For their first unit of the year, my college composition classes aren’t writing essays. They’re designing games. Digital Breakout games, to be exact.

I’ve taught college composition for four years, and the same concerns keep nagging at me about these young writers:

  • They want to create the perfect draft the first time. The end.
  • Instead, they see revision as editing their grammatical errors.
  • They provide surface feedback in their peer reviews.
  • They don’t feel purpose or authenticity in their writing.

These are issues I need to address, and they aren’t easy fixes. However, the first step in my attempt is to shake up our first unit and instead of focusing on “writing,” we’ll be focusing on game design.

The secret: The game design process mimics the writing process. It mimics the major steps of EVERY creation/maker/design/invention process.

Clearly, for any writer or designer who ever created, there is no single process, and processes can change depending on the project. But the key steps remain: Ideation, Creation, Feedback, Iteration, More Feedback, Iteration, etc, until the project meets Nirvana or the final deadline, whatever comes first.

By teaching writing students game design, we’re also teaching them the design process for writing (or art, or inventing, or whatever you’re making.) That’s just what I want to do — the put my students into a design situation they’ve never been and discover that the steps are the same, and that all the steps are important and applicable to writing.

Here’s my plan in more detail:

  1. Ideation. Writers will first have to work together in groups to analyze digital Breakout games that currently exist, find the patterns, and then develop their own themes and ideas. They’ll also need to consider the age and purpose of their game.
  2. Creation. After the team delegates parts of the game to work on, writers will begin creating those components. In a digital Breakout game, many of the components include writing, so this also serves as a baseline assessment for me to see where my writers are in their abilities.
  3. Feedback. Teams will playtest other teams’ games and provide feedback. This will require some frontloading in demonstrating what clear and specific feedback looks like.
  4. Iteration. Back to work revising the game. Students may have to adjust the game — Was it too difficult? Too easy? Should they remove some red herrings? Did they see “tricks” other teams had in their games that they want to adapt to their own? (Then it’s back to Feedback, as needed.)
  5. Publication. The games will then be submitted to the Digital Breakout EDU sandbox, publicized via social media, and shared with our local teachers if applicable to their teaching areas.

In addition, the plan hits a liberal number of 21st Century Skills, so there’s that.

Granted, this process could be taught with any writing activity: Essays, arguments, short stories, heck, even haikus. (In fact, starting with shorter writings, like poems or short shorts, might be more effective in teaching the design process than longer texts.)

But why is game-based and game-inspired learning gaining momentum? Randy Pausch touched on it in his book The Last Lecture. Games, if well-designed, have the ability to teach without the learner knowing it. Mars Generation One teaches argumentation while students explore their space station, and FanGeopolitics teaches the interconnectedness of foreign issues in geography disguised with professional sports draft mechanics.

Many young writers are anxious about their writing. I get it: writing is personal. It makes you feel vulnerable.

Games — especially a game created as a team — have lower risk involved. Designing a game is more playful and less threatening than writing — or at least that’s what I’m hoping for my students. By experiencing the design process through game design rather than writing, my goal is for students to be less obsessed with writing the perfect draft the first time, less threatened with giving and receiving feedback, more open to deeper revisions.

I want them to see writing like game design. Go in knowing it won’t be perfect, but knowing you can also have fun in the feedback/playtesting and in your revising/iteration.