Engaging Students in the Research Process with Plot-driven Video Game Design #EsportsPlaybook @ReadyLearner_1 @DrawYourGame #WanderlustEDU

Leveraging the simple (and free) game design tool: Draw Your Game App, I recently guided middle school students in the design and development of video games powered by class-content research. My hope is that by creating games we can learn to become more thoughtful about how people, places, and ideas are represented and through critical analysis we can find and create opportunities for authentic voices. The students first conducted historical research to develop the background and plot of the game/character’s story then created the actual games. Their comments and end products are an encouragement that there is something important 

The project was a result of inspired, lightbulb moments from the work done by my friends Chris Aviles, Steve Isaacs, Christine Lion-Bailey, and Jesse Lubinsky in The Esports Education Playbook: Empowering Inclusive Gaming. In it they write: 

The rapidly-growing esports video game ecosystem provides a unique wealth of material for education around mythology, plot, and character, as well as business-centric principles such as critical thinking, ethics, persuasive writing, collaboration, and developing and making professional presentations, when properly designed and implemented by credentialed educators and when approved by state curriculum decision-makers. We shouldn’t be afraid to leverage esports for learning just because it is a sport or, for some, viewed simply as a business venture.  The ability to go to where the students are, and capture their attention, offers a rare opportunity. The combined enthusiasm of students and teachers for play and classroom study tells us we are onto something big. We have introduced a disruptive and innovative way to re-engage kids into education.

To initiate the conversation about video games and back stories, I started with this plot example and asked my students to guess what/who it was about:

The year was 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States. Minutes later, Iran released the 52 Americans held for 444 days, ending the Iran hostage crisis. MTV was launched, the Aids Virus was identified, Post It Notes were released, and the Space Shuttle Columbia blasted off into space. We saw rioting in UK Cities and the assassination of Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat. 1981 was also the first year that the word “Internet” was mentioned and MS-DOS was released by Microsoft along with the first IBM PC. But for many, 1981 was just another year.

Our hero, Jumpman, a carpenter by trade, takes his girlfriend Pauline on a date to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark and visit the circus which just rolled into town. They are young and in love. While at the circus, they are excited to see a primate performing. Jumpman, in an effort to impress his girlfriend, goofs off and offends the animal! The now angry primate kidnaps Jumpman’s girlfriend, and runs off. Leveraging his most effective primate-skills and climbs a large building, which was under construction, taking the captive girl with him. Now, our hero, Jumpman must risk his life to rescue Pauline. The ladders, scaffolding, and ramps found on the building are hard enough to climb for Jumpman, but it gets worse! The primate also throws deadly barrels at Jumpman as he climbs! As Jumpman, your task is to duck, dodge, dive, etc… to find your way to the damsel in distress and wield your mighty hammer to stop the angry primate. 

As you may have guessed, this is a riff on the Donkey Kong backstory. Yet here we built a researched-based background to set our character Jumpman (later called Mario) into. I advised my students to really think about the connection of the research, the plot, and character that they wanted to develop. How did my students take to the task of writing the plot? Here is a piece of unsolicited feedback: 

Hi Dr. Shippee,

When I was writing my story for the project I ended up writing a little over 400 words (I had a lot of fun creating the backstory). I was wondering if you wanted me to shorten it. The research and story is each pretty close to half, so one doesn’t outdo the other. Let me know what you want me to do. Thank you!


Melina L.”

Sorry? I wrote too much? I love this! and the feedback continued to pour in through the form we used to rate and comment on each other’s games, as we will discuss in a bit.

The next step was to design the actual game. Here we used a free mobile/tablet app called Draw Your Game. This particular tool was perfect since students were encouraged to design and develop the games using paper and markers. Prior to beginning this project I surveyed the students about access to non-school issued devices (since were hybrid and remote). 98% of the students reported they had access, the remaining were able to use an ipad in school during their in-school hybrid days, and if all else failed, games can be launched by anyone with the app so students were encouraged to share them with me to review. Here is my Donkey Kong Game created on my whiteboard:

Obviously, I took some creative license here and I am no graphics designer. My art was the source of humor for the class, but it got the point across. Below is the actual game play. Keep reading for some detailed direction and pro tips for creating your own (lives will likely be changed).

