Sennett Middle School’s Gaming Club – Learn about Game Design!

BY Sarah Conn
We recently adopted Sennett Middle School and some of their students wanted to know, What do you need to do to be a game designer? Well, we’ve got a couple of posts about what it’s like to work as a game designer on our blog, but there’s nothing like doing it yourself. So Abby Friesen and I set off to do with Sennett Middle School’s gaming club.

Our first order of business was introducing the concept of game design to eager students. We talked about flow, functionality, and prototyping before introducing a short game design challenge. The students had to design a paper-based game that involved “change” of some sort. It could be anything from the transformation of tokens to rule changes.

Since the students are familiar with The Filament Learning Games Library as well as other popular apps and video games, they started their discussions by trying to create complex MMORPG and digital app game dynamics. It’s fantastic that the students were so excited to create a large-scale game, but in order to fully explain the design process we needed to start a little smaller. Abby and I took a bit of time to explain that good game design starts with paper prototypes. The ideas that were being formed - as imaginative and intriguing as they were - would not translate well to paper and they only had an hour to work.

Game designers use paper prototyping for planning games - digital or otherwise. It’s low cost, easy to evaluate, and doesn’t need a programmer. When I first met Abby, she was creating paper cards, placing them on a grid, and using a random number generator on her phone to figure out an element of gameplay. It’s just easier to work things out on paper instead of putting a lot of time and effort into something that turns out to not be what the game needs.

Back to the students! Once we instilled in them the idea that they were creating their own paper-based game - we were off! It was wonderful to see the groups of three and four work together, combining elements of favored board games and other popular items. We had giant squishy dice, construction paper of all colors, and a multitude of colored pencils. We also had a very diverse group of students who were able to add their own insights and experiences into the game they were creating. It was great to see kids of all grade and ability levels collaborating together and adding their ideas and shine in their own way.

One game called Meme-opoly (or Monopol-meme, depending on who you asked in the group) had players start as memes, such as Futurama Fry, Dat Boi, and Doge, and work cooperatively and competitively to get to the end of the board—sometimes even using other players as board tiles!

Another group created game rules and managed to incorporate the five elements of Wu Xing and rock/paper/scissors to apply to a pack of cards found in a team member’s backpack. A third group combined chess, Stratego, and checkers for a four-player game of chase and capture on a checkered board.

One game eschewed the traditional method of using dice to move tokens and instead had the user roll two dice, add them together, and then find the number on a strip of numbers. Depending on which number you were, you could advance to the next “level” of the game. It was clearly based off some sort of digital game and was entertaining to see how it was transferred to a physical format. Our final group created their own War card game with hand-made cards.

About forty-five minutes before the club was scheduled to end, we had everyone stop working on their game. It was time to put their games to the test by having a non-group member try to play their games. This was to mimic the beta testing process of game design. In short: can others understand your game and play it with the instructions you give them? It was a resounding success. Not only did students learn the process of teaching their games to someone else, they also gained the skill to reframe and refocus their directions when their first explanations didn’t make sense. This is a skill that can be used in multiple settings—while we didn’t emphasize it in our explanations; we hope that our students can utilize it in their daily lives.

At the end of our time, we had a presentation where everyone presented their game to the rest of the club. Hopefully, they will be able to play their games with others in future sessions! If you’re looking for a great game design activity - give this one a shot! We’d love to hear how it went, so be sure to leave us a comment below.