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GBL Luminary Guest Post: Tuning Game-based Learning for Adolescents

Filament Games stays connected to the scholarly side of game-based learning (GBL) through our GBL Luminaries Program. Academics in the Luminaries program work with our staff to maintain a healthy dialogue between game-based learning theory and practice through all-staff lectures and guest blog posts. Today’s GBL Luminary guest post is from Katie Salen, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California at Irvine, as well as Chief Designer and co-founder of Connected Camps, an online learning platform powered by youth Minecraft experts. She teaches in both the Computer Game Science program and the Masters of Human Computer Interaction and Design, working with students to design and develop interactive experiences and technologies that are social, equitable, and connected.  

Tune Into The Development Tasks of Teens

Creating game-based learning experiences for 8-14 year olds is challenging—not only are your products competing in the marketplace with titles like Fortnite and Minecraft but also designing for players who can smell a “learning game” a mile away. In my work on game-based learning platforms like Gamestar Mechanic, Quest to Learn, and Institute of Play I’ve learned what can make a difference: attending to what developmental psychologists call the developmental tasks of teens. 

Four Developmental Tasks of Teens

What does this mean? Along with biological changes, research shows that during puberty adolescents also experience psychological and psychosocial changes. These include the emergence of abstract thinking, increased personal independence, and greater importance of peer relationships. Youth also form interests and social identities during this time. From a developmental perspective, teens want:

  1. To stand out: to develop an identity and pursue autonomy. 
  2. To fit in: to find comfortable relationships and gain acceptance from peers.
  3. To measure up: to develop expertise and find ways to achieve; and 
  4. To take hold: to make commitments to particular goals, activities and beliefs.

Figuring out how to leverage these four developmental tasks is a secret sauce to be added when designing game-based learning for tween and teen players. Let me give an example.

Connected Camps

In 2015 I co-founded Connected Camps with Mimi Ito and Tara Tiger Brown. Connected Camps runs online programs for kids inside of games like Minecraft. Youth can log in from anywhere, pursue an interest in learning to code, design games, create media, get better at an esport, or socialize with friends inside their favorite game. College students with expertise in tech and gaming serve as online mentors (we call them coaches and counselors), and we train high school students to serve as community ambassadors in our programs. We’ve served thousands of families over the past couple of years.

The design of the game-based learning in our programs draws heavily on the developmental tasks of teens. We support our players in their need to stand out by tapping into their interests and giving them a lot of choice over how they participate. Our programs are designed to include careful social scaffolding to help youth connect in meaningful ways with mentors and peers who share their interests. The social scaffolding we provide has helped many of our youth who are on the autism spectrum thrive, for example, by helping them navigate the social and emotional challenges of learning online with others. 

Youth in our programs develop expertise and find ways to achieve as they engage in project-based learning in a setting where their projects are shared and celebrated. The visibility of their work to others is particularly important in helping them measure up. Last, lots of our programs provide opportunities for youth to take hold. Our high school volunteers make important and lasting contributions to the organization through their service activities, for example. This specific component of our platform helps youth to see the value of going beyond their own self‐centered needs and extend outward to the pursuit of goals that benefit others. Let me give one more example.

Losing Mayonnaise and Sandwich

Last year we ran a program in Survival mode in Minecraft. We deliberately designed the in-game events and world structure in ways that maximized the need for players’ cooperation and interdependence, such as resource scarcity or goals that had to be met collectively. This approach used shared activities as the backbone for social learning, providing players with opportunities for self-expression, choice, and contribution, as well as a chance to make friends. Players were challenged to co-plan, negotiate priorities, and make choices focused on collective outcomes; they did so, however, within a moderated setting where disagreements were framed as `teachable moments’ for the community as a whole.

In Week 7 of the program players faced a challenge that necessitated they abandon their individual game play activities and come together to defeat two invincible mobs, none other than their online mentor and community ambassador in disguise. Known as Mayonnaise (the moderator and Sheriff) and Sandwich (the community ambassador), the two mobs threatened to kidnap the town’s Sheriff. Players had to work together to develop a plan that allowed them to simultaneously combat the mobs, while also protecting the town and their Sheriff. 

While the players acted quickly, they struggled to communicate and coordinate their actions; tensions between players rose. Players were in two separate voice chat channels initially and did not realize they could not hear each other. One player switched between channels a few times to command the operations, with some resistance to their leadership. The players all eventually joined a single channel, only to realize that the mobs had successfully “kidnapped” their Sheriff and inflicted injuries to players during the virtual fight. Following is an excerpt from their chat log:

[P14 switched between two Teamspeak channels back and forth to instruct everyone on what to do] 

P14: I am the leader. 

P1: You’re not the leader, but ok, let’s just do this. 

[everyone is talking over each other]

P8: What is going on? 

P6: I am sacrificing myself guys

P2: Why? 

P1: We need a better plan, start making a fortress around the oasis

P8: ok 

P14: Somebody go up to the mountain and keep an eