Serious learning game design: 3 Microsoft tools to get started

Student Voice, student choice, and student engagement are the hallmarks of the best classrooms in the world right now.  They are classrooms that have students excited to come to school, not just to see their friends but to actively participate and enjoy their learning.

Garrett Zimmer posing in front of a banner that reads, 'Learning is the greatest adventure.'For me, the top benchmark is reached by the classes that incorporate Games and Game Design into their lessons.  As a game-based learning (GBL) professional, researcher, trainer and developer, I love it when a tool comes in that allows teachers and students to be their owns designer of T-to-S (Teacher to Student) or P-to-P (Peer-To-Peer) learning games.  Creating serious learning games is so valuable for both learning, meta-cognition, and knowledge acquisition. They require research, understanding of user experience, deep design, critical thinking and, of course, the ability to communicate effectively.  Above all, though, with NPD Research showing that over 90 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 17 play games, more and more kids are actively engaged in some level of game design already.  So, why aren’t we doing more game-based design for our classrooms?

Many teachers think they need to be professional game designers to be able to support this process, but I argue against that conception. In fact, my entire training business is centered around helping teachers and schools engage easily in simple game design with learning in mind, and to do it successfully.  I encourage every teacher to look at their classroom as an opportunity for changing traditionally didactic lessons into something greater and more powerful. Try your hand at game design for learning.

Games are not that difficult. Jane McGonigal, a leading serious game developer and researcher, defines games in the following way: “When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.” I prefer to add a few more: risk properly balanced against reward, competition (whether by player-v-player, player-v-environment or even player-v-self) and self-containment. In other words, you cannot just add a few game elements (like points) to a task and call it a game.  Learning games or serious games simply take these game traits and switch out the common goal of entertainment for a goal of learning.  The best part about learning games is that they don’t need to make a million dollars, and even your students can be the game designers.

Garrett Zimmer speaking to a gathering of students.Now, the easiest game genre, for learning games, is the Quest-Driven Adventure. This genre is unique in that every child knows the narrative adventure mode: it’s embedded with many options for engagement, it encourages research and design thinking, and creates artifacts showcasing student learning in developing the quests.  The most positive thing about Adventure Games is that they can fit with ANY and ALL curriculum.  Just make sure they have narrative, in-game quest chains, opportunities for choice and failure, and quests specifically designed for learning. You can embed learning content into the quest chains, or make quest completion dependent on a key set of skills.

For example, in Minecraft you may have a quest to collect objects, which in turn teaches players about ratios. The quest giver may require any 32:4 ratio of diamonds to stone.  The answer is for the student to find, and the art of exploration is powerful.  The fact that the request comes from a quest-giver means that it has more intrinsic, in-game value.

Next, I want to introduce you to 3 (and a half!) cool Microsoft tools that can be used to create these kinds of games easily and quickly.


1. Minecraft: Education Edition


It’s basically an engine for game design. Letting students use NPCs (Non-Player Characters), easy environment-building tools, Redstone and command blocks for automation mechanics, and all-across collaborative multiplayer, there is no more immersive tool than Minecraft: Education Edition for any experience level.  Getting started with students and Minecraft is super easy and, since many of them already know the game, it’s a natural extension of the way they play it at home.

A group of Minecraft characters posing on steps in front of a camera.

I encourage teachers I work with to start off by defining the goal of the finished game, which must be for a player or players to learn something specific upon completion.  Activities such as brainstorming how they would use the game, and mechanics to teach this concept in a self-contained game, are super helpful here and lead to some serious meta-cognition.  In the adventure format, this will lead players into researching the content and how they plan to deliver it, including how they will phrase the quests, write the quest scripts and how to use unique in-game mechanics to practice these skills. Imagine, at the end of a project like this, your students coming up with five adventures that teach their group the nuances of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – by meeting with Shakespeare himself in the game.

Of course, as a teacher, you can do the same and create a series of quests where NPCs invite students to explore a world of mystery, solve the puzzles, or collect the items along the way to satisfy curricular objectives.


2. Touch Develop


Ok, so this has been another one of my favorites for a long time. Touch Develop is an amazing app development software that allows students and educators to create apps, both for the web and mobile devices, without having to be an expert.

Since games are simply systems of interaction built with the aforementioned traits, we can use Touch Develop to program the interactions between player and game. Touch Develop is event-based coding tool (similar in format to Scratch and Microsoft’s own MakeCode), allowing even the most novice of programmers to get the job done.  With the ability to program and embed images, moving graphics, sounds and real game mechanics, this tool supports some serious game design.

What’s even better is students can play through these learning adventures using their own devices.


3. Microsoft MakeCode


Finally, Microsoft’s MakeCode is a follow-up iteration to the Touch Develop platform.  This program allows students and teachers to code a variety of ways, using electronics like the BBC micro:bit, AdaFruit (Arduino) and a few more.  From a GBL Design standpoint, though, I want to point you to the brand-new Code Connection add-on for Minecraft: Education Edition.  This amazing new add-on lets anyone code in the world of Minecraft, without having to know a programming language.  A block-based coding software, combined with Minecraft, will allow you and your students to truly harness the rich, interactive world of Minecraft and create unique and interesting adventures to inspire your students.

A screenshot depicting a MakeCode tutorial.

Minecraft: Education Edition’s Code Connection provides students and educators with the perfect entry point for learning how to design game mechanics that teach in a true game-based format.

A student giving an enthusiastic thumbs up.So, let’s be blunt: Future career readiness for students means being able to use tools to create engaging and well-designed solutions to the global challenges we face.  When kids are already so inspired by games and creating games, it is imperative for us to find ways to meet their motivations and this educational need.  With the right tools – ones that are easy to get started with and allow deep engagement in both creation and consumption – we can allow ourselves and our students to take on learning as the greatest adventure of our lives.  Designing learning games affords amazing opportunities for students to build their research, computational thinking, design thinking and meta-cognitive skills, so why not build some lessons around design and see the engagement and growth explode?

Whatever you choose to do in your classrooms this year, I highly recommend that you start exploring Game Design for Education with some of the best tools in the world.

Browse affordable devices starting at $219