COVID, Game Design, and Student Engagement in Remote Learning

A leading development engine asked teachers teaching game design how they’re doing.

GUEST COLUMN | by Stuart Poole

Teaching game design is a great way of helping students develop the core skills needed for learning STEM subjects. Usually taught from age twelve and upward, game design lessons using engines like GameMaker, rely heavily on the use of school PCs and Mac devices. But with COVID forcing schools to reduce class sizes and increase home learning, how are educators coping with these challenges and how is a hybrid learning approach affecting student education?  

‘Educators have sent a clear message that the major challenges they are facing are mainly related to hardware and software issues relating to remote learning.’ 

Last year, we surveyed over a hundred and fifty schools and educational institutions to try and understand how effective teaching game design is across a range of learning outcomes. Educators told us overwhelmingly (77.3%) that teaching game design was “extremely effective” at engaging students. To understand how COVID has impacted that effectiveness, we recently surveyed those schools again. 

The way in which game design is taught varies depending on the age of the students. For example, children aged between 12-14 game design is typically taught as part of a coding curriculum, whereas for students aged 15-18 and over it’s used more as a way to encourage creativity and problem solving. 

Before the pandemic, lessons were typically taught in the classroom. But COVID has introduced a myriad of challenges for educators, forcing the majority of teachers to adopt a hybrid learning approach. Surprisingly, only 6% of respondents said that the pandemic hasn’t had any impact on how they teach game design, while 76% of educators are having to teach at least half of their classes remotely, with the inherent challenges that brings.  

Significant Challenges

With so many educators having to teach either remotely or in much smaller class sizes, 2020 was always going to be a challenging year. From the many schools we spoke to, it’s clear that when it comes to teaching game design, the most significant challenges have been related to having access to the right hardware and software.

The fact that some students have access to their own PCs or Macs, while others have had to rely on what the school can provide has added greater complexity. “The main downside for learners affects those who do not have the correct hardware at home and therefore are not able to keep up to date. There is a disparity of those that have equipment at home and those that don’t,” explained Aaron Haggery, from USP College in Southend-on-Sea, UK. 

With students and teachers now spending less time together in the classroom, teachers are now having to cope with a mountain of troubleshooting issues. “The biggest problem is deploying the software and providing one-on-one help. Since I cannot be with the student, and seeing the student’s screen isn’t always very effective, this is a challenge,” explains Mike Sagan from Rodriguez High School, California.

On top of these challenges, 47% of teachers said that COVID had significantly hindered how they evaluate student progress. Naturally, this has meant a reduction in the number of team assignments being set and less in-class Q&A time. Instead, many teachers have focused on checking on progress throughout the project and zeroing in on individual student concerns.

‘…many teachers have focused on checking on progress throughout the project and zeroing in on individual student concerns.’

Minimal Impact

Overall, the actual teaching of game design hasn’t been the problem this year, with Learning Engagement, Planning and Improving Student Confidence remaining the top three improvement categories for students undertaking game design lessons. More than half of teachers saw the effectiveness of game design classes for one or more of these three facets as being “very effective”. Matthew Koosmann from North Tapps Middle School in Washington explained: “It has been fun helping students build skills (through game design). This is providing a chance for students to try new things when we are in a place where students cannot get out and do many things. A super opportunity.”

Making games encourages children to think creatively and work out how to overcome many unique challenges. As a result, 78% of teachers said that game design was “effective” or “very effective” at improving student individual confidence. 

When making games, students are given the freedom to express themselves in their designs and have complete control over the final outcome. An open-environment of critical evaluation is also important, providing positive guidance to enable students to reach their potential. The fact that students already enjoy playing video games helps, with 63% of teachers finding it somewhat effective or better at improving class behaviour. 

But the feel-good factor and positivity doesn’t just stop when the game design lessons end. More than a third of teachers said teaching game design was “effective” or “very effective” at improving performance in other subjects. 

Of course, it’s not all been positive. Some teachers have reported that some students that were disengaged before these changes came into effect are now more disengaged. However, hybrid learning practices haven’t caused more students to become disengaged. 

The survey has also highlighted some of the challenges related to teaching students remotely, which has had an effect on key areas such as team working. ”Having less time with my students has proven to be detrimental in the sequencing of the course,” confessed Raul Jimenez, from Colegio San Ignacio in Puerto Rico. While Jason Touhey, a teacher in North America, admitted, “Most of my students at home are not engaged. When the students are in-front of me I can prevent nearly every single student from getting an F. This year I have more Fs in the first quarter than I’ve ever had within the last 10 years of teaching.” Bryan Johson, from a school in the United States, shared similar frustrations: “So much of what I do is helping students individually one-on-one. This is very difficult to do remotely.”

A Positive Contribution

Given that COVID has completely upended established teaching processes this year, it’s encouraging to see that the positive outcomes on learning engagement that are derived from teaching game design lessons have remained largely unchanged from last year. 

During this pandemic, actual teaching effectiveness has remained stable. However, educators have sent a clear message that the major challenges they are facing are mainly related to hardware and software issues relating to remote learning. 

With the pandemic showing no end in sight, hybrid learning looks set to be around for some time. And as schools get the additional support and resources they need to start to overcome these challenges, they can continue to rely on game design lessons to make a positive contribution to the development, confidence and wellbeing of their students. 

Stuart Poole is General Manager of Dundee, Scotland-based YoYo Games, home of GameMaker: Studio, a leading cross-platform 2D game development engine. Contact him through


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