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When we talk about learning and games, we usually mean students playing games that someone else has made up. But the process of constructing a game has its own potential benefits. Game-making represents an active and creative, rather than more passive, approach to technology. It’s a core practice of constructionism, the learning theory championed at MIT’s Media Lab that focuses on learners building their own relationship to knowledge.

The research on this new topic is thin so far. Sample sizes are small, and what I found most disappointing in a quick review, is that researchers often don’t collect many, multidimensional measurements of outcomes instead relying on just a few, qualitative measures. It’s also worth noting that the particulars of each game-making tool are very different, so it’s hard to say whether what’s being studied is game-making itself, or merely the idiosyncrasies of each individual software program. Still, the studies suggest a promising new area for engaging learners with tech, especially in the difficult middle school years.

A student-designed game from the National Cheng Kung University study.

Games are currently being investigated as a way to increase engagement, mastery of topics, and higher-order thinking skills. Here are three recent research studies on game-making in the classroom. The sample sizes are small, but the results are suggestive.

1) Game-making and critical thinking, achievement and concentration.

This study, just published, from the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan included a total of 67 seventh-graders in an interdisciplinary class combining both science and computer science. The game-makers designed role-playing games to cover biology course content; the control group designed Flash animations illustrating the same material. The group that designed the games showed greater mastery of the subject and scored higher on a pretest/post-test measure of critical thinking skills. The researchers noticed improved concentration among the game-makers as well, but this didn’t rise to the level of a significant improvement.

The Making Games in Schools project: designing a game

2) Game-making and attitudes toward computer science.

This study, published in March, involved 992 middle school students in the UK who participated in a program called Making Games in Schools. Students used a software program called Adventure Author which is like a customizable toolbox for creating a simple 3-D role-playing adventure game, based on a fantasy game called Neverwinter Nights 2.

This study didn’t look at learning outcomes, because the games were used very differently for different subjects in each classroom and school. Instead, it surveyed attitudes among both teachers and students and found a high level of enthusiasm and positive beliefs about computing among participants. However, the study actually showed a significant drop-off in students who agreed with the statement “I want to find out more about computing.”: 60.7% of the learners in the pre-test agreed or strongly agreed, but in the post-test only 40.7% did, a drop of 20 percentage points. Maybe the experience actually turned students off, or maybe it satisfied curiosity that didn’t run very deep to begin with.

3) Game-making and critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration.

This study was done with 11 9- and 10-year-old students in the UK using a program called MissionMaker to design their own games. The games didn’t incorporate any “educational” content. Instead the study looked for evidence for the development of a wide range of transferable skills. Although all the students had played video games before, they stated that they had not understood how difficult it was to build games. Some discovered a new understanding of their own creativity through playing the games.

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Anya Kamenetz, writes the Digital blog for The Hechinger Report. She is a contributing writer at Fast Company and the author of several books and book chapters about the future of education, including...

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