Learning by Design – The STEAM Model, Part 1

The need for STEM programming will not be going away any time in the near future.  The jobs of tomorrow rely heavily on the training and education tied in to STEM, but it lacks a critical component: the human touch.  This is where game design really comes into its own as a complementary plank in education and library programs, not to mention something fun people can do at home.  What might matter more for you is that your final products can be ways to entertain those closest to you.  Game design necessarily includes art as there is an immediate need for the continued engagement of players with the game.  Thus, game design focuses on STEAM to add that human touch.

Game design helps reinforce theoretical constructs by relying on visual models.  This matters as brain development moves from exterior to interior processes.  While this will be covered in greater detail later, consider how infants and children engage with the world.  At first, babies are limited to touch and taste to gain as much information as they can.  As they get older they try to assimilate other senses, but they do not have the benefit of experience to aid them.  They ask questions and try to apply what they learn to each new experience to sort out how the world (and language) works.  Games help with this by taking complex processes, like how to avoid hitting a car (the same math you use to figure out how to intercept a moving target), and making the concept easier to understand.

But, say someone you know is not interested in learning.  One of the hidden values of game design for those who are interested only in fun is that education underlies effective game design in all areas of STEAM s.  The designer does not need to be aware he or she is using these elements to benefit from the educational value game design challenges encourage game players and designers to solve.  What follows next is a synopsis of the five areas of STEAM and how they fit the design structure.

Learning by Design – Interstitial 1

The goal for this anyone using this program is to introduce people to design principles utilizing assets available to most people either through the Internet or through public access at a local library as a STEAM initiative that is as informative as it is fun and imaginative.  In effect, it brings people and ideas together through design to express and enhance ideas people have while increasing information and technological (especially digital) literacy.  Learning by Design is set up with anyone in mind who wishes to design games or wants to teach game design to someone as a complementary discipline and skill enhancer.

Under the guise of a game design program, kids will be able to engage with all aspects of STEAM in an interactive environment learning skills that have real world application.  To accomplish this, Learning by Design is be comprised of several modules that cover different elements of game design theory and the end goal to encourage people of all ages (albeit with a focus on kids and teens) to design games based on their favorite stories or as a communal effort to build a digital collection of games for a school or public library system that can be enjoyed by the community at large.

Outside of the professional skills one can develop, the modules can be taught at a pace that prepares kids and teens for final exams or as library summer reading programs in which a challenge to design a game based on their favorite story could be implemented to show story comprehension and the skill set of the designer.  The purpose is creative expression without competition or judging design qualities.

Learning by Design – Introduction, Part 8

Though I am not a big name in the game industry, I have been designing games and expansions for established games for over thirty-five years without formal training.  Most of what I started with was a pencil and construction paper.  One of my uncles made a lot of games for us to play.  These were from the roll-and-move genre, but watching him make them taught me how to create my own.  As I got older, I began to outgrow these simplistic games, but I still wanted to make games that were fun.  To do this, I had to learn how games worked.

How I got there was from the same uncle.  He owned a lot of board games and by the age of four, he had me playing chess.  Within a year of that, I was playing Risk, and as I my reading improved, I spent many days reading through the monster books for Dungeons & Dragons while playing Water Works, Acquire, Dungeon Dice, Statis Pro Baseball, Pennant Race, and a whole host of games.  Some of the games were easy to grasp and I remember well, but others were not so memorable.  That, too, was something I was fascinated by.  I was driven to learn what makes games work and how to make ones that people will remember well after they are no longer sold.


