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.

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