In a winning entry from last year’s Games for Change Student Challenge, a hand-drawn avatar wanders the halls of a high school. The goal is to graduate. Along the way, the player picks up helpful resources and advice.
A guidance counselor, who has to be plied with coffee throughout the game, appears now and then to tell the student to find a tutor or a mentor. Occasionally, the path to graduation gets ominously darker—the screen literally goes black.
Playing the game, which high school students in Brooklyn made using Scratch, induces a bit of a headache. The player has to navigate the virtual school’s perplexing maze of hallways—a representation of the figurative walls many young people bump up against when trying to succeed. The game is meant to call attention to the school-to-prison pipeline, one of the social issues highlighted in last year’s Games for Change (G4C) competition.
The contest is now in its second year and is open to Pittsburgh youth for the first time. The rules ask middle- and high-school students to design digital games that boost social awareness. This year’s entries, due April 2017, must explore the themes of climate change, immigrant stories, or smart technology in cities. Winning individuals and groups will receive prizes including paid internships and help from professional mentors.
Game-based learning has earned enough of a following in recent years to have entire schools devoted to the practice—see Quest to Learn in New York and Chicago. The benefits of game-based curricula are twofold. Many students already have an interest in gaming, and can use their existing experience as a launching pad for learning. Meanwhile, the processes of game design and play build critical skills: problem-solving, innovation, and teamwork.
Catherine Swanwick, a neuroscientist turned teacher and game designer, explains that game design achieves fundamental STEM learning outcomes.
“The whole process of game-making is very similar to the scientific process,” she said in a webinar hosted by Zulama, a Pittsburgh-based ed-tech company. “You’re thinking about a problem, and you’re testing and you’re troubleshooting, and you might stumble across something that happens by accident.”
Other educators note that game design can promote interdisciplinary learning. The process of coming up with a meaningful message and experimenting with the technical and aesthetic means of communicating it to players builds “technological, artistic, cognitive, social, and linguistic skills suitable for our current and future world,” according to Gamestar Mechanic, a game design platform.
While some of last year’s G4C entries share similar mechanisms, the storytelling sets them apart from one another. One of the winning games last year, Cat Quest, presented a tried-and-true challenge: dodge obstacles and earn points. But the avatar is a cat, and the obstacles—fast cars, toxic food—are meant to educate players about animal welfare.
“Shifting the narrative can change the game,” writes games-based learning scholar Jordan Shapiro at Mind/Shift.
And giving young people the opportunity to craft that narrative themselves is powerful. While most young people have played a video game that was created for them, fewer have been given the chance to stretch their own imaginations and create one themselves. Through the G4C challenge, students can explore issues relevant to them and their communities, presenting them from their own perspectives.
Though only students get to try their hands at competitive game-making in the G4C challenge, the program offers opportunities for educators as well. In each of the eligible cities—Pittsburgh, Dallas, and New York City—20-30 teachers receive training on teaching game-design courses.
It isn’t the first games-based professional development program for Pittsburgh teachers. TeacherQuest, a partnership between the Institute of Play and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Pittsburgh, and based on Quest to Learn schools, trains educators to integrate games into their classrooms. During its summer training, the teachers themselves play and design games, coming up with projects their students can replicate.
G4C has a history with our city as well. Members of the Remake Learning Network and local game designers have presented at the Games For Change Festival in New York, a conference promoting games with a social mission.
Now, young people in our city can join the conversation too.