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Project-based learning is hard. Often times, we fall in love with the research and stories of PBL but find it incredibly hard to effectively implement in our student’s life. This is especially true if our students are interested in something less traditionally academic like video games.

You may wonder if it’s even possible to tie video games to “school” work. In fact, video games are probably one of the best fields to work into project-based learning. There are so many valuable lessons around gaming that can make learning both interesting and mind-expanding to students. In fact, even we have students working on video games for school at Sora!

So, let’s jump into scaffolding learning and thinking of project ideas for students who love video games.

Quick Background

PBL is effective because it follows the “Principle of Directness” which states, in the paraphrased words of author of Ultralearning Scott Young, always try to learn in a situation that mirrors the ultimate use case of the skill. Or, in more human words, do the thing to learn the thing. This is because research shows humans are quite bad at transferring what we learn. That means, if you want to learn a language, speak the language. Or, if you’re really into video games, then learn about building, designing, writing for, and marketing video games!

The first step to making your student care about “schoolwork” is showing why it’s relevant to their lives. You don’t like wasting your time and neither does your student. That means, your number one priority is tying every lesson back into how it could help them later. With that knowledge, we’re ready to start!

Identify future careers

If your student is interested in video games, there are actually a LOT of different career paths that involve games. They can work in programming, design, marketing, producing, writing, and so much more! Of course, if your student is focused on a different career and doesn’t necessarily want to work in the video game industry, you can still use the upcoming strategies to create your own project ideas!

Video Game Programming

Video game programmers build the video games at a software level. They plan and code the games. They might work on a game’s graphic engine, build the game’s AI, or build the virtual world of the game itself. The industry is incredibly competitive, but people who start early in their careers (ex. students in high school) can get a leg up in the field by building their skills at a young age.

One idea for a project(s) for your student can be to learn how to code and build a small game. For this exercise, your student should learn the basics of coding. It’s an incredibly wide field, with different computer languages, styles, and pathways. But learning the computer science fundamentals is pretty much the best way to get started.

There are a ton of resources available online for free for learning how to code. There are ones like Code Academy that do free courses that start with the basics, and other websites like FreeCodeCamp offer a lot of resources and guides for learning different languages like Python, Javascript, and more. These courses and guides often have built-in small projects, which are usually simple games because they’re easier to understand and more relatable to people.

For video games specifically, whether your student first learns how to code or just wants to start making games immediately, there are still plenty of good resources available for free online. Unity is a popular game engine that powers a LOT of games and has interactive tutorials for beginners to use their technology. They even have courses for the topic, like Making Your First Game.

A simple way to point your student in the right direction is to get them to pick a game they already like. Ideally, their first project is a really simple game, like Flappy Bird (2D mobile game where you tap the screen to control a small bird as it navigates obstacles). Once your student starts learning how to use the editor, they’ll pick up different components of coding and small bits of different computer languages like C#. When they finish making the game, they can even show the family and their friends! Again, websites like FreeCodeCamp also publish a lot of guides for beginners, like From Zero to Game Designer: how to start building video games even if you don’t have any experience.

Video Game Design

Maybe your student isn’t interested in coding all day, but they’re more artistic—maybe they love drawing and sketching, or even animation. Maybe they love writing and telling stories.

Well, those are big parts of video games as well! Video game programmers can make the game work, but if the game doesn’t look beautiful or engage the gamer with its story, then it won’t be very fun to play. Of course, coding can and is a big part of video game design as well, but it’s not the sole focus.

Video game design spans a multitude of disciplines like graphic design, computer animation, concept art for characters, sound design, and more. For the sake of this article, we’ll just list a few different project ideas that can involve this type of work.

Project Ideas and Points of Inquiry for Game Designers

  1. Create a choose-your-own-adventure story. Their project doesn’t necessarily have to be a full blown video game. A simple story with different choices and endings that the reader can make is basically a text-based version of a video game. Your student can do this with open source website like Twine, or even just create their own using basic word processors like Google Docs and pen and paper.
  2. Create a video game universe. Good video games often have deep lore and settings. They’re set in alternate universes and different periods of time. Have your student create a cool world for a video game, like a planet divided into a hot desert and a frozen tundra. They can write the history for the place and how it came to be. They can create governments, conflicts, and different technologies at play in the universe. They can write about characters and their backstories. This project could also involve artwork as well, though that depends on whether or not your student is particularly interested in the storytelling or the illustrating.
  3. Create a basic animation. This is for students who are more visually oriented and would be interested in illustrating characters in a video game. Keep in mind that animation doesn’t have to be Pixar level work right away. Your student could start off with something as basic as stick figures, using free software like Pivot. The quality of their work isn’t determined by their tools or art style, but by their imagination! They can also do animation work by hand too—divide pieces of paper into squares and use each square as a “frame” in an animation. If animation piques your student’s interest and they want to do more serious work, they can also learn about different softwares used in the animation industry: Autodesk 3DS Max for 3D work, and Adobe Photoshop and After Effects for 2D work. There are plenty of tutorials and resources available online for free for those software tools as well.

Conclusion

When approaching academics using project-based learning, it’s best to give your student choice. As we know from self-determination theory, intrinsic motivation doesn’t occur unless choice is present. So, send this list to your student, support whichever choice they make, and try to fan the fire of their new interest!

If you’re interested in learning more about our online, project-based high school, please check our website and reach out to our team to learn more about how Sora can work for your student!


Indra Sofian

Indra is the Co-Founder of Sora Schools and currently leads marketing and admissions. He is personally passionate about changing the way schools are designed and making them much more meaningful, useful, and fun.

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