Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Game Design Courses Prepare Students for Careers

on April 12, 2011
A cafe game level in 3-D that students in Guilford County Schools created. | Photo courtesy of Phyllis Jones

In a game design class at Page High School, groups of students collaborate to create 2-D and 3-D video games.

Together, they brainstorm game ideas. A more serious game that the students collaborated on, which revolves around the life of a turtle, recently won a North Carolina game competition.

One of the students in "Advanced Game Art and Design," junior Vincent Mazzo, said this course provides a pathway into the fields he's interested in: graphic design animations and video game design.

By taking the intro and advanced game design courses in Guilford County Schools, he's able to work with some of the programs that game designers use, including Photoshop and 3D Studio Max.

“It definitely gives you a good taste of what’s going to be out there in an industry once you go out and get a job,” Vincent said. 

Through game design courses created by two Guilford County Schools teachers, students in four schools learn skills that will allow them to enter new and emerging careers. And soon, the curriculum will spread across the state and the nation. 

Why more schools should teach game design

Game design is one of the biggest career choices out there right now, said Phyllis Jones, a career and technical education teacher at Page High who developed the game design courses with Roy Kimmins from Weaver Academy. And because game development represents a large industry in North Carolina, trained students are able to find jobs.

Students in a game art and design course at Page High School in North Carolina work together on a project. | Photo courtesy of Phyllis Jones

Many students want to play video games. And through game design courses, students can both play and learn at the same time. For instance, teachers can teach them how to write a story and develop a storyboard for video games.

“We’re trying to reach the kids at their level and teach them in the process of doing it,” she said.

And these courses don't just prepare them for a future in game creation. They also prepare them to create serious games and animations. Down the road, they could create jet simulations that teach pilots how to fly or animations that show how natural disasters happen. 

“We’re very visual people," Kimmins said, "and so game designers — even though they make fun games — still have those skills that would carry them over to a lot of other fields.”

These two teachers have developed the two courses over the last six years and have been piloting them for the past three years.

North Carolina adopts game design curriculum

More schools will have the opportunity to use the two game design courses these teachers developed. For the 2012-13 school year, the state Department of Public Instruction approved them for use in all North Carolina schools.

“This has been a good thing for our students and a good thing for Guilford County," said Bob Gantt, the district's director of career and technical education. "And it’s going to be a great thing for the state of North Carolina."

But school systems will need to prepare teachers to teach game design courses first.

“One of the challenges that we have is to find teachers who can actually do this, and very few teachers are going to come out of traditional universities prepared with the skills to just walk into a classroom,” Kimmins said. "So just because a state gets a curriculum doesn’t mean that they’re going to have teachers that are ready to jump in.”

By sending them to workshops that Jones and Kimmins offer, school systems will give teachers the opportunity to receive first-hand training on the software they need to use.

Teachers overcome challenges with game design

While the teachers developed and implemented the curriculum, they encountered a few challenges.

  • Every time they wrote a curriculum, the rules would change, Jones said. But that's a minor challenge. First they wrote the curriculum for the state, and then they wrote it for Engineering byDesign.

    During each process, they had to make changes in the formatting, the curriculum organization or the presentation (Web-based or not). That was frustrating because it took longer to write the curriculum.
  • The technology changes so much that by the time you wrote one thing down, the latest game or software comes out. The curriculum and the skills it emphasizes stay the same, but the software that the teachers mention in the curriculum comes and goes.

    Along with the curriculum, the two teachers created tutorials on the software to show other teachers how to use it. Each time a better software program comes out, they update the tutorials so teachers can stay on the leading edge.
  • High school students don't have a lot of programming knowledge.

    “We had to keep it at a level where they didn’t have to learn programming, but yet could still be successful in creating some type of 2-D and 3-D game," Jones said. "So that was our biggest challenge.”
  • Game engines, including open-source ones, cost too much for high schools to access or require so much programming that they would be hard for high school students to tackle, Kimmins said. Game engines are software packages that run a game.

    When two prominent developers heard about the district's game design pilot, they contacted the teachers and created an engine for the students. The teachers are pretty happy with the software, though it does have limitations.

    The licensed engine costs $250 a seat. Together with the 2-D and 3-D software packages, the total cost per seat runs between $600 and $700. And the students in the design class can download the 3-D software package at home for 18 months at no charge. By using the software at home and at school, students become much better at modeling, Jones said.

Game design is about the process, not the game

Students come into class with the idea that they can create everything that goes into a 3-D video game in a few weeks. But that's not realistic.

Page High students put their learning into action during a game art and design course. | Photo courtesy of Phyllis Jones

In the first level course, they focus on principles used for developing good game design and cover areas that relate to art, history, ethics, storyboarding, programming and 2-D visual theory.

They also create 2-D games, which gives them total control of a game and allows them to create all its assets (characters, houses and other objects you're putting in a game).

In the second course, they focus on visual design, evaluation, scripting and 3-D visual theory.

Because of the way the game engines work and the amount of programming needed to create a 3-D game, learning how to do it in a semester is difficult, if not impossible, Kimmins said. So they modify parts of an existing game instead of creating every game from scratch.

They also learn tricks that gamers use to create assets that look good, but make the game work quickly. When you run a game, your graphics card has to process on the fly at 30 frames per second. If you put too many high-quality assets into your game, you can crash it, Kimmins said.

“It’s not always about the final game," Kimmins said. "It’s about the process of getting there.”

The future of game design courses

In addition to becoming approved curriculum in North Carolina for 2012-13, these courses will be available for schools in other states to use through the Engineering byDesign program, developed by the STEM Center for Teaching and Learning in the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association. The science, technology, engineering and math-focused program provides a standards-based national model for grades K-12.

The center worked with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to obtain the copyright to the game design courses. These courses are in the development process and will go through the review stage next.

In addition to making the curriculum available to at least 22 states in its consortium, the center plans to work with Jones and Kimmins to train other teachers to teach game design, said Shelli Meade, coordinator for Engineering byDesign and development. Along with workshops, they may expand professional development to the Engineering byDesign online professional learning community.

“That way teachers across the nation — across the world if that is what it leads to — can collaborate and share success stories, share resources, share exemplars of student work, that sort of thing,” Meade said.

Back in Guilford County, the district offers career and technical education programs that will provide students with a set of technical skills that lead to high demand, high wage and high skill occupations. The district also looks at new and emerging fields, which the game design curriculum fits into.

“This particular course and these programs are the kinds of courses that are preparing students for some of the new and emerging sectors, particularly in the technology and in the computer fields,” Gantt said. "And we need more of those. We need to make sure that we’re staying abreast of what’s happening in the ever changing and evolving job market.”

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Tanya Roscorla

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.



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on Apr 19, 2011
Excellent... You can start elementary students with-- see: for examples. Bruce Cattanach Technology Educator The Lakeview School Denville NJ 07834