What skills can students learn from game design?

Foundry10 is a local Seattle organization that partners with schools and gives students the resources they need to pursue their interests. During my visit, I met students who were working on a film project, others who were doing robotics, and yet more who were making video games.

The student groups are paired with mentors who help them fulfill their proposed projects. The idea is that when students are doing something they love, they’ll take away valuable skills from that process—non-quantifiable things like teamwork,  problem-solving, etc.

Curious? Here’s what I learned from the good folks at foundry10.

Pixelkin: I’m here with Lisa Castaneda, the founder of foundry10. Can you tell us a little bit about what foundry10 does?

Lisa Castaneda: Sure. So at foundry10 we’re very interested in learning—how students can use creativity to inspire their thinking—and apply things that they’re passionate about and interested in—in everyday life. So it’s not just a hobby, but something that becomes integrated into who they are and how they learn. We wanted them to have opportunities to start thinking […] that there are careers, and people do these things, […] and give them a chance to explore those ideas.

Pixelkin: And some of those things are dance, game design, robotics…there’s a lot!

Castaneda: Yes. And we’re very, very big on student voice. I’m a former teacher, I have a Master’s in Education, and one of the things that was important to me was what my students were doing, and what they thought about it. So for instance, for dance, it’s not just about the dance instructor standing up and saying, “you should do this.” We have students creating choreography, we have students picking games that they’re interested in, students designing games that they’re interested in. A group building an underwater robot, because they were interested in exploring underwater robotics. So letting their voice drive the direction of the projects, and us supporting them.

Pixelkin: I’m here with Tom Swanson. What do you do at foundry10?

Tom Swanson: A lot of my role is designing and actually enacting our programs, and a lot of our research projects as well. Predominantly I focus on the video games and technology-based programs.

Pixelkin: Let’s talk a little bit about the mentors. You bring them in from the local games community?

Swanson: Yeah, for the game ones. So we get the proposal—and it can be anything, like we’ve seen “I want to build a go-kart,” “I want to make a video game,”—so then we reach out into the community and see who would be interested in mentoring these kids. And we try to make sure that their involvement with the group is limited to just a couple of hours per session, and that most of the time the students are working on it as a group, just as their group. That way they come up against challenges and learn to overcome things and figure them out.

With all of the game development, from tabletop up to the very technologically advanced ones, one of the major we see is that students come into it thinking, “I like to play games, therefore I will probably like to make games.” And then they come up against these issues that are very complex and demanding and difficult. Whether it’s coding, or gameplay mechanics, or player interaction, what have you. And it’s fascinating to see how they deal with that, because at times it isn’t enjoyable. It’s hard to make a game. And it’s fun to see how their creative idea, and their desire to bring this idea, this world that they have in their mind, to somebody else—how that pushes them through the tough times and brings this excitement about their game at every stage of development.

Pixelkin: You did a study with 300 middle schoolers last year. Could you talk about that? It was about game creation, right?

Castaneda: Absolutely. So we were interested in game design at the middle-school level. There’s a bunch of folks out there who [are saying] “Kids should play games,” and we are huge proponents of that. But we were also saying, “Hey, what about really looking at what kids can get out of making games?” So we teamed up with a school in New Jersey that had 7th and 8th graders making games, and we were looking at how kids perceived that experience in terms of the value. What did they feel they were getting out of it?

We thought it would be interesting, because we’re always interested in this “novice vs. expert,” to look at what experts thought would be valuable about students making games. And it’s really interesting because there were the obvious, computer-science components to making games. But there was this really holistic view about how making games makes you better at collaborating—making games helps you manage projects and contain ideas—things that we felt were really transferable skills. So it’s not just like, “Every 8th grader is going to go out to work at a game studio,” but that they were learning skills through this process that would help them do a lot of things well.

And one of the things that we’ve been talking a lot about lately is sort of an intentional use behind it. I don’t think it’s necessarily valuable to just throw games in. Or like, we’re just gonna design whatever! But to really say, hey, we’re using this game for this purpose, or to explore a particular idea. And one of the things—just to get on my little pedestal for a minute about making games—is that a lot of times people think that kids should only make games that have an academic purpose. A lot of the research is on kids making a math game for another class, but we think there’s value in making games, period. That it doesn’t have to have that [connection], it could be that just through the process of designing and trying to put together this larger project, that there’s a lot of value there.

Pixelkin: What do you hope foundry10 goes forward to do in the future?

Swanson: So the major goal with our game stuff is just to have an understanding of what role games can play in learning. And […] obviously a large piece of that is education, but it’s also just learning in general. My hope for foundry10 and the game program specifically is that we can provide information to better inform programs that involve games in all facets of learning, in all stages of life.

Castaneda: We really pride ourselves in not just saying that these things are important, but going out and demonstrating it. And one of my all-time favorite stories is—I was presenting at a conference for academics and we were talking about some of the things that we do with students making games in real game engines. And this man was like, “Well, you can’t just put a group of four high school students in the Unreal 4 engine and have them make a game!” and I was like, “We’ve done it…twice.” So it was super awesome, because I think that a lot of times people underestimate what students are capable of. And we want to give them the opportunity to show what they can really do.

This article was written by

Simone de Rochefort is a game journalist, writer, podcast host, and video producer who does a prolific amount of Stuff. You can find her on Twitter @doomquasar, and hear her weekly on tech podcast Rocket, as well as Pixelkin's Gaming With the Moms podcast. With Pixelkin she produces video content and devotes herself to Skylanders with terrifying abandon.