It’s becoming increasingly clear that teaching facts is much less valuable than it was a short time ago. Since the advent of internet search engines and wikis, the information that educators have historically “taught” is now at students’ fingertips. This presents a paradigm shift that many educators feel is long overdue: Inquiry, interpretation, and product-based collaborative projects are replacing the process of feeding students bits of information to memorize. 

But not all inquiry projects are created equal. The most successful are those that tap into students’ interests. We believe the booming video game industry can provide real-world projects that teach valuable digital age skills. Consider the advantages: Playing video games requires knowledge and skill acquisition as well as complex problem solving. And most games require vast amounts of self-directed learning. 

Situated cognition is an educational strategy where learners develop skills within a group. Research has shown that students who are exposed to situated cognition methods, which involve immediate real-world application and allow players to determine their own objectives, see greater value in learning.

Designing an App-Creation Project

Over several weeks in a computer applications classroom at Centennial Middle School in North Boulder, Colorado, seventh and eighth grade students created game apps and a corresponding fictional gaming company. They began the semester learning basic programming with tutorials from the program Gamesalad. The tutorials demonstrated how to import pictures, program an object to move, and produce visual effects. They demonstrated their growing understanding of the programming language by creating a simple video game that required players to move a boat. 

Next, the students worked in pairs to create a unique game. They filled out planning sheets that detailed the look and theme of their games, the characters, and how to win or lose. Over the next few weeks, they built the game they had outlined using original artwork and music that they created in Photoshop and GarageBand. 

Creating a Company

We could have stopped at app creation, and the students would have had a robust learning experience. But we wanted to take this lesson a step closer to the real world by having them create fictional companies to promote their apps and sell product merchandise, such as shirts and other products. Students created company logos and displayed them on cards, shirts, and stickers. Many used Google Sites to create professional-looking websites for their fictional companies that included screen shots, promotional details, and videos.

Making Videos to Promote the Apps

Once the games were finished, students were ready to start marketing the apps. First, we presented a short lesson on how to use iMovie, and then we examined a few gaming videos from the Apple App Store and the internet. These videos helped students visualize the direction and content of what they needed to do. 

We led a discussion about what to put in the video and key information to include. We had three main requirements: 

1. They had to include a logo.
2. They had to show game footage and include the release date.
3. The video had to be 30 seconds long. 

We offered advice about keeping images moving in the video and suggested that no image stay on the screen longer than 3 seconds. 

This was a challenging task for many students. Some had trouble organizing the video or message. Others stuggled to make their videos as long as 30 seconds. And many of them had to redo their artwork to make the commercial look good. They worked through all these challenges and made great videos.

Publishing the Apps

At the conclusion of the project, students attempted to publish their apps. The Apple App Store accepted two of the student-created games, Super Happy Snail Time and CoinCatch.

Super Happy Snail Time. Two eighth grade students created this app, which is based on one they previously designed called Super Happy Turtle Time. They improved on the original by changing the logo from a turtle to a snail, redesigning the background, and changing the objective of the game to collecting apples while dodging salt. During the process, the student developers struggled with programming the jump command because jumping requires a large number of programming commands. We suggested they use a bounce programming command instead. Once the student replaced jumping with bouncing, the game was complete. 

CoinCatch. Two seventh grade students created this game, which requires players to collect coins that fall from the top of the screen. Miss a coin and you lose a heart. When all five hearts are gone, the game is over. The background color changes to indicate the passage of time. After a predetermined amount of time, a boss—a green wallet—appears. The wallet tries to destroy coins by moving and shooting at them before players can collect them. 

This scenario was not easy for the students to program. They had to set a variable to represent the location of each coin on the screen. Then they programmed the boss to check for the lowest coin on the screen. Once the boss found the lowest coin, it would move to the coin’s Y-axis and shoot at it. The students also developed a “disco mode” for CoinCatch featuring upbeat music and different background colors. 

Both games are free to download.

Project Reaps Impressive Results

As expected, the process of playing, testing, and creating electronic games generated great interest among students. We noticed that motivation levels briefly tapered off during the middle of the project, possibly because of an unexpected delay in students’ ability to upload their game to the Apple App Store. Once students were able to upload games, and particularly after Apple published the first game, student engagement increased. 

When they were finally able to upload their app, the creators of CoinCatch decided their work wasn’t up to a high enough standard. They completely redesigned their app, stating, “We need to remake our game and make it better.” Ultimately, it was their new version that was accepted. 

Students Worked through Challenges

This project required technical expertise and introduced product development. The creation of physical media posed challenges, such as the variations in sizing, resolution, and quality when printing on different materials. 

Students overcame the hurdles and took pride in what they had created. Some designed and wore shirts with the logos of their fictional companies. Other students created and passed out business cards promoting their games and companies.

Game Making Meets Standards

Game making supports the creative process and reaches across academic boundaries to many subjects. For example, some students created a system to track players’ points that incorporated basic algebra: the use and manipulation of variables. Students unfamiliar with the necessary algebraic processes learned from other students so they could apply similar scoring to their games.

This project addressed many of the ISTE Standards (formerly the NETS), including Creativity and Innovation; Communication and Collaboration; Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making; and Technology Operations and Concepts. For example, students created and published with minimal guidance while working collaboratively. The assignment required students to use prior knowledge to construct new concepts and materials. The end result was students working collaboratively toward learning and mastering the complexities of a programming language to publish apps. 

Most of this learning was self-directed: Students set learning goals that reflected the direction of their app designs. These goals varied greatly between groups. Some students wanted to learn how to program gravity into their games, whereas others wanted to learn absorption (when one object makes another disappear). Still others wanted to understand generation (the creation of one object from another). In each of these cases, students learned these concepts because they thought it would further the creation of their game, not because an instructor wanted them to learn the concepts. 

Students Can Control Their Learning

As educators, our role was to ensure that students learned basic programming skills. We let students determine how to apply these skills and acted as mentors when students wanted to learn more complex programming. 

Instead of teaching “facts,” we directed students to resources to assist game development. The project required multidisciplinary resources once students began incorporating algebra, music, physics, and artwork into their apps. 

The chance to have their work land in the Apple App Store was extremely motivating, and they developed a high level of expertise in creating physical media, websites, and the final apps. Evolving technologies have greatly accelerated the speed at which learners can acquire and apply information. Educators must be prepared to embrace these changes if they are to continue to prepare students for college and the workforce.

—Mark Savignano is a PhD student at the University of Northern Colorado. He is also a full-time teacher of social studies and technology in a small mountain school in Nederland, Colorado.

—Mia Kim Williams is an associate professor of educational technology and educational foundations and curriculum studies at the University of Colorado. Her research focus is development of multimodal design and digital literacies that promote student voice and advocacy.

—John Holbrook is a first grade teacher living in Columbus, Ohio. He is a graduate of Carthage College and Ohio State University.