Walk into any game development studio and you’ll see people troubleshooting their own creations, testing each other’s work and iterating again and again.
Walk into Steve Isaacs’s eighth-grade classroom, and you’ll see the same thing.
It’s “an extremely lively place — rich with discussion, student-to-student feedback and collaboration,” says Matthew Hall, supervisor of science and technology for Bernards Township Schools in New Jersey.
Students in Isaacs’s game design and development class never know what might happen when they walk in the door. They might get to beta test a new version of Eco, an online game where players collaborate to build a civilization in a simulated ecosystem. Or they might be asked to create tutorials for their favorite game (that would be Minecraft, y’all). They might Skype with a game developer or be handed an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and asked to discuss with researchers their ideas for how it might be used as a learning tool.
“It’s really powerful for kids to realize they’re being heard,” says Isaacs, winner of ISTE’s 2016 Outstanding Teacher Award. “Beta testing and the whole iteration process is so important. When they’re doing that for another company, they’re seeing how it happens in the real world.”
The tech teacher strives to create a learning environment that feels more like a working studio than a computer lab.
“I’ve been working hard for years to get great resources in the classroom so kids can take their learning in their own hands,” he says. But it’s not just about the equipment. It’s his willingness to take a back seat — giving students plenty of independence and autonomy — that allows them to flourish as video game developers.
He offers the following tips for teachers who are looking to empower their students as game creators.
Give them a quest
When Isaacs’ students team up for group work, they get no specific assignments or predetermined roles. Turns out they don’t need them. Students gravitate naturally toward the aspects of game development they’re most interested in.
“It’s quest based,” he says. “Kids have many different options for how go about meeting the learning objectives. There are a lot of things they could be working on.”
Some enjoy designing the look and feel of the game’s levels. Others relish the coding. Some take on a project manager role because it fits their personality. “It happens so organically, it sort of feels magical,” he says.
Teach the iterative design process
Isaacs’s students learn the way professional software designers work: Create. Test. Iterate.
“It’s different to see them evolve and create something and modify it and continue to build on it and accomplish more with each step,” he says.
STEP 1: Design. “An important element is planning and designing the game before jumping in and creating it,” he says. They write storylines, level descriptions and character descriptions. They use a design doc to plan the look and feel of the game. “Not only are they going through the design-thinking process, but they’re also getting at the content rather than just creating a game.”
STEP 2: Prototype. Working in Minecraft, GameMaker or Gamestar Mechanic, students start figuring out how to bring the elements to life. Isaacs serves as a guide, but he mostly hangs back and lets them handle it. “I want my kids to do some of the real problem-solving stuff,” Isaacs says. “There’s so much troubleshooting that goes into it. They wrack their brains but feel really accomplished when they come out the other side.”
STEP 3: Test. Testing doesn’t happen at the end, when the game is finished. It happens throughout the development process. Students stop at several checkpoints along the way to test each other’s games, give feedback and iterate. “They go through that cycle several times until they ultimately complete their game,” he says. “They learn a lot about creating for an audience. Once they see people play the game and give feedback, they realize it’s important for them to see what the end users are experiencing.”
Take it public
Speaking of end users, the ultimate goal of Isaacs’s class isn’t to create a video game — it’s to publish one. He also encourages them to publish other content, like Minecraft tutorials on Snapguide.
A networked educator who has co-founded multiple online communities and moderates weekly Twitter chats, he uses his digital platform to amplify his students’ work. He pins and tweets noteworthy projects. He forms alliances with real-world software developers and sniffs out opportunities for his students to engage with the broader tech community.
Sometimes tech companies approach him for projects like making video game tutorials or writing a book about a specific programming language. His answer: “I don’t think I’d be the one to do that, but my students would.” That’s how he ended up co-authoring a published book on GameMaker’s programming language with one of his students.
“I’m passionate about student voice and providing students with opportunities to share their work with an authentic audience,” Isaacs says. “In terms of technology, I’m all about content creation. Teaching game design and development lends itself perfectly to encouraging students to create their own content.”