Game Design is the Key to an Innovative 21st Century Education

by Staff Writers

I recently found a great post on the Upside Learning blog by Abhijit Kadle about the Three Reasons To Focus On Media Design In Learning. The three reasons that Kadle gives are that media is "Experience," "Malleable," and "Digital." I agree with this assessment wholeheartedly, but would take it a step further. Engaging students in the media design and production process themselves is far more important than focusing on the ways in which media is designed for their consumption, as Kadle emphasizes. I would argue that engaging students in interactive media design, particularly game design, is the key to helping them achieve a useful 21st Century education that teaches them concrete skills as well as how to be innovative thinkers. Here's how Kadle's three reasons also apply to game production by students, as well as two more reasons that including game design in the curriculum should be an important focus of education at all levels in the near future.


  1. Game Design is Experiential – Children learn best through active and engaged learning where they are gaining experience doing things rather than passively absorbing decontextualized information (Markham, 2012). Because of the advances in fidelity, connectivity, and interactivity in the last two decades, playing games can be very experiential, as Kadle points out, but designing of games is also experiential at multiple levels. First, the act of actually planning, designing, and producing games provides real experiences in almost every possible technical and intellectual skill that a student would need to be a productive citizen in an information-based society. Second, through game design, students can gain experience within any content area that a teacher could want to cover – and they will be motivated to be self-directed in the pursuit of that knowledge because it feeds their passion for creating the game.
  2. Game Design is Malleable – Innovation is the key component of a truly useful 21st Century education and engaging students in the game design and production process allows them complete freedom to explore and innovate. From the underlying physics of imagined worlds to the social systems governing interactions within them, and the artistic depiction of the fantastic or realistic, the total malleability of the gaming medium allows students to create anything that they can imagine. There are literally no constraints placed on what can be done in a world that students make from scratch and the educational benefits of being able to safely experiment with those variables can be significant (Koehler & Mishra, 2006). Gaining experience molding a world and playing with the variables that make it work allows students to become architects of the real future they will face, and to feel confident facing and overcoming challenges that they will encounter as adults.
  3. Game Design is Digital – Students live in a digital world. They communicate, interact, receive information, and play digitally, and they need to cultivate an ability to produce digital media from an early age in order to participate fully. As a society, we cultivate literacy from infancy to make sure that children can fully function in society – in the 21st Century, literacy is digital. "Digital Natives," as Marc Prensky calls those who grow up actively using advanced communication technology, have an advantage over their non-native peers in a world that is so heavily reliant of digital technology. Because of the flexibility of the computer game and the wide array of traditional literacy skills and media production skills necessary to produce interactive media, game design is the perfect fit for building well-rounded 21st Century literacy. Through game design and production, students develop proficiency in reading, research, writing, planning, and collaboration, as well as the specific technical skills involved with translating their ideas into the digital medium.
  4. Game Design is Interactive – The advantage that video games have over other forms of more linear digital and traditional media is that they are interactive. Interactivity, both within the game and with others playing the game, is the core of gaming. Interactivity fosters active learning and social knowledge creation, which reinforces learning (Smith, 2009). When students create their own games, they practice building interactivity that will engage others in what they are producing. Putting your ideas and knowledge into an interactive digital medium allows it to reach a far broader audience and engage that audience in more meaningful ways. Add to this the fact that the complexity of game design necessitates a collaborative, interactive approach, and students are also gaining valuable social skills such as consensus building and collaboration while they work.
  5. Games are Ubiquitous – Games have taken over as the number one grossing consumer entertainment medium and the recent White House focus on the importance of games and gaming are clear indicators that games will be the dominant medium of the 21st Century. The rapid proliferation of portable gaming through smart phones and other devices means that literally almost everyone now carries games in their pockets. Games will be the primary means of communicating, interacting and problem solving in the future (Brownlee, 2011), and giving students the ability to take advantage of that medium is a key part of providing them with the most useful education possible. Allowing a student to leave school without knowing how create interactive digital media will become the equivalent of allowing them to leave school without knowing how to write.

The best part about making the transition to game design as part of education is that it has already begun, so there are examples to follow. Game designer Katie Salen's Quest to Learn (Q2L) schools in New York and Chicago show how game design can inform a school curriculum and the positive results that it can foster.

If you are interested in incorporating game design into your curriculum you can check out my step-by-step how-to guide "Using Computer Games in Education" at


Image: Keerati /