What I have learned is there is no magic formula to predict what will be a great game.  The mechanics can be solid, but the market and the general trends in a culture can lift or tank a design.  Armed with the information and understanding the direction a culture is going can prevent a game from being lost, however.  Even if being the greatest game designer is not something every aspires to, there is something deeper in the chase for learning how games work that makes the effort worth it: knowledge and understanding of disparate subjects.  The patterns that underpin any design can be applied to so many areas of life and fields of knowledge that there is something within the design discipline for everyone.  What Learning by Design is about is showing how these systems work and how they can be used to teach anything STEAM related without the audience feeling like they are being asked to do work.  Each section is designed to introduce a broad category of game types and look at the mechanics typical of those game types, but it tries to do so without overwhelming you with the technical details.  Those are part of the exploratory process and designers gravitate towards the design principles that work best for their ideas and they will study those areas more to create the best experience they can design.

Learning by Design – Introduction, Part 7

The brain also plays some interesting tricks on what we think is occurring on the surface.  But, studies show that interruptions, routine, and the reward systems operate on principles at times counterintuitive to what the conscious mind observes.  The key is understanding how we have hacked and hijacked our brains to repurpose processes that were important to subsistence survival, such as reading and letter formation and their relation to hunting and information gathering.  Games take advantage of these functions even if designers are unaware they are tapping into this wonderful pool of resources.  Each game activates the reward systems in different combinations and methods to train skills targeted by the rules, which further boosts the feel-good chemicals released when players successfully use those skills outside of play.

Games place artificial limits on players to narrow down the options available to not only avoid the omnivore’s dilemma, but also to define the play experience.  The oxymoron presented by rules is exploration of such a small space only to find that there is a lot of wiggle room.  For some, this is difficult to conceive.  What games are good at is helping players to see things from a new vantage point.  Items and data that appear too disparate reveal commonalities and unforeseen opportunities.  This is part of the exploration process.

One of the chief elements of games is to help players overcome obstacles.  A good number of these are purposefully put in the players’ way, but this is a positive thing.  Learning how to surmount limitations is one of the ways people learn to adapt to changes.  For some, these can be physical or mental challenges resulting from injuries.  In both Reality is Broken and Superbetter, Jane McGonigal talks about these issues and the science behind games that shows their value.  And that is from playing them.  Consider what designing them can do for people, especially students.

Learning by Design – Introduction, Part 6

One of the things is emphasized in Jane McGonigal’s books Reality is Broken and Superbetter as well as Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun for Game Design, and Benedict Carey’s How We Learn is how the brain works.  The processes behind some of the most important information gathering and assessment mechanisms of the brain benefit greatly from game play.  Games do this well because of the desire to win and compete to prove one’s stature amongst peers.  To win, players have to seek ways to improve their skills while internalizing the rules.  Once that stage is reached, the participants can focus on improving their strategies, try new play styles, etc.  This is no different than learning to ride a bike or drive a car and then learning tricks or maneuvers that, while not necessarily impossible, require the brain to not be distracted by the rules and procedures.

This is where the brain needs to be to reduce tasks to automatic responses.  It is why you no longer have to think about lifting a utensil full of food to your mouth.  Children just learning to feed themselves, however, do not have this luxury.  They must concentrate on the actions that make up this perceived single act.  Games, unlike cars and the need to eat, are patient and always wait for people to return without consequence for taking time.  This willingness to wait for interaction is what makes games so comforting and enjoyable teachers.  They also lack a sense of obligation.

The brain also plays some interesting tricks on what we think is occurring on the surface.  But, studies show that interruptions, routine, and the reward systems operate on principles at times counterintuitive to what the conscious mind observes.  The key is understanding how we have hacked and hijacked our brains to repurpose processes that were important to subsistence survival, such as reading and letter formation and their relation to hunting and information gathering.  Games take advantage of these functions even if designers are unaware they are tapping into this wonderful pool of resources.  Each game activates the reward systems in different combinations and methods to train skills targeted by the rules, which further boosts the feel-good chemicals released when players successfully use those skills outside of play.

Learning by Design – Introduction, Part 5

One of the ways people gain experience is through play.  In fact, much of the early development of children is exploration through play.  A lot of research has been done on this subject such as that conducted by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard and implemented in programs like California’s First 5.  Other sources include books like The Game Believes in You, Theory of Fun for Game Design, Reality is Broken, and Rules of Play.  All of them look at the various ways in which people engage with games and/or touch on the aspects of brain development.  The research out there shows how prevalent gaming is.

