An underutilized aspect of game-based learning lies in game design and construction. Traditional educational games require not just memorization of knowledge, but also the ability to apply that knowledge to a situation. There is no reason why we as educators cannot take this to the next step and push students towards creation to demonstrate true mastery of a topic. Creating a game requires knowing the topic, being able to evaluate what information is critical and what can be simplified, and then adapting that information into a simplified model to be played. Not only does it necessitate research, it necessitates judgement based on knowing how small parts contribute to the larger topic at hand.
Children interested in using game design to demonstrate knowledge should start by making a “mod” for an existing game whose mechanics they know well. For example, players looking to make monopoly a bit more math heavy might introduce the concept of increasing property values: each house increases the value and rent of adjacent properties by five percent. Now, houses that are near hotels are worth more than isolated pockets. It adds another level of strategy to the game and makes the game utilize percents as a math learning objective.
After making a small mod, players should experiment with larger expansions. In the example above, players could create their own buildings with different effects. Maybe a “park” increases property values around at the cost of never charging rent for that particular tile. The designer is taking a real world effect, analyzing and simplifying it, and fitting it into the world of the game. The hope is that it encourages designers to research these topics independently to be inspired for new mechanics and items and to get a feel for appropriate numbers (does a park double property values or just increase them marginally?).
The next step would be a total conversion mod, something that takes the core gameplay elements and then does something completely different with them. My friends and I grew bored with monopoly and made it into a political game where districts were controlled with influence instead of simply bought with money. We still moved pieces around the board, we still used the property tiles, and of course we still used the money, but now the houses represented political clout and ownership of tiles could be contested with elections. It allowed us to explore our wonky side as we adapted the complex structure of American politics into the world of Monopoly.
Finally, players can take a stab at creation. Now that they’ve taken an existing game and boiled it down to its base mechanics, they have a better understanding of why the designers made the choices they did. Now, they can use familiar mechanics like dice rolls, damage tables, and power-ups to model complex concepts and present them in a way that is easier to understand. It requires them to research the topic, understand the relationships involved, analyse what’s important and what can be discarded for the sake of simplification, and then apply the mechanics they know to model the topic they don’t. Not only does it create a product that can be used to educate other classmates, it forces the designer to engage the material in a very deep manner. Of course, one of the designer’s classmates will then suggest a new unit based on what she read in class. She’ll create a mod for the game tying in the new information, and the will cycle begin again.
About the Author:
Jon Nardolilli co-founded Catlilli Games (www.catlilli.com), an educational STEM game company. He is an engineer and educator by trade and a game designer by passion with a background in Magic: The Gathering and being a dungeon master to his friends. He aims to use clever mechanics to internalize difficult lessons for children while crafting experiences and stories that draw children back to those games even after the lesson is learned. He currently teaches at Nysmith School for the Gifted.