Game Design and Education: One Quick Example

Each week the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT publishes a podcast where a guest speaker discusses all kinds issues related to media: film, television, videogames, and all the rest. On the drive home yesterday I finished the most recent one given by librarian and game designer Scott Nicholson talking about modern board game design and I highly recommend it.

Nicholson makes a number of great points about games and game design and covers an impressive amount of territory in his presentation. Near the end he gives a perfect example that should clarify how games can be used effectively in educational scenarios, especially when students are charged with designing a game that reflects certain educational principles. “The game play has to demonstrate what it is you’re trying to teach. What they find is when kids do this, when kids create games, they learn the topic matter better” (around the 73:30 mark). He’s talking about how a game categorization system will help librarians to refer teachers to appropriate games for their needs. Teachers could say to their 7th grade class, “All right, we just [learned] the periodic table. You make a combat game, you make a set collection game, you make an auction game” (around the 88:30 mark).

So think about this example would work in a classroom and how much students would need to engage with the periodic table in order to make a decent game. For a combat game, what elements are most powerful? In a set collection game, what elements are most rare? In an auction game, what elements are most valuable? In order for any of these games to work students would need to answer these questions and balance them with game play–the game needs to be challenging and fun in addition to being educational. Students wouldn’t sit with a book and do boring memorization drills, they’d need to learn about the properties of different elements and, through repeated reference back to the table, they’d have compelling reason to remember their characteristics: not to pass a test, but to make a better game.

A lot of this gaming and game design theory is (rightly) directed at elementary and secondary education. That’s all fine and good, but we gamers come in all ages. I’d like to see more of this kind of innovative pedagogy happening at the college level too.

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