You do not need to look at academic works or books that distill the research into accessible language.  Just watch how a child plays and the ways in which they mimic the behaviors of the adults in their lives to see the experimentation at work.  Children try to process the world around them and work out their place within in it just like gamers do with any new game they learn.  At first, players stumble through the motions attempting to understand the limitations imposed by the rules, they are testing the world’s boundaries to see what works and what does not.  Children do the same when playing as well as when seeing what they can get away with before their parents rein them in.

Boundary testing is how we learn through experimentation.  Play encourages failure in a safe environment where the results will not have long-term effects.  Thus, play nurtures exploration without risk.  Granted failure is a risk, but it is not a catastrophe.  Players do not lose anything when they stop playing.  Rather, they gain from each attempt towards success.  Every opponent with greater skill has something to teach the new player through observation as well as probing the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent’s strategy (as well as the player’s own).  Much of this is done through indirect communication, but some well versed players may offer hints and pointers to help the player improve as the novice’s improvement can help the veteran do so as well.  Teaching is mastery exhibited and shows what has been gained.

Learning by Design – Introduction, Part 4

If I am good enough to teach others how to make games, why do I not just make them?  I do make games; most are designed to illustrate a concept or to play with my friends.  While I do have some trepidation with sending out my work into public view, I have not really seen a lot of interest in what I have to offer from others as much from my own reticence to show my work as it is from not hearing of any real desire for work not based on someone else’s game systems.  On some level, it is also difficult to explain my own games since I developed them using the principles detailed throughout Learning by Design.  Having that academic approach bleeds into my descriptions of the game, especially in conversations or rapid social media exchanges.

Not having access to more than just ink and paper supplies, there also is not much one can move beyond the prototyping phase that will look attractive to potential players.  Packaging, advertising, and durability of components matter, especially if the game in question is meant to be replayed time and again.  Before the publishing revolution—to include 3-D printing—there were not many options available for designers without access to the assets of game companies to move to larger scales in the prototyping and beta testing processes.  I have created pieces for games when cannibalizing my own collection was not enough to capture the experience due to discrepancies in sizes, color schemes clashing, pieces not fitting due to genre, etc.  Most of these are abstracts and usually involve glue and pony beads.

Commercial game creation is expensive, prototyping is not.  It is this experience from which I drew in creating the initial program and continue to use to explore various academic facets of game design to use in teaching others how to be better designers.  When a paper prototype can all but leap off the page to show potential players how the game works and makes them want to play the game repeatedly, then the designer has learned how to create great games and demonstrates a full understanding of design principles for interactive experiences.  Like most designers, I could spend all my time on my own games, but none of those creations will help others learn how to create works that the current crop of professionals would think of because of one crucial difference between all of us: the influence of our experiences.

Learning by Design – Introduction, Part 3

One of the common questions that people have, and which you might also have, is if this is really about education or games.  And that is a fair question to ask.  In truth, it is a bit of both.  There is more than just a touch of the Montessori method inherent in teaching game design, but it is less a laissez faire approach than it appears on the surface.  Rather, game design teaches a disciplined approach to problem-solving experiential issues.

Games require active participation otherwise they are ineffective.  They have no value without engagement, and that requires incentives to keep people’s interest.  To do this designers have to not only understand the limitations of rules, but also what makes for a meaningful experience that brings players back time and again.  This is the focus of design and the creation of an effective user interface and user experience—both of which are highly prized skills for customer-service oriented businesses.  If there is no consistency in experience and yet a touch of uniqueness to each encounter, patrons are likely to venture off for a product that can provide both without seeming to slip from the seemingly opposed values.

