Gamechanger: Digital Media plus Student-centered, Immersive, Peer-led Learning

In the middle of one of the hottest and driest summers on record, twenty Austin, TX, area high school students showed up for school everyday for four weeks. While the four-week project took place inside a school, how the students worked, the roles they assumed, and what they produced was a total redesign of school and what it means to be a learner. Their mission: create a casual video game for AMD that highlights the green architecture that earned the company’s Lone Star Campus (based in Austin) a gold certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) honor.  A local game development company was recruited to evaluate the games and select one to be featured on AMD’s website.

Over the four weeks I spent several hours with the students, attended some of the fieldtrips that were arranged for them, and followed the evolution of their games from mere ideas, sketches, and paper prototypes to playable demos. I observed how digital media, peer-to-peer learning ecologies, student-centered processes, and immersive, open, and playful educational environments can transform the lives of schools and, most important, the lives of young learners.

There was a teacher who supervised the students during the day but this was not about him at all. This was all about the students—they conducted the research, came up with the story ideas for their games, wrote the script, did the art work, programming, and group management that kept them on schedule.

The process was not perfect but it did open my eyes even further to the promise of what innovative learning spaces for ‘the young and the digital’ can look like.

Game Creation for Everyone

Though some of the students had experience creating games, most had never designed a game, which made the four-week project especially intriguing from a researcher’s perspective. In my conversations with the students I learned they had varied interests and career aspirations including writing novels, music production, accounting, international business, and, of course, game design. Many of them came from homes with parents who had never attended college, underscoring important class dynamics. While a few of them were college bound, most were unsure about life after high school.

By the end of the first two days the students had created a company, established five separate teams, and crafted what would become their distinct yet flexible roles (i.e., artist, designer, programmer) within those teams. After touring the AMD campus the students immediately went to work sketching, examining the photos they captured, discussing the notes that they took, probing the rationale of green architecture, and sharing ideas about the nature and design of their games. In the first week students went from ideation to building their games. After considering a number of options four of the five teams selected GameSalad as the platform for making their game.

Many of the students told me that GameSalad offered something unique compared to other options: customization. Whereas other platforms restrict your characters and the game setting to pre-set features, GameSalad allows you to create your own characters and setting. Based in Austin, GameSalad represents one of the interesting developments in games—the creation of game authoring software that allows non-programmers to produce games. “Not everybody can write code,” a rep from the company told me. GameSalad’s motto, while spunky in spirit—“Game creation for everyone”— highlights the rising interest among young people in not only playing games but making games. Look beyond Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft and you might see the next great frontier in games. The rise of platforms that encourage gamers to reimagine the world by telling stories, developing their learner voices, and problem-solving through game creation.

Even though GameSalad was the platform of choice, none of the students had ever used the software. Facing a hard four-week deadline the lack of experience with Game Salad could have led to frustration and resignation. But this is when things got interesting.

‘Need to Know’ Learning Communities

The project was set up as a quasi-competition. Only one team would have their game selected to be featured on AMD’s website. But rather than turn against each other the students turned the classroom into an open and collaborative work space. If one team member figured out a feature on GameSalad, she shared it with the other teams. If one team was uncertain about a game play feature, they invited someone from a different team to play-test the game and used that as feedback. If one person needed help figuring out Garage Band or Photo Shop, someone with experience offered assistance. Intuitively, they were building a design thinking system on the fly. But it turns out that this is how many young people navigate and build rich learning ecologies, what you might call a “need to know” learning community.

One young student, an aspiring accountant, was charged with being the programmer for his team. “I was nervous,” Gregory told me, “because I had never used GameSalad.” When I asked him how he figured it out his answer was eye-opening. After talking with other students Gregory went to YouTube. (Early on the students petitioned their teacher to have the world’s biggest video-sharing site unblocked—“schools need to stop blocking YouTube!” one young woman told me. “They need to stop being afraid of technology.”) On YouTube he found several GameSalad tutorials and began studying them carefully. Gregory was building an extended, virtual, and personal learning network, charting a pathway to learn what he needed to know in order to do what he needed to do. “If you had given me a manual and said, ‘here, learn how to do this,’ it would have taken me two months to figure it out,” he explained.

Like a number of his peers, Gregory jumped in and began tinkering with the game creation platform. Within two weeks he had built the basic frame for the game. As the main character your goal was to kill the invasive species that threatened AMD’s attempt to preserve the native plant species that populated the land that hosted their 58-acre complex.

Games, Grit, and Motivating Learning  

A number of the students displayed what elsewhere Angela L. Duckworth et al. (2007) call grit. In a 2007 study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the authors conclude that grit, or perseverance and passion for long-term goals, is just as important in academic achievement as talent or high test scores. But grit usually happens when students are motivated to learn. Education scholars have known for some time that students learn best when they want to learn. Typically the motivation in school is extrinsic or determined by an external force. Maybe it’s to score high on a standards test, please a teacher, or do better than the student sitting next to you. The best source of motivation is intrinsic, that is, students learning because they are internally driven, curious, and passionate about what they are doing. Grit is more likely to be sustained in learning environments that figure out how to foster intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation by tapping into passions and allowing students to find their voice and place as learners.

By their own admission, many of these students were not the most talented in their school. But in this instance it would have been difficult to find students working any harder, longer, or smarter.

Banner image credit: Shigeo Sato