Literacy through games design

14th September 2012 at 01:00
Douglas Blane pauses to look at how one teacher is helping pupils to design a computer game and master creative writing at the same time

Who would steal gold from a fire-breathing genie?" Matthew Reid asks his first-year class at Garnock Academy, North Ayrshire. It's a question that rarely arises in studying literature, which is why computer games are more motivating for many young learners.

"I created this course based on all the literacy outcomes," says English teacher Mr Reid. "In two periods a week, the pupils design a computer game, while learning creative writing, sentence construction, vocabulary, punctuation, spelling, setting, tone, atmosphere - all the literary techniques you normally teach through a novel or poem."

It is not about replacing classical texts with computer games, he says. "But it is one more way to help pupils access literature. We teach a computer game as a text, they write critical essays and every one of them designs and markets their own game."

Developed from Mr Reid's games design club, the two-year course ran for the first time last session as a Curriculum for Excellence elective, team- taught with colleague Catriona Smith. "This year I'm teaching the course to the second-years as well as English," she says.

"That allows me to see the effect it's had. Children who did the course last year are much more willing to have a go, to challenge themselves and to find out new things.

"That is particularly noticeable among those with less ability in English, who used to think it was a big, scary subject. They have found a way of accessing literacy somewhere else, so it becomes accessible to them in English too."

Major components of the course include design plans, evaluation, development, marketing, promotion, reports and presentations. But that order - roughly how an experienced games designer would do it - is not what works best pedagogically, says Mr Reid.

"The advice I would give to anyone running a course like this would be to get pupils on computers using the software as soon as possible. Last year we started with a blank sheet of paper and asked them to think about the design first. It worked, but it is better this way. They're on the computers by the second lesson."

It's a lesson whose methods as well as content are innovative. Mr Reid has time to chat about course design because much of the delivery of this introduction is devolved to two pupils who have successfully completed the course.

"Now we're going to talk about switches," says Callum Burns (S3), who is seated at the teacher's table, projecting his computer screen behind him, while from the side of the room Mr Reid controls timing and flow, and pulls out teaching points.

"This is complicated, so if anyone doesn't understand just stop me," Calum says, before embarking on a demonstration, asking the class to try, then circulating, as a teacher would, to help solve problems.

Using pupils in this way is particularly effective with first-years at the start of the course, says Mr Reid. "They're hearing it from someone who's really good at what they're trying to learn, while not being much older than they are. You can see they're completely absorbed."

It's true. Unusually for a first-year class, everyone in the room appears interested and all are on-task. The young teachers are finding it a rewarding experience, too, says Madelyn Loudon (S2). "It can be hard to explain some points, but it's nice having people listen and look up to you."

Despite their obvious enjoyment, teaching is not a career option for either young teacher today. "I want to be a computer games designer," says Madelyn.


- Mr Reid's blog:

- Resources for teaching SQA qualifications in game design:

- Bafta's young games designer website with "really helpful links, advice and videos":

- The Consolarium. "Full of good ideas and links":

- RPG Maker VX, the software used in the course. For more information, visit


Creative Thinking in Games Development, with Matthew Reid, Thursday 20 September, 12.00. The seminar is aimed at secondary and upper-primary teachers, with or without experience of games design.


1. Have a core idea. Is your focus literacy, numeracy or music? Focus on this in designing the course and extra elements will happen naturally. Don't get distracted by these until the core ideas are firmly established.

2. Choose the software carefully. Make sure it is the best to support the core idea. If the focus is expressive arts, say, make sure the software can import and edit assets intuitively.

3. Seek help from other professionals in school and beyond. Games development needs a vast array of skills. You may have to bend the ear of colleagues more knowledgeable in particular subject areas.

4. Think beyond the experiences and outcomes. There are many accredited courses in games development. (Callum and Madelyn have already achieved SCQF levels 4 and 5 respectively.) Research these and think how they may enhance the course. Don't forget your core idea.

5. Embrace the possibility of failure. We learn from mistakes - encourage pupils to do the same.

6. Be flexible. You might have to throw away or adapt what you have planned based on continuous evaluation.


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