Wisconsin Teachers spend two intense, creative days designing games for their students

They’re huddled around cafeteria tables that are covered with big pieces of paper, markers in hand, hurriedly drawing and coloring. Some laugh, but most look extremely focused, talking excitedly over each other and taking furtive glances at the clock.

“Just thirty more minutes until we break for lunch. You should be ready to play-test your game in your group now,” David calls out.

A collective groan echoes in the cafeteria. Some groups laugh — how can they be ready in time? Others get down to business. “You’ve got to focus! No more squirrels!” — “Haha, ok, but you know me….” — — “I need caffeine!”

It’s the middle of summer and we’re at Brown Deer Middle/High School at “Summer Camp 2015: Learning through Exploration, Discovery and Play.” But the people huddled around the tables aren’t teenagers. They’re teachers, principals, and district administrators attending a two-day workshop run by Field Day Lab. After being introduced by our friends at the Department for Public Instruction, Institute for Personalized Learning (a division of CESA #1), asked us to run this Summer Camp for educators in their region.

Jim Matthews giving advice on using ARIS for a game design

“We partnered with Field Day Labs for this workshop because your end goals are the same as ours. It’s a natural partnership,” Kim Jenkins, Associate Director of IPL, said. “We share several core values. We want students to own their learning. We want learners to know the ‘why,’ and we want to incorporate what learners are interested in. We especially believe that the relationship between the student and teacher should shift to be one of collaboration rather than simply teachers dispensing content.”

Personalized Learning takes more of a grassroots focus to education that is student oriented. According to Kim, it leads to more engaged students, who make better community members who know how to learn.

She explains, “One of our core beliefs is in the capacity of students. If we give them the tools, we trust them to make good decisions. We want to make learning fun and meaningful. Kids need to understand how to think critically and problem solve. To that end, we’re excited to see how else we can work with Field Day.”

Teresa Barch, IPL Coordinator, adds, “I hope the teachers come away from this workshop with the understanding that education shouldn’t be content transfer. By them creating games, they will know how to provide this sort of experience for their students.”

Teresa’s statement echoed the way David Gagnon, Field Lab Program Director, had inspired the teachers yesterday. “We need to change our perspective of teaching,” David had told them. “You’re not just transmitting information. You’re designing an experience.”

The “experience designers” then played popular games yesterday morning — everything from board games, card games, and computer games. David showed them interactive games, tours, and stories built with ARIS and accessed with iPads and iPhones. And then he challenged them to develop a board/card game or a digital game in ARIS, playable the next day at 3:00 PM.

“It will be exhausting and a lot of hard work,” David warned. “But you can complete a game that could be played by kids.”
David Gagnon prepping teachers for the design work

The end goal wasn’t that the teachers would have games to use in their classrooms this fall, but that they would learn the process of game design in order to create a rich experience for their students to learn through game design.

At the core of this workshop is the understanding that game design in itself is educational. Students gain systems thinking (if you nudge any part of the game design it affects everything else); students have to write creatively; students learn design thinking — play testing, iteration, breaking problems down, producing prototypes. While they don’t write a paper, they research whatever subject the game is about. This is a natural way for kids to eagerly dig into subject matter.

By noon the second day, most teams have completed a couple drafts and are iterating their games, tweaking them as needed. Every group has written their game design statement in big block letters:

“Based on _____(some other game), we are designing a game for____(audience) that teaches about ____ (topic).”

And every group is panicking just a little. (OK, some are panicking a lot!)

Lyn and Lynnette, Milwaukee Public School teachers, are creating a game called PolliNation. Their game board is covered in sketches of giant flowers and several routes that look like curving ladders. Game pieces represent butterflies or bees — pollinators — who need to gather as much pollen as they can without being intercepted by environmental hazards, like plastic bags or pesticides.

“Let’s make these paths all ten spaces, but make some look longer than others so kids learn that just because one route looks longer, it might not be,” Lyn says.

“This will be great for teaching counting by twos, too,” Lynette adds.

“Oh yeah, we’re covering math and science standards in one game! Perfect.” Lyn high fives her partner. Her enthusiasm is contagious. While people play-test this game, Lyn and Lynnette take notes on what could be tweaked for the next round.

“We need a command strip on that bug so it can carry the pollen better.” — — “We need more pollinators!” — “We’ve got to fix it here. You know if the kids keep losing their pollen, someone will have a melt-down.”

Phil and Jim leading the digital games work room room

Phil, one of our Field Day Lab software engineers and game designers, is helping another group with their game test. “Let’s pause playing the game for a moment. Things are going smoothly — how can we bring the mechanics closer to the theme? How can we increase the complexity and thrill of the game?”

Amy’s eyes brighten. “OH! Let’s send the player in for evaluative observation. Then everyone has to work together to help the player get to the next level. What do you think?”

At a nearby table, one of the teachers crumples up their game board and chucks it in the trash. “We’re starting over,” she says. “Our idea’s not working.” Her teammate pulls out a new piece of paper and draws a 10x10 grid for a Chutes and Ladders style game.

“That’s good!” David encourages them. He’s glad they’re getting a taste of iteration, the process of repeating and improving upon a design. Iteration is integral to game creation. “It’s good to know when something isn’t working. Will you have a new game board ready for the play test?”

“Absolutely!” the teacher nods. “We can do this!”

“Ahh, I got caught by a predator!” yelps someone at the PolliNation game table. “Do I die now?”

David looks up from another project, a grin stretched across his face. “That’s right. Turn up the volume! If you think your game is too intense, don’t worry, it’s not,” he encourages. “It’s ok for the game players to get eaten by predators! It’s just a game. Crank it up to an 11!”

The clock finally strikes 3:00 PM — much too quickly for some! — and it’s time for the official playtest. The handful of educators working on ARIS projects make a few more adjustments to their games and then choose a board game to try. The board game creators stand proudly by their tables, explaining the rules and the concept to their colleagues. The games are played twice before we head over to to test the ARIS games on iPads.

One ARIS game leads players on a virtual hunt through Milwaukee to catch a view of the rumored “lion-like animal.” Another helps students navigate positive choices for the first day of school.

As the two-day workshop draws to a close, everyone gathers in a circle to debrief their experience. It’s clear people are tired — designing a game in one day is hard work — but they also sound excited as they congratulate each other on games well-made.

“Yesterday, I understood the rigor of the game making process,” Neva shares. “I hadn’t thought about that before.”

Angie says, “Students will think more [while making games] instead of having someone tell them what to do.”

Beth shares, “Our 5th and 6th grade students will enjoy the design aspect. Our kids would embrace the ARIS learning curve. With enough collaborating and scaffolding, it’ll be great!”

Jim Matthews encourages the teachers to continue cultivating an attitude of playfulness.

“You’re all awesome!” David exclaims. “You know, this workshop is risky! We have to trust people to do the work, to be creative. It is nerve wracking to rely on students to do the work, but they detect when you are relying on them to do the work and they step up.”

Jim McLure, IPL Professional Development Specialist, closes the workshop. “Thanks for donating your time to your profession. It was fun to watch everyone dig in!”