The Next Level: Student-Designed Games

When kids design games, it can strengthen academic concepts—and build new skills.

Kids designing with the online platform Globaloria;
screenshots of student-created Globaloria games.
Photo and game screens courtesy of Globaloria, a division of Carnegie Learning


Rene Espiritu has long had an interest in a STEM-related career. While a student at Queens (NY) Vocational and Technical High School, he had already developed valuable web design and coding skills. To put those skills into practice—and improve upon them—he dived into the artistic and technical discipline of online game design.

In his game, Electric Traffic, the player controls an electron as it travels from a power source to an electrical tool. To reach the destination, the player must guide the electron through an obstacle course of material that offers resistance. If the electron encounters too much resistance, it loses its charge and the player must start over.

Electric Traffic is a prime example of how game design can reinforce knowledge areas, expand skill sets, and illustrate how circuitry works. Espiritu’s website includes a behind-the-scenes look at the conceptualization of Electric Traffic, from the paper prototype to the finished product.

For Espiritu, conceptualizing Electric Traffic offered a new way to learn about science and technology—and he says that the process is an effective method to express concepts he was learning. “For me, learning how to code was just a byproduct of my curiosity in technology, as I had no idea what made up a program or game,” he says.

Game design can serve as a vehicle for learning concepts and content across a wide variety of academic areas. In fact, educators are increasingly using game design and gaming as a way to strengthen student learning.

George J. Ryan special education teacher Jessika Espinal and library media specialist Brianne Mytko (left).
Photos courtesy of
George J. Ryan Middle School

A universal language

Brianne Mytko, library media specialist for George J. Ryan Middle School in Fresh Meadows, NY, is one such example. She initially drew on her own passion as a way to connect with her students. “I’ve always loved action/adventure video games, and I still love to play on my PS4 recreationally,” she says. Her colleague, Jessika Espinal, a special education teacher, received a grant that allowed the librarians to integrate technology into an English as a New Language (ENL) after-school program. The students’ home languages include Mandarin, Spanish, and Bengali. “Gaming was something that all students could get excited about, regardless of their native language,” says Mytko.

Their student game-designing project featured several steps. After completing a JavaScript class provided by the educational technology company Globaloria, students were tasked with creating a type of game often called a “platformer.” In these activities, the player-character had to traverse a series of platforms, jumping from one to the next to reach a predetermined goal.

The game had to address one of two themes: using technology to improve trash collection and recycling programs or educating people about dogs and cats in need of rescue. To create their games, students used multiple tools, including the online app Pixlr, to create original artwork for in-game assets, and Makey Makey, for creating custom controllers.

Students at George J. Ryan School
fashion computer game controllers with Makey Makey and Play-Doh.

Students collaborated to reach their shared goals. “They peer-conferenced by playing one another’s completed games and providing feedback on strengths and weaknesses” before presenting the games to the class, says Mytko. Students also had the chance to share their creations at the “STEM-tastic Day” hosted by the Queens (NY) Hall of Science. Other than a JavaScript wireframe that served as a coding template, students created all elements of the games—narrative, characters, backgrounds, and interactive objects.

“It was especially helpful for the ENL students who were able to use the universal language of JavaScript to create something unique that displayed their knowledge of the content, regardless of their level of communication with English,” says Mytko.

STEM connection

Educators find that game design is a natural fit for computer science, engineering, and other STEM courses. Its reliance on logic, probability, geometry, and other mathematical principles and disciplines makes it an intuitive way to engage with coding and design as it reinforces lessons in problem-solving and experimentation.

Roger Morgan, computer science and engineering facilitator at David Crockett High School in Austin, TX, and an “old-school” gamer who grew up on pinball machines and stand-alone arcade games, found success when integrating game design into his computer science classes. “The platform is simultaneously fun, engaging, and challenging, while teaching skills such as collaboration, independent research, prototyping, and presentation,” Morgan says.

His program was also made possible through Globaloria after a representative from the company reached out to him about incorporating game design into his curriculum. Morgan learned alongside his students by beginning the tutorial program shortly before they did and helping them along as he completed the lessons.

“During my initial training, I created an idea for a game, and in the weeks before class began, I began putting it together,” says Morgan. “As the classes got up and running, I stayed at least one or two units ahead of the students so I could advise them on the points that were challenging and give them more advice on design options and such as they progressed.” In one of the games, Dat Shark created by Ulysses Mendez, users play in the guise of Ted, a tiger shark, who is hunting smaller fish for food while trying to stay out of the reach of the Squid Army.

Morgan turned the design into a friendly competition, challenging his students to outdo his own work-in-progress. This made the process fun and personal, and it also gave Morgan an opportunity to model presentation skills, so the teens would be prepared for demonstrating their game to their classmates when the time came.

Dat Shark, a game created by Ulysses Mendez, a student at
David Crockett High School in Austin, TX.