I went through and played all of my students’ games and recorded my game play. This allowed the students to provide feedback to each other either by playing each other’s games or by watching me struggle through the various levels. 

One of the good features Draw Your Game has is that if you want to share your game with other people, it must first be winnable. This is perfect for troubleshooting game experiences.

The next big teachable moment to discuss appropriate feedback and comments that can help others produce better work. In this case, we discussed the need to balance our analysis of game play with the character-plot relevance. One game, “Tess Sneaks and Attacks” earned feedback that was unique to the plot and character:

  • I liked the tank and area where you had to jump up blocks. I also liked that the plot was about a girl instead of a guy and that it gave backstory, it was different and interesting.
  • I like the bravery and courage that Tess has!
  • I liked the challenge to it along with that there was more of a story about Tess and the objective.

The feedback demonstrated value in not only the plot and gameplay connections, but that students felt a girl hero was underrepresented in games and that the game designer had successfully crafted a story around Tess.

Here is what my students had to say to each other regarding some of the other games:

  • It’s really fun, though it’s easy to get stuck on the platform section. It should be easier to get up. Like if it was built more like stairs.
  • I think she could improve on putting more detailed drawing into the game like maybe snow since she said there was a rough winter storm during her war. 
  • I think that the game was created very well. I also think it had just enough challenging obstacles as well as easier ones. It was very fun to play. The only thing I think that could be changed it the amount of space you have in between jumps.
  • Amazing plot, good detail in the game, could have been a little more challenging, but overall great game!
  • I think your game is great! It looks fantastic and has a great connection to your story! I would say to just make it a little bit easier to complete.
  • Great game best I have played so far. I liked how his game matched the plot very well, honestly not much he needs to improve.
  • I really liked the game plot, I thought it was creative. The game was very straight forward and looked fun and easy to understand and play from the video. 
  • I think the plot matched the game very well. I liked that the game was more than one page and the design was very clean. I liked the concept of rolling the dots onto the red areas too. The only thing to maybe improve was that in the video, it looked a bit hard to roll the dots, so maybe there could have had more space behind the dots to be able to roll them better. 
  • To be honest nothing. Make it longer, make more things colored in blue, AND you said that it was the longest battle but the game was the shortest game that I saw so far.
  • I think your game is awesome! I love how well you connected your story to your game! I think the trees being the main obstacle in the game is super creative and fun! I don’t really have many things you can improve on, I think you did a great job!
  • I love your game! I think the plot and game connect very well! I also think your game was super creative with adding the Eiffel Tower as an obstacle and the car! I don’t really have any critiques, I think you did a fantastic job!
  • Very well made game my favorite so far. The game design was very good and related to the plot well. Not much to improve at all.
  • I think your game is really awesome! I love the connection between the story and the game, making the main goal to destroy the bombs! My one piece of advise is to add a more to tie the plot and game together a little further. In your game description, you talked about how the battle was in the woods, so maybe add some trees or something like that? Great job!
  • I loved her game so much! It was definitely my favorite! It was challenging, and it showed her game plot super well!  My only tip would be to add more history in the game plot about WWI, but otherwise, it was amazing! 

In summary, this was a good experience for my students in how we speak to each other online (comments and feedback) and more importantly I hope it empowered them to be more analytical about the games they play each day in a manner that will promote social good. Here are a few Draw Your Game Pro Tip Videos to help you get going:

  1. Getting Started https://youtu.be/jT1z3eQrLU8
  2. How to Publish (Share) Your Game https://youtu.be/o6QPRf8V2ew

Let’s Do This!


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