For almost 20 years, faculty and other researchers at the Learning Games Lab have hosted summer “Think Tanks.” Children, youth and adults apply to be Games Lab consultants, where they critically review games and learning media, test games in development by the department, collaborate with peers, and develop educational games or media on their own. As of a result, consultants build skills and expertise in creating and presenting design pitches.
Learning Games Lab “Think Tank” Activities
During more than 60 different sessions, several team members developed and refined a wide variety of activities: from helping consultants get to know each other and play and research different games with peers, to engaging in a variety of design and development activities. In turn, consultants reviewed a wide range of games and apps, and offered their review and insights on their social and emotional growth and learning about a variety of subjects: nutrition and physical activity, music, math, and science.
Regardless of the content of each session, all consultants created something and finished their work with a presentation about their products. In some sessions, our Think Tank consultants programmed games using Scratch or other development software. In others, they’ve engaged in digital storytelling, and most recently made persuasive arguments to parents or teachers about why certain games should be played, or developed a pitch for a game they created after completing a design cycle.
The Learning Games Lab Toolkit
In early 2022, Amanda LaTasha Armstrong and Barbara Chamberlin will publish a Learning Games Lab toolkit online, sharing the work of their departmental collaborators and partners from the past 18 years of Learning Games Lab activities. This web resource will offer examples of Think Tank activities with specific guidelines on how to implement them with consultants.
Each activity in the toolkit focuses on Three Essentials, and each activity enhances one of the Essentials:
Social and emotional growth of the participants;
Consultants learning how to critically review the media they use; or
The design of some kind of digital learning product.
The web resource will include a sample schedule for implementing the activities, recommendations on sequence, and examples of how other programs use the toolkit. We encourage others to use the kit, adapt it for their own audiences and desired outcomes, and then share successful adaptations to be featured on our website.
Among the most requested aspects of our Game Lab design work are specifics on how to guide youth in crafting the pitches for their final products, so we’d like to share those here.
Purpose of a Pitch
A pitch is a presentation which provides an overview of proposed work. Youth designers at the Learning Games Lab craft pitches to share their vision with clients and stakeholders on the design of proposed games. Crafting a solid pitch is an excellent way for youth consultants to develop communication skills, build digital skills in using media to articulate ideas, and learn how to collaborate with peers in refining ideas. Developing a pitch allows consultants to develop skills and knowledge used by game designers and guides their work throughout the Think Tank session. Youth consultants in the Learning Games Lab develop pitches as a final product to help guide their work throughout the design sessions.
Recently, the lab asked youth to create a pitch for two different types of review and development work:
Make a pitch that supports the use of a game or set of games: For a given audience (game developers, teachers or other educators, parents), select a game and persuade the audience of the value of that game.
Design a game to transform the player, and make a pitch describing the proposed final game: Define a problem you care to solve, and work through the Transformational Game Design Model to determine what the game should be, and how it can successfully change a player.
In Think Tank sessions, it is usually most feasible for youth to create a pitch in a slide program (such as Google Slides), and present that pitch in 10 minutes or less. We enjoy watching youth learn how to pitch to online and in-person audiences and using digital tools to facilitate that. For in-person and virtual pitch presentations, we invite family members to attend and always include game developers in the audience. Developers ask consultants questions to encourage deeper reflection and further explore the ideas expressed. Having game developers from our studio in the audience helps the developers better understand youth and their gaming preferences (which builds the developers’ design intuition in creating materials for youth), and it helps youth become more thoughtful about their own presentations, when they know professional game developers will be hearing their ideas. We’ve also asked others to serve as ‘clients’; such as asking outside community members to hear the ideas and give feedback regarding the value.
While pitch key elements vary from session to session, they usually have a set of questions as a starting point and offer consultants different options for contributing. Consultants work in small teams and are encouraged to build on these basics. They discuss the elements and divide tasks amongst members, such as designing characters or interface, writing and organizing the text, etc. We’ve found some youth enjoy creating artwork for their proposal, while others may enjoy writing text or organizing the slides. We like giving the youth consultants opportunities to contribute in ways that interest them.
For pitches on the use of a game, we typically include the following instructions:
“After reviewing a game, persuade your audience of the value of that game. For your presentation, first introduce your team members and the title of your game. Then be sure to include:
The audience for your pitch. You are trying to encourage a specific person or group of people to use that game. Who are you talking to?
The subject/content of the game, and the kind of change it is attempting to make in the player (such as a player’s physiology, emotion, skill, behavior or knowledge).
A description of gameplay: What does the player do? How long does it take? In what kind of activities do they engage?
Why this game should be played: What makes it worthy of a player’s time and attention? What makes the game unique or special? How do the elements of the game (graphics, story, sound) work together to make the game successful?
What makes the game good? Is it easy to use? Is it replayable? Does it approach the content in a unique way? What makes it a good quality game?
What can be improved? If you could suggest changes in the game to the developers, how would you improve it?
Anything else? With your expertise as a game reviewer, what else should you say to your target audience?
Most pitches should include artwork from the game, and might benefit from a short video that shows some gameplay.
For pitches that propose a new game, we typically include the following instructions:
After engaging in the design process with your team, communicate the strengths of your proposed game in a presentation with strong visuals. You can rearrange these in whatever order makes the most sense for your presentation.
Essentials. What is the change you are trying to create? Include your audience, and the problem you hope to solve. For example, “To help sixth grade students learn math, we propose a game that helps them practice in a more interesting way.”
Success marker. How will you know if your game works? What kind of changes will you see? How will your game players be different after playing the game than they were before?
Environment for play and use scenario. Where do you expect your game to be played (such as in class, at home)? How long do you think it will take? Will players play it once over several weeks, play for a few minutes and repeat, or play another version?
Offer specifics of the designed game:
Why the game deserves to be made
Specific changes to make in the player (physiology, emotion, skill, behavior, knowledge)
Activities in the game (What kinds of things will the player do that leads to the change?)
Why will players engage in the game? What will they enjoy about it?
Other materials. It often helps to show a simple prototype of the game, a simple mockup, sample artwork, or a sample game trailer. How can you convey how the game will look or feel using primarily original content?
Depending on the nature of the session, the audience, and the age of the audiences, design pitches may also ask participants to define what they need to create the game, and what kinds of expertise they would appreciate (such as marketing help, content expertise, or web development).
A Final Note about Game Development and Pitches
In the early days of the Games Lab sessions, developers encountered a difficult paradox: youth wanted to make their own games, but became frustrated when they couldn’t make it over a week or two-week session. Using programs to design games in short form often helped youth learn to code, or experiment with a specific type of game (such as a side scroller, or a quiz format), but youth felt constrained when they couldn’t use that tool to make the game they had in their mind. While it is helpful for youth to understand that well-designed games take months or years —as well as large teams — to create, kids still wanted to make a game.
As the game lab activities evolved to help youth use game design as a way to explore other types of content in depth, the team wanted to focus more on the process of educational design than on the activities of coding, developing art, or exploring game mechanics. By evolving a pitch process as an end result of going through the design process, youth get to think deeply about problems they care about, investigate solutions, and brainstorm ways games can solve the problems. They learn that game development is a time-consuming process that includes examining broad concepts and refining details. By creating pitches, youth get to make a game: they don’t produce assets and program a playable version, but they have the opportunity to engage in a design process that is often more fulfilling, and can be done in a shorter time span.
For more information about the Learning Games Lab Toolkit, contact Amanda LaTasha Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written By: Barbara Chamberlin and Amanda LaTasha Armstrong