Board game design

Designing tabletop board games can be an equally effective way for students to explore and demonstrate mastery of content. Thomas Garrou, former English department chair at Goldsboro (NC) High School, had his students create one based on the adventures of an epic hero from the literature they studied in class, such as Gilgamesh or Beowulf.

“First, they would show understanding of the plot by making the path of the hero—the game path—a depiction of the pitfalls and hurdles and troubles that the epic hero went through in the text,” says Garrou, now an English teacher at North Johnston High School in Kenly, NC. “The students had to come up with text-based problems to stymie the hero.” He had them link the game design and content comprehension with a “chance deck” they created, featuring a collection of heroic traits that players could use to help the hero traverse challenges.

“In order to be able to use this power, the student would have to answer a question about the time period and significance of the text to the time it was written,” Garrou says. “For example, how is the Sumerian view of the afterlife depicted in the story? Or, what traits did the Sumerians admire in their heroes?”

By giving students free rein over the aesthetics of their design, Garrou let them truly make the game their own. The only condition was that the visual elements had to be consistent with the setting of the book. He also required well-written rules with clear setup instructions and a defined win condition.

Given how game design is compatible with all disciplines, it only makes sense that it be used for coteaching and cross-curricular instruction—something Morgan experienced firsthand. “I was approached by a couple of students who had asked an English teacher if they could develop an instructional game instead of writing a book report,” he says. “I worked closely with that teacher in identifying what requirements she would want and monitored their progress as they worked after school on that project.” Morgan cotaught with a graphic design teacher, which was “very helpful for the students, especially during the artwork design and prototyping phases,” he says.

Morgan plans to integrate the mobile game app course into his entrepreneurship class and have students work in teams to produce a mobile game app idea and then “pitch it to investors,” he says. He also wants to collaborate with core classroom teachers at his school to integrate game design into their lesson plans. Morgan encourages teachers to allow students to take on this activity in lieu of traditional assignments (such as writing a paper), and he plans to have his entrepreneurship students create a game that relates to the long-term project they are assigned in their hybrid English/social studies class.

Jonathan Hodrick, a senior classroom support specialist for Globaloria, has seen firsthand how effective game design can be a teaching and learning tool. The proof is in the video game industry, he says.

“If you look at video game history—for example, Dragon Quest—they have Koichi Sugiyama, a classically trained musician, composing the music, and Akira Toriyama, a legendary manga artist, creating the art. Not to mention the programmers, scenario writers, and other team members.”

Hodrick adds that it would be easy for a school to replicate this kind of collaborative working process. “It might be hard to get the entire school working on a single project, but an English and game design class could team up to write a script for a role-playing game, for example. You could have the music department make a soundtrack for the game design class. There are many possibilities when teachers are willing.”

Cheryl Steenson, a librarian and English Language Arts (ELA) teacher at Secondary Academy for Success in Bothell, WA, has also used game design to tear down walls between content areas. She has students use the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s program Scratch, a visually based coding platform to help kids make simple games. Steenson uses an online tool, Itch (, to provide tutorials for students to learn the program.

“My kids specifically used a ‘Digital Storytelling’ project that I helped design within the Itch learning platform,” she says. “To teach the project, I had to address issues like stage design that I probably would not otherwise teach in an 11th grade ELA course. Embedded in the project, students had to consider point of view, dialogue, and characteristics of graphic novels or comic strips or graphic design.” In addition, Steenson used the activity to facilitate conversations with students about intellectual property and copyright.

These projects also serve as narrative tools that take complex, challenging content and make it more easily understood. Pamela Johnson, a social studies teacher at Eastern Wayne Middle School in Goldsboro, NC, once had an experience much like Morgan’s: a group of students wanted to create a game as a final project for their Holocaust and World War II unit. They created a board game that combined elements from Monopoly and the Game of Life. It was set in Europe, and to win, players had to control all of a specific resource. “It worked well as an alternate assessment, because they showed direct understanding of the material,” Johnson says. “They were communicating in a medium with which they were familiar.”

Gaming and library tech specialist Brian Mayer designed the board game Freedom, which explores
the Underground Railroad.
Photo courtesy of Brian Mayer

Brian Mayer, a gaming and library technology specialist for the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, which supports libraries in 22 rural districts in western New York State, agrees that creating a game can have numerous similarities to a traditional research-based project. Mayer designed a board game called Freedom, which explores the Underground Railroad from the perspective of a runaway slave, and he’s currently working on a game based on the French Resistance during World War II. “I have to do research about the Resistance, the politics and the people, and its place in the larger context of the war,” he says. “I have to then find ways to represent these elements through the game. How do I convey the tension and the struggle? The heroism and the loss? The varying cells and ideological differences? The division in the country with the Vichy rule?”

It’s a rich new language of learning—for students and their instructors.

M. Brandon Robbins writes Library Journal’s Games, Gamers, and Gaming column. He is media coordinator for Southern Wayne High School in Dudley, NC.

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