Transforming Gamers into Game Designers: Game Design as Connected Learning with Rural Youth in Challenging Times
In the summer of 2019, the Leatherstocking Writing Project (LSWP) in association with SUNY Oneonta developed a writing enrichment program for youth focusing on video game design and elements of connected learning (Connected Learning Alliance, 2021). The guiding principles of connected learning center on activating youth interest, supporting and mentoring youth relationships, and providing youth opportunities in becoming life-long agentive knowers. Our goal as a local site of the National Writing Project is to support local youth and educators in engaging and developing authentic writing practices for real-world audiences and purposes. Guided by some of the LSWP leaders’ interests in video games, the LSWP wanted to engage local youth who had interest in playing video games and leverage their interests in playing and consuming video games into designing and producing video games. Moreover, we wanted to give the local youth writing enrichment opportunities that have up until been limited due to living in small, rural communities that are geographically cut off from other summer enrichment programs provided for youth in more suburban and urban locations.
The youth in the Northern Catskill region of Central New York State lack access to high-quality academic enrichment programs due to both geographic and economic challenges. The LSWP’s Video Game Designer Institute aimed to provide access to STEM/STEAM enrichment programs in video game design and creation for local youth. In two, week-long summer camps for young people in 4th through 8th grade in 2019, institute attendees participated in a writing and game design enrichment program. In this program, local kids would develop understanding in the fundamentals of video game design, communicate and use content-specific vocabulary, discuss different genres and styles of video games, develop expertise in the mechanics of rule-writing and design, apply game creation to expository and narrative writing, and experience in play-testing self-created video games. This past summer, in addition to the original grades 4 to 8 institutes, we expanded the Video Game Designer Institute for kids going into 2nd/3rd grades and for kids in high school.We wanted to provide broader range of age groups than our previous institutes access. The youth were able to enhance their design expertise with more challenging game design engines. We were also able to provide more developmentally appropriate for younger kids entering 2nd and 3rd grades. Over two summers, the LSWP provided writing and game design enrichment for youth going into grade 2 through 12th grade as well as providing professional development for educators interested in merging game design and coding into their classrooms and content areas.
As a teacher, teacher educator, literacy specialist, and gamer, I am deeply invested in including coding (and elements of game design) as a language art since there is strong potential for educators to better equitably distribute computer science, coding, systems thinking, and multimodal design within a content area where most kids have access, e.g., English Language Arts classrooms. Whereas, most computer science and coding curricula programs for kids are located in more affluent schools and areas. Therefore, we wanted to extend our institutes for educators involved in local schools and after-school programs. In service to this goal, the LSWP held a Video Game Designer Institute for Educators: a three-day professional development seminar in the summer of 2019 and a week-long online in the summer of 2020 for local in-service educators for the purpose of extending video game design and production into their classrooms. For the last two summers and professional development workshops at local schools during the school year, local youth and teachers have gained some expertise in video game design and production through rigorous game design with interactive tools including Scratch Jr., Scratch, Gamestar Mechanic, and Construct 3 through the lens of language arts, multimodal composition, and design.
Our final goal was for the Video Game Designer Institutes was to combine connected learning with a post-process writing approach that established a production-centered approach on composition and production of authentic games for real-world audiences and purposes. Kids and teachers produced, play-tested, and shared each other’s games, giving them all opportunities to learn game design principles and systems thinking embedded in the elements of connected learning.
The Calm Before the Storm
The first series of institutes and professional development workshops went smoothly for participants in the summer and fall of 2019. For one week, kids, leaders, and teachers learned about elements of game design using Gamestar Mechanic. The kids workshopped how to write intriguing titles and the expository forms of writing simple, explicit instructions and tips and tricks for their merging games. The game designers mapped out and participated in world building by developing broader expositions for their narratives in their games. These beginning game designers worked on communicating in the language and register of game developers by completing vocabulary and game design challenges on components and assets like health meters and sprites as well as game mechanics jumping, solving, and racing.
At the end of each institute, the kids enthusiastically held their game developer conferences in the spirit of professional game developer conferences like the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) celebrated by gamers and game development companies worldwide. In the same manner, these kids presented their games, gave tips and tricks, and invited peers to play test their games. Leaders, teachers, and the young game designers celebrated their games and emerging talents as game designers. We looked forward to expanding these institutes for younger kids and students in high school for the summer and school of 2020.
