How game programming lessons can transform class engagement

Stuart Poole, general manager for Yo Yo Games, discusses how teaching game programming is about far more than computing skills

While many students enjoy playing video games, is it possible that making video games can play a key challenging role in engaging students’ attention, and developing core skills needed for learning STEM subjects? There’s a lot more to games than simply being fun, but as they are increasingly used as an introductory tool to programming within the STEM curriculum for teenagers, and in a more creative design capacity at university, does the fun element extend to learning, and are the challenges of game design of importance in the classroom? To understand this, we surveyed 150 educators who teach game programming. Here’s what we uncovered …

We asked our pool of educators to evaluate the effects that teaching game programming had across 10 different learning objectives: planning, time management, teamwork, programming languages, students’ individual confidence, graphic design, learning engagement, class behaviour, improving the teacher/student bond, and improving performance in other STEM subjects. From there, we asked educators to evaluate these effects on a semantic scale ranging from extremely effective, to not at all effective.

By some margin, the most beneficial impact that teaching game design had was on learning engagement. A participant response of 77.3% said the teaching of game design had been either “extremely effective” or “very effective” at engaging with students. Terry Watts, a secondary school teacher at Cotham School in Bristol, said: “I do generally see a higher level of engagement. “Students are proud of their end product and like to show it off to peers, staff and family more. It also reveals the students that have a real aptitude for programming as a game is open-ended and these students often go beyond the core teaching to extend their games further.”

Source: YoYoGames

A facilitative in-class approach

Overcoming the unique challenges of making a game, along with the high level of peer engagement required to communicate and evaluate concepts, led to the teaching of game programming having one of its most positive impacts in enhancing participants’ confidence with 64.7% of educators saying it was “very effective” or “extremely effective” at improving students’ individual confidence. The making of a game is an open-ended exercise. There’s no manual on how to program an original game since the concept you’re programming is unique to the project. As such, students need to think creatively, set their own parameters and seek out answers themselves, rather than follow a specific guide.

This process can be incredibly empowering. Mark Suter, a high school computer science teacher in Elida, Ohio, said: “I see the positive results of being stuck because there aren’t clear answers to their design questions, which is a positive experience in the end, but at the time manifests as frustration. I simply remind them that it’s OK to be stuck, and help develop their problem-solving skills, such as properly using forums to find answers rather than immediately seeking me out.” The teaching of game design provides teachers with an ideal opportunity to take a facilitative approach to classes, and for students to expand their peer associations. There’s no rights and wrongs, and the students have the power over the final outcome. To make progress students have to open their minds to ideas coming from all places, as pre-conceptions are left to one side, replaced by critical evaluation in an open, trusting environment. Teaching game design also had a beneficial effect on improving class behaviour, with 86.7% finding it effective, and 58% finding it “very effective” or “extremely effective”.

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Kim Hansen, a high school teacher in Vancouver, Washington, said: “The kids are happier in class, there aren’t behavior problems like in other classes. “Other teachers even comment that I seem happier when I teach video game programming than when I teach math. I’m much more relaxed and I think that contributes to the kids feeling better about the class. We are all there because we want to be there so everyone is happy about being together.”

Additionally, more than half of the respondents said that teaching game programming was “very effective” or “extremely effective” at helping with planning, teamwork, and improving the student/ teacher bond. There were only three categories where the combined totals of”extremely effective” and “very effective” weren’t over 50% and all areas were deemed effective by more than 80% of respondents.

A “club” environment

One reason game programming is so effective is the way that it’s taught. The vast majority of educators we surveyed said they let students make their own games, with the teacher being available for advice. Many of our survey participants said that students would actually go out of their way to pursue their game developing dreams through extracurricular activities. Watts said: “We started a games programming club that takes place on Fridays after school. This, in turn, led to a cross-curricular project that saw students building and programming their own arcade cabinet for the school.” Kim Hansen noted that while she teaches both math and computer science during the proper school day, she also offers an after-hours program focused on making games for a state competition (in this case the Oregon Game Project Challenge). “It’s somewhat informal like a club would be,” she said of this group. “There isn’t exactly a set curriculum for it.”

Some students are very passionate about pursuing a career in video games, but that’s not the main benefit of teaching game programming in the classroom. Indeed, the tools used in game development translate to other fields of study. “Even if students don’t want to go into the video game industry, game design teaches both technical skills and the creativity students need to thrive in today’s global digital workplace,” said Nikki Navta of Carnegie Learning. While there is a myriad of benefits to teaching games programming, it’s clear that the biggest boon is how much it engages students. This is fantastic news for teachers who want to get their students excited about the challenges of STEM curriculum subjects.

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