Yes, embedded in game design are the same basic skills used for such disciplines.  The structured play with rules and how they can interact with each other also covers the same fundamental concepts for experimentation under the scientific method and information theory.  Designers learn how to define classifications of information, organize system of thought or lenses through which to interpret data, and how seemingly dissimilar features can disappear within the context of the space created for the game’s rules.  Students learning through game design do not necessarily make these connections, but the trial-and-error method lets participants in the program see how disparate ideas can be connected and under what conditions without being given any rote answers.

Learning by Design – Introduction, Part 2

While this is not a new concept, the approach here was designed as a library program that would move patrons from children as young as four to adults through the various facets of design at their own pace.  Since teaching through game design is not well known to the general public, work was done to include the parents of younger patrons as part of a year-long program emphasizing STEAM throughout the library as a whole.  Parents were invited to participate through understanding the key concepts that translated well outside the program and games and into skills that the children could use immediately in their classes.  None of this was mentioned to the participants as to keep their focus on creating games of their choice and introducing a new concept every session that built off the previous sessions for those ready for a new challenge.  Since the participants were not asked to learn new design techniques, they were provided for those who felt comfortable moving on to the next lessons.

The program was designed to allow library staff to move from one module to the next and be able to revisit previous modules with new game mechanics drawn from the more advanced modules or reinterpretations of the common rules found in that particular class of games.  As such, the games were loosely grouped into seven modules to define certain key features that marked those games without regard to genre or complexity.  Most of the features introduced this way were listed as submodules with their own handouts and example games which the attendees would have familiarity.  Not only did this shortcut the explanatory segment for time’s sake, but it also provided reassurance that they could create similar games.

Children also learn prototyping and that very few materials are needed to make a fun game they can play with family and friends.  The low cost of the program fits library needs while also showing participants that they did not need to spend much to get started and explore design elements.  Later modules also introduce the use of office productivity software available at virtually all public libraries to move a concept from prototype to beta testing and even finished product with publishing tools and 3-D printing.  Failure is encouraged as both experimentation and fun in itself.

Learning by Design – Introduction, Part 1

Teaching through play seems counterintuitive.  After all, we are basically asking people to run amok, right?  Not necessarily; part of what is being urged here is for people to explore the provided space.  The age of the individual is superfluous when we ask people to play a game because the rules govern what you can and cannot do.  This is not to say that there are no inherent advantages when playing against someone with less experience, but there also is no guarantee of victory.  And that is a great equalizing factor that allows the younger generations to challenge the older ones and have a chance to teach their opponents something new.

So, why focus on game design as an approach to learning?  In part, it has to do with how we learn and what we know about how the brain works.  One of the main elements for this approach is the lessons hidden behind a façade of fun.  People like to do meaningful work and love to see the results of that work.  This is the same feeling you get when you accomplish a task or win a game against someone who is your equal or better in the skills used in that game.  There is a great deal of work involved in playing against an opponent that involves not just knowledge of a game’s rules, but also learning how your opponent thinks and what they are (or aren’t) willing to risk to win.

Game design pulls back the curtain and invites players to write up their own systems and to think about the hows and whys of the game in the making.  It touches on all the elements of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) and develops 21st century job skills.  Game design has a holistic approach to many fields of knowledge and necessitates a multidisciplinary approach.  Even if a student does not intend to go into any occupation that requires that sort of training, game design and the requisite research to make a game work, gives the individual a firm grounding to draw from multiple sources and apply techniques to their designs or work that escapes the “in the box” thinking a single-discipline focus tends to create.

Game design also lets people do something humans love to do: show off what we know.  To make a game that people want to play repeatedly requires not just skill but mastery of the skill and knowledge needed to win or do well in that game.  The game designer might not be aware of how much he or she is teaching the players, but this is essentially what’s happening.  When designing a game, the core of that experience embedded in the design revolves around the skills and knowledge the designer has highlighted.  Monopoly, for example, highlights risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis (amongst others), while a game like Dungeons & Dragons emphasizes group cooperation, communication, and storytelling.  Thus, game design is about self-exploration of a subject the game’s creator has more than just passing knowledge about.