July 04, 2015

Teaching Game Design to High School Students

Over the past two years I have taught myself how to program, create 3D models and almost everything else needed to produce a game - I've even managed to get my first game Greenlit. Not too bad for a (former) math teacher. It started as something to do to. Something to learn about. It quickly became a hobby and now I dream of it being a career.

Moving Forward

The next great adventure is teaching game design to high school students. And I'm aiming high. There are many tools that allow students quick access to making games, but the quality of games is low. I want kids to be inspired. I want kids to dream. I want their imagination to carry them through the rough and tough spots. I don't want them to be limited by the technology I want their creativity and work ethic to be the only limitations!

Sometimes I wonder if this is selfish. Am I throwing kids into the deep end when they don't know how to swim? I don't want to learn how to use the simpler tools. So I'm not going to learn. If I'm teaching something that I'm not passion about the kids will know it and we all know how that goes... Maybe it's not as selfish as it sometimes feels.

Deep end. Here I come!


I'll be using Unity as a game engine with Blender and Magicavoxel to produce art assets for the games. Unity and Blender have been used to create professional level 2D and 3D games - which is a great selling point for the kids. All the programs are free - making it affordable for just about any school. Even the hardware requirements are pretty low - anything built in the last 4-6 years should work just fine.

All three bits of software work on PC and Mac - which is a huge bonus in a BYOD environment.

My Vision

I see the class as two pieces or two classes inside of the larger class. One is skills and technology based. The other is focused on design and creativity. Both are needed and one with out the other is useless.

I want to front load the basic skills and tools they need. I think much of this will be done in the "flipped classroom style." While I hate the idea of kids watching math videos I think watching a video about how to build a terrain in Unity is different. Building a terrain is a concrete set of skills and steps. Then the creative act of building the terrain can quickly follow. I think we give lip service to this approach in math but in general completely fail to bring in the creative side after teaching concrete skills.

While the kids are learning basic "how-to" skills we're going to spend a lot of class time on the design aspect of games. This is the only part of the class that will have a textbook. I've read a handful of design books and found wonderful fodder for idea generation. Design books also have the added advantage of not getting outdated like computer books...

I want the class to consist of small to medium sized projects that the kids need to complete to learn the skills. I want the kids to be able to tackle those projects as fast as they want. Why be restrained by the pace of others in the class? Once the intro projects are done then the hard part begins: designing and building their own game.

The kids will work in teams of 2-4. While I might suggest roles, I'll let each team figure it out. I imagine kids specializing in art, programming or maybe level design. Who knows?

My role is not to stand in front of the class each day. My role is only facilitate their journey. I see myself helping to organize class design discussions or helping to find solutions to a programming issue or helping to keep the scope of a design to something reasonable.

I want to mentor not dictate.


This adventure feels a bit like exploring the unknown - as any real adventure often is. I know there are teachers and summer camps using these same tools to teach similar age kids, but there just isn't much published or shared. I'm starting almost from ground zero with my own skills and 10 years of teaching experience to guide me.

I want kids to think about so many things. Its hard to get them all down on paper and and organized. So here's my first attempt...

Google is Your Friend

I want kids to realize that Google is their primary learning tool. Unity has in the neighborhood of 500k monthly users! I have had very few problems that 5-10 minutes of searching hasn't been able to answer. The Unity community is amazing. So many questions asked often have multiple good answers. I want the kids to realize that if the first solution doesn't make sense then they need to look for the next solution - and there very often is more than one solution shared online.  I also want them to be able to determine when the solution is hard and they need to learn more.

If the kids can learn to search for more than just the latest GoT episode then the class might be success with nothing more learned.

What Makes Other Games Fun?

I want the kids to go out and play games. No, their homework won't be to go finish a WOW raid or beat their friends in the latest FPS. I want them to pick a game, be it Candy Crush or Witcher 3, and spend some time thinking about what makes it fun. What is the basic mechanic? What parts could you not take away and still have a fun game? What parts could you take away and have a fun game?

Thinking Outside the Box

Most games fit neatly inside a genre box. Which makes sense some recipes just taste better than others - at least to most people. There are so many box still left unexplored. I want them to spend time thinking about an FPS with no killing. Or RPG with no magic. A strategy game who's core mechanic isn't conquering or destroying opponents - even checkers' core mechanic is destroying an opponent's units. Specifically I'd love to see kids break out of the mold of "war" based games.

I'd love to challenge kids to think about what typifies a genre (not defines it) and remove that element. Where does that take them in terms of design?

I want to propose game design challenges. Maybe as simple as giving a theme in the game jam style and have the kids spend a weekend writing up a design - we won't have time to actually build too many games.

I don't want to do this just to give them busy work, but rather to foster ideas and get them thinking.

What's Next?

The grunt work of planning. I'll be posting my work here and would love feedback or advice.

January 19, 2015

High School (Video) Game Design

After almost 2 years of learning to program and the (very) basics of game design I have the chance to teach Game Design using Unity and Blender at my school. It doesn't take a genius to realize that the kids would love creating their own games.

So why design games at a high school?

Because game design is creativity in action. Everything that is wrong in (traditional) math education is right in game design.

If you're still with me  then let me explain myself a little more.

I've taught high school math for 10 years. I'm ready for a change and so are the students.

So after yet another year of hearing from the math department about how we need to "tighten up our assessments" or "increase our graduation requirements" I've come to a couple conclusions about math and math education. That being there are two big reasons our students don't do well in math:
  1. The content is not developmentally appropriate for all students. 
  2. The students simply don't give a shit about the math we are teaching. 
Go talk to a elementary teacher (my wife is one) and ask about how the expectations for a student have changed. Upping the standards doesn't equate to better learning. We confuse an intermediate step (testing) with the final product (people). Training monkeys to pass tests is not education.

To my second conclusion. If the kids care about what they are doing they will work hard. They will engage. I think the success behind Dan Meyer's 3 Act math is not his ability to find problems (although that's pretty good) but that the problems are engaging and the student care about what they're doing! It's not that they're "real world" its that they are interesting. 

[Game Design enter scene right]

I suspect game design might be the hardest class students will take in high school - if they really want a quality product they're going to have to work for it. They have no idea what they're getting into. So I'm sure some will lose interest when it takes more than 2 hours to create the next Skyrim, but I'd bet my paycheck that most will suffer through challenges because they know as a result they will get to create something cool, something meaningful and something that they have created.

Game design combines creativity with analytical problem solving. It brings art, computer science and math together. Could I ask for more?

So here begins a new adventure. An adventure into the somewhat unknown. I'm so stoked!

November 17, 2013

Keeping Things Fresh

After two years abroad I've returned to my old school. I'm sick of standardized tests and the horror that the IB program has apparently become. I'm back at a school were the average kid is below the national average in math. I'm back at a school that cares about kids and is more interested in producing good people than good test scores. It is a gift to have another chance at this school.

This time around I'm teaching Algebra 1, Geometry and Physics. The physics is old-hat, but the other two are new to me or at least mostly so. The newest of all is teaching such young students. I've generally taught 11th and 12th graders. So I'm having to retool a bit.

Our classes meet 4 days a week one of those being a 70 minute period. My approach will always be student centered even if it looks like "worksheets." It been going well, but I have come to dread my Wednesday's. I teach 3 of these long periods and its like pulling teeth to keep the kids focused. A colleague of mine mentioned pulling out one of Dan Meyer's 3 Act problems on the long periods and "who cares if it matches what going on the rest of the week."

This has always been my problem with Dan's problems. They're awesome, but how do they fit in? This year I find myself in a department struggling to find its identity and tempted to go old school "skill and drill."

So two weeks ago I decided to just try a problem. We had talked about exponents. So the Domino Problem seemed perfect.

After showing the intro video, the class looked at me like, "You kidding? You really want us to work on that." I stared back, "Uh, yeah."

5 minutes later the class was all over it. The results were amazing. Students were engaged and arguing over math. Perfection.

It went so well that the next week I pulled out another this time it was the Shipping Routes problem. The comments on the blog post seemed negative, but the idea seemed good to me, plus the math was approachable by my students.

Again the results were fantastic. And I'll admit when we did the times with decimals the whole class was stunned, myself included! Even better the one quiet girl who figured it out was beaming.

Selfishly these problems were great. They bought me SO MUCH capital in terms of classroom management. Each one of these problems took 40-50 minutes of class, but the next 20 minutes were some of the easiest I've ever had. Even the next day in class was easy. Not only were they easy for me the kids really learned something. AND. The kids were more productive the other days of week following the problems. So even if Dan's problems didn't move my curriculum forward, it and of themselves, they made my classes more efficient.

The lesson (re)learned was the need to change up class. To keep things fresh. What I was and am doing is good, but the students needed a change of pace.

June 03, 2013

Let's Play Spot the Error (Misconception)

A few months ago a bunch of Sports posters showed up in the hallways. Okay, great. Have the kids do some research into different sports as part of their PE curriculum. I think they might get more out of playing a sport, but hey what do I know? I think reading physics books is fun.

On closer inspection I saw that each of the sports was being related to Newton's Laws. As I read the posters it was clear students had simply found the law(s) on Wikipedia or some other site and then did their best to apply them. Sometimes the results were the "t-shirt versions" of the laws, i.e. short, simple and catchy, but incomplete. Such as:


But, mostly it was the application of the law that was wrong - no surprise there.

I don't share these to make fun of the students, they were doing their best, or to embarrass the teachers, they probably don't know any better. I shared these because the photos gave me an idea for a new game - "Spot the Error."

Lets hit misconceptions head-on. Not in the contrived language from a teacher, but in the language of peers (albeit younger peers). I would love to have a collection of student quotes on a full range of physics topics... I can see these as material for test questions, homework, or class discussions.

As a side note the quality of student work that is posted in public spaces is a big topic of discussion at our school.

March 15, 2013

Frozen Water "Sine Wave"

Some more video awesomeness.

I'm not sure I would call that a "sine" wave as Boing Boing did... but all the same some pretty cool visuals and some great potential links to physics and math. I'm teaching trig to my SL kids at the moment, might make for an interesting diversion. There is no place in the SL curriculum that hints that parameters such as amplitude and period can be functions rather than just constants... 

March 14, 2013

More Reflections - The IB and other Things

Moving back to greener pastures.

Next year I'm returning to my previous school. Leaving an overseas post, a great pay check and a school that I perceive to be in a pretty deep rut.

[Insert self-pitying rant on the failures of my current school].

This is my third school... I'm burned out. Tired. Frustrated. And still loving it when the light goes on and my kids get a tough concept.

IB it's not you. It's me?

With a senior class who doesn't have a single IB student likely to score above the world average and 25% of whom are likely to fail the diploma...  reflection comes quick and often. 

Looking over past posts as reminders of what went well (or not so well) I came across this at the bottom of a post about the unit circle.

Reflections: To be honest I don't know where the stage for this success was first set [...]. While having all the mathematical tools needed [...] is necessary I don't think it's sufficient. Two more pieces were needed:
  1. Students feeling the freedom to tackle a problem with different methods, thus allowing them to see problems in the context that is most natural to them. 
  1. Students being trained to solve new tough problems not simply repeating steps that the teacher has demonstrated on a whiteboard. 
A year after teaching that lesson on the Unit Circle I still believe those two pieces were the key to one of my most successful class periods in 10 years of teaching (and most other successes I've had).

Those two pieces seem to be in stark contrast to the demands of the IB and  other standardized test based programs.

March 05, 2013

Mechanical Integration - Surface Area

A clip from Dirty Jobs (one of my favorites) of a machine that calculates the surface area of irregularly shaped objects - in this case tanned hides. Too clever. Wish I'd seen this when I was teaching integration.

Spotted originally on Boing Boing.