. But games have so much more to offer, and it really is important for curious students to dig a little deeper and discover how and why these games are such a big part of their lives.

There is literally no topic covered in STEM that can’t be explored in gaming. But the other side of education, the arts, are well represented, too. History, language, art, design, creative writing, music composition, voice acting, psychology, and on and on. All of these subjects are required to build a compelling video game, and taking a wide approach to understanding how they work together is the first real step to understanding games.

And the interesting thing, to me at least, is that breaking games down to these smaller parts gives us insight into how and why the bigger, less tangible, more subjective things work. Things like cooperation, team building, leadership, self-awareness, self-confidence, satisfaction, dealing with disappointment, risk and reward, etc.

So, next time you fire up your favorite puzzle game, I think it’s worth taking a few minutes to think about what really just went on. There’s a whole lot more to crushing candy than meets the eye.

Do you think the emphasis on teaching kids and teens how to code in schools and libraries will affect STEM industries?

gameoncoverartYes! Really, learning how to read and write code is going to change the world. I know, sounds like a comic book promise…Code Man Saves Earth! But it’s true. Code is quickly becoming the universal language of our future, and it’s going to change gaming for sure, but that’s only the entertaining tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say a student is interested at a young age in mathematics and she has a teacher who is a gamer. And this wise teacher uses how Mario jumps in 2-D space to show our young student algebra in action. (Y is the height Mario jumps, X is he distance he covers.) Real simple stuff here, but it’s visual and it shows math in action, which will totally stick in our young student’s mind.

Well, fast forward a few hours (time flies for a curious mind), and our student, let’s call her Gemma. She needs a good name. Okay, Gemma is in the library for some free time. She launches a computer program called Scratch, an entry level program that introduces children to coding. Her mind is filled with this new concept of “Mario jumping is actually an algebraic equation that is repeated every time you push a button.” So, Gemma decides to try to write this in code. She figures it out, and in no time she’s created a little ball that jumps each time she hits the space bar. Neat. That’s the power of code, but next comes the power of creativity. Gemma messes with the numbers in the equation. She triples the value of Y and the ball jumps higher. She 500x the value of X and the ball shoots off the screen like a projectile. It’s exploration, it’s discovery, it’s visual mathematics, and it’s a one-on-one conversation that Gemma is learning how to speak with the computer.

The problems Gemma can [potentially] solve with her coding skills are endless and exciting. She might be the one who solves how a Mars robot navigates over tricky, rocky terrain. She might be the one who invents a music composition technology that reads and responds to people’s moods based on their heart rate, facial expressions, and biorhythms and helps them relax and focus.

Or who knows. She might be the genius engineer who programs the most satisfying jump button of all time. Regardless of the outcome, there will be literally millions of bright Gemmas out there in the future and I know this, they are going to make the future amazing. I can’t wait!

If a librarian or educator is hesitant about incorporating video games into their space or lesson plan, can you give one reason why they should rethink their position?

One reason? Games create problem solvers.

Games in the classroom are not a new thing. I remember in the 1970’s playing memory-based games, logic and strategy games, and of course physical games (dodge ball—my nose-breaking nemesis). I think some of the best [current] examples of gaming in schools come from the more free-thinking, open discovery games like Minecraft. While it may look overly simplistic, there is a lot of depth and opportunity within this game. Minecraft inspires building and creativity. It fosters problem solving and it’s very social. Students can work together to build something bigger as a group than they could ever imagine building on their own. It creates a positive classroom climate, teaches the benefits of collaboration, and facilitates teamwork in a way that is more organic and effective than, say, being assigned to work together on a team project.

There are huge opportunities for students with disabilities, too. Students with disabilities, which speaks to this dyslexic author in particular, can flourish with the nontraditional problem-solving challenges games present. And students who might not get along in the real world, can become allies in a safe gaming environment like Minecraft.

Okay, if there’s a digital version of dodge ball out there somewhere I’m not sure it will change the face of education. You have to pick the right games, but they are out there. Both old and new. I’ve listed a bunch of them in my book. Students learn through play. I’m not the guy who made that up, but I sure am living proof.

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Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple



  1. Game On! is a fantastic book with great insights about the history of video games. The members of our school video game club having been recommending it to each other. This is a great interview for helping to understand all of the work that went into the book!