Pedagogical Triage and Revisioning the Institute in the Midst of the Pandemic
By the end of March of 2020, it was clear to the leadership team that we would not be able to hold in-person video game design institutes. We had two choices: cancel the institutes until summer 21 or go online. Fortunately, one of our design and institute leaders, Cassie Carl, was finishing her graduate program in educational technology and had previous experience in online gaming communities. Because of Cassie’s expertise and confidence, we decided to switch our face-to-face pedagogical frames to online methods that would be a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online institutes.
The first question we had to ask ourselves was which online platforms could we use. Our institutes were also more complicated because we were adding more game design engines like Scratch Jr. for younger kids and Construct 3 for the older, more experienced kids. We also had to contemplate how best to scaffold these programs so the kids and educators could use them asynchronously while still giving them the instructional support needed to complete the tasks workshopped in our synchronous meetings.
The next problem was to locate programs and digital media platforms that were easily accessible to kids, caregivers, and institute leaders. Therefore, we needed to select online media and programs that only required internet access and did not require downloading software. With face-to-face institutes the previous summer, all the kids had access to SUNY Oneonta’s computer lab and campus-wide software. Going online meant challenges in terms of equitable access to the programs and media that we did not face in our face-to-face summer institutes. Therefore, we needed to have a social media place for synchronous discussions and teaching with affordances to easily distribute game design software and host a “homeroom” for the kids and caregivers where we could provide asynchronous models of instruction like walkthroughs and how-to videos.
Redesigning an Revising: A DIY Guide to Shapeshifting to Online Learning
The instructional design team led by Cassandra Carl, an early-career 7th-grade-teacher at a local middle school and experienced gamer, chose a variety of online platforms that best met the needs of the kids. The design team settled on using Discord to be the central hub for all synchronous chats, warm up activities, and game testing. We chose Discord because it is an open access platform where users can create and control their own channels that can have threaded discussions and live video or audio chatting that is secure. Moreover, because Discord functions as a networked public (boyd, 2010) that kids use, there was a good chance most of our game design participants were already familiar with how to navigate the various aspects of the channel. The affordances of Discord also aided our online institutes because it had a place for an asynchronous text chat thread and forum. Kids could use this feature to post questions to leaders and use it as a hangout space with their peers. Moreover, they would be able to share links and give updates on their progress.
With Discord being our hub for live, synchronous meetings with the kids, we needed a platform to deliver online instructional resources and models for the kids to follow. We also needed a platform to help organize each day’s agenda and serve as the landing site to start each day for our participants. With the help of the IT department at SUNY Oneonta, we were able to create a wordpress created web page at gamedesigner.sunycreate.cloud. Our site laid out our curriculum for each day of the institute and served as an anchor page to go over our daily agenda. This site also allowed our team to embed pre-recorded YouTube videos where we provided instructional walkthroughs and how-tos for the different game design engines. We also created a playlist from the LSWP’s YouTube channel and linked that to our web page. These videos became the vehicle where we modeled instruction as well as gave walkthroughs on how to use the various programs. The kids had access to these videos and could watch or rewatch them at their own leisure.
For software, we selected three game design engines for their affordances for end users to only need internet access and a web browser. The Gamestar Mechanic program we used in our previous institutes became crucial because the kids gained access to the website once we assigned each user a license. There was no need to download software, however, the newest update for Gamestar as of this post (now that Flash was no longer going to be updated) requires a user to download an app–which may make access easier since it can be added to smartphones and tablets. For our junior video game designer institute, we needed to provide developmentally appropriate software and hardware. Joe Reilly, the other institute leader and early-career elementary teacher, felt the kids going into second and third grade might benefit with touch screen devices as well as using a game design engine that was better scaffolded for younger game designers. With grant funding, we were able to purchase iPads for all the participants that needed a touch screen tablet. We chose Scratch Jr because it was more developmentally appropriate for the younger kids learning to read and write. Also, because we were able to provide one-to-one tablets for the kids, they had devices that could install the Scratch Jr app. For our advanced game designer institute for high schoolers and returnees, we had a challenge in finding the right game design engine that would work with our requirements for access equity.
In the late fall of 2019, I began testing more advanced game design engines. I settled on two due to pricing and low-entry access to beginners. The two programs that stood out were Construct 3 and Godot. Both engines have the capacity to produce professional quality games while having a low price point for licenses. Godot, like Scratch and Scratch Jr., is an open access game design engine originally produced by MIT labs. Construct 3 is a game design engine that can be used with only a web browser with no required downloads. After playing around with both programs by watching how-to videos on YouTube, I chose Construct 3 as the game design engine for our advanced game design institute. Construct 3 was more flexible in access because it does not require a user to download any software. Moreover, while the Construct 3 user interface resembles professional game design engines like Unity, Unreal, and Godot, Construct 3 does not require the user to learn code like Python or C#. In fact, because Construct 3 utilizes point and click objects in the coding interface, Construct 3 is an excellent scaffold for game designers to see the design logic in designing a game without the burden of needing to know how to code.
Now that we figured out our plan for which game design software we were going to use, it was up to us to create the material, e.g. videos, web page, and the Discord channels needed to to transition online. Our design and leadership team spent two months creating the videos and site to host asynchronous/synchronous online institutes for the kids and teachers.
Being and Designing Online with Others
In July, the LSWP held four online video game design institutes for kids grades 2-12 and local educators. Five kids participated in a week long junior video game designer institute using Scratch Jr. Six kids participated in the young video game designer institute completing self-created video games on Gamestar Mechanic. The following week five educators participated in a video game design institute where they designed video games for different content areas using Gamestar Mechanic. Additionally, five middle and high school kids participated in the master video game designer institute using Construct 3.
Kids in the Junior Video Game Designer Institute spent five days meeting synchronously with some asynchronous work. Joe (the Lead Instructor) spent approximately an hour each day modeling different aspects of Scratch Jr where he showed how to “code” and use sprites and objects. Each day, Joe would give the kids a challenge with an end goal for a one-level game where a sprite moved and interacted with an object, e.g., a dragon moves across a field and opens a box. While the kids enjoyed meeting and sharing with each other, it became clear that this institute would be more successful and lighten the kids’ frustration had this institute been a traditional face-to-face summer institute. While only anecdotal, the interaction between kids was limited to the synchronous video meetings. The asynchronous interaction between leaders and kids was limited because Discord requires more sophisticated literacy practices needed to communicate in the social mediated threads beyond the voice/video channel.
Like the previous year, we held a video game designer institute for educators. As with the youth, the educators met online on our Discord server. Cassie led the cohort of educators in the basics of game design for the week. The educators completed the same Gamestar Mechanic missions as the kids in the Young Video Game Designer Institutes. By the end of the week, the educators were able to share and play test their content-related games with each other. The educators had a more difficult time navigating the Discord channel than the kids. The educators may have been less familiar with Discord’s user interface with different channels for voice/video chat and threaded discussion threads. Video chat programs like Zoom or Google hangout may be more advantageous for educators since educators may have more familiarity with these programs and the user interfaces. The kids, however, did not have much difficulty with the nuances of Discord because most of them had already been using Discord to hang out with their friends for more a couple of years now.
The other Young Video Game Designer and Master Video Game Designer Institutes went as well as could be expected during the next couple of weeks. Each day, we (Cassie or I) would post a daily agenda on our web page. Most days we would include a walkthrough video modeling a specific task, for example–how to create a save object where a character can respawn at that object’s location if the character in the game dies. We (the leaders and young video game designers) met each day on a Discord video channel where we would share our progress, go over challenges, and play test games in progress. Afterwards, the game designers were free to hang out with each other on discord–either in the video chat or the discussion board. Interestingly, the kids in both the young and master video game designer institutes spent most of their free time during the day hanging out on Discord. Throughout each day, the kids would post questions to leaders or other game designers and leaders. Some would post their game files so others could play test the game. The Discord channel transformed into a game design studio where more experienced designers were able to give advice and teach how to design different aspects of the game.
At the time of writing this, more than ten months removed, a couple of game designers still go on our Discord channel to post new games that they have created. Some young video game designers from the original face-to-face institute still post games on the LSWP Gamestar Mechanic page. Because some participants are still participating on these online forums, Discord or other similar media, may help curate a learning community of invested youth beyond the summer interaction. We hope in the future to use the affordances of these online media to complement our face-to-face institutes that allow for connected learning opportunities beyond a one-week enrichment institutes in the summer.