With education budgets stretched and staffing challenges impacting the whole industry, now might not seem like the ideal time to be introducing new subjects. But with post-pandemic engagement levels still in recovery and children’s love of STEM subjects in decline, the case for starting to teach video game development has never been stronger. Especially for girls. Here’s why.
Let’s start with engagement. Homeschooling and hybrid learning during the pandemic left many children feeling disconnected. With only 46% of students currently feeling engaged at school, compared with 65% before 2019, it’s a hangover which is still being felt today.
One way of countering this engagement slump is through active learning strategies. Getting students involved in the learning process, instead of them simply listening to instructions is proven to have a positive impact on engagement. But when you combine an active learning approach with a subject that really captures students’ imagination, the results can be incredible. This is where game design comes into its own – as it combines student interest with teaching key skills.
Right now, 93% of children regularly play video games as a way of relaxing and connecting with their friends. But can enthusiasm for playing games translate into engaged students in the classroom? And what are the positive outcomes that children experience when learning to make games at school?
In schools that already teach video game development, a massive 77% report that it’s highly effective at engaging students. “Kids don’t approach game development with the same apprehension,” explains David Scott, who teaches game design to 9 to 16-year olds using GameMaker, adding, that as a result: “Their enthusiasm to learn is exceptional, as they do not realise they are learning such a difficult subject as they are fully engaged on their goal.”
But learning video game development isn’t just highly effective at boosting engagement, it can also help students to develop many of the core skills needed to learn and progress with STEM subjects – like problem-solving, creativity and teamwork. “Students really engage with the problem-solving side of games programming and they enjoy the challenge of solving programming problems in order to implement new features into their games,” says Terry Watts, who teaches Computer Science with GameMaker to 11 to 14-year-olds at Cotham School in Bristol.
It’s not just the thrill of designing games that engages students – it’s the tools they use, too. They need to be easy to get into, offer quick and tangible results, and provide a comprehensive library of supportive resources. Today, the best game-making tools available to students include:
- GameMaker: GameMaker is a simple, fast, and free game engine that specialises in 2D. Students can start building games immediately with the beginner-friendly visual coder, before advancing their learning with GameMaker’s own coding language. GameMaker’s Education Licence is free to all teachers, offering them the resources they need to bring game design to students in a classroom environment.
- Unity: The Unity engine is capable of creating 2D and 3D games. They offer their own education license, which is only free for qualifying institutions. The engine is supported by thousands of community-made tutorials to help users create their games, but beginners can find the difficulty curve much steeper than the alternatives.
- Game Builder Garage: This Nintendo Switch game, developed by Nintendo EPD, uses a cartoon-y visual code editor to teach the basics of programming. Students can make some impressive games within Garage, but without consistent support from Nintendo, their learning is unlikely to progress much higher than ‘beginner’.
- Godot: A free and open source game engine, Godot is capable of creating both 3D and 2D games, although its 2D capabilities perform slightly better. Games are built by placing ‘nodes’ within ‘scenes’. Godot has a thinner resource pool than its competitors, making it harder to pick up and get started.
GIRLS AND STEM – THE GREAT GENDER DIVIDE
When it comes to attitudes towards learning STEM subjects, there’s a stubborn gender divide that exists, which becomes increasingly acute as students approach the age of 15. A survey by the Institute of Engineering and Technology, found that teenage girls tended to be interested in careers in arts, education, childcare, healthcare, hair and beauty and agriculture (including animal care). However, boys expressed more of an interest in ICT, engineering, technology, sport, construction and property and public service. Only a third (13%) of girls surveyed said that they would consider working in engineering, while only 11% said that they would consider working in technology.
The problem is that young girls are being pushed out of these disciplines because of toxic cultures, outdated conceptions about male and female subjects, and a lack of opportunities. That means that in reality, educators only have a four to five year window to nurture their students’ passions before girls turn their backs on careers in these fields – potentially for good.
So what can be done?
A Microsoft study of 6,000 girls and women aged 10-30, pointed to some answers. These included providing teachers with a more engaging and relatable STEM curriculum, such as 3D and hands-on projects, the kinds of activities that have proven to help retain girls’ interest in STEM over the long haul. Additional studies have shown that relatable, project-based lessons that prioritise student voice and choice can attract young women to STEM subjects.
HOW MAKING GAMES GIVES STUDENTS A VOICE NATURALLY
Making games lends itself entirely to the promotion of student voice in education. When you make a game, you make creative and technical choices at every step.
Think about how a game is made: first, you come up with the ideas together; then you need to figure out how to make it come alive. This teaches concrete and abstract thinking where you apply your learning, problem-solve, and make a winding series of creative, self-defining decisions.
Then, there’s communication. What about the audio and art? Who will make it and who will put it into the interactive game, and how? The young artist needs to work with the budding programmer, allowing for the natural development of social intelligence and interpersonal skills with people who have different interests and may not collaborate under normal circumstances.
Alongside this, students need to prioritise professional empathy. Questions such as:
- What will my audience expect?
- How will my audience react to this?
- Is my game easy and understandable to use?
These questions are key to many modern professions – think service design, UX, marketing, or game and app development.
It is design thinking. It is a mindset that isn’t developed overnight. It requires iterative development, demanding creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving – and it’s fundamental and naturally occurring in game development.
Therefore, when students design and create games, learning becomes personalised, interactive, and collaborative. Game development is also a natural gateway into teaching humanities subjects, such as history, philosophy, and the arts, offering real life job prospects within a growing industry.
Right now, video games are mostly made by men, for men. This is a challenge that the games industry is slowly waking up to. And as the industry reorientates itself to embrace the skills and creativity of female developers and coders, it will open up a host of new job opportunities, that giving girls current attitudes to STEM simply wouldn’t be filled. Thus, opportunity knocks.
They say “choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” It’s a sentiment that also applies to education and learning. In teaching video game development, you’re teaching a subject that most students already have a strong interest in. Video game development lessons are also creative, challenging and help give students a voice. Plus, learning to make games may just result in fewer girls turning their back on STEM when they reach fifteen. Game on!
Educators can now teach game design using GameMaker for free, regardless of class size, and access all the lesson plans and learning materials they need, by visiting https://gamemaker.io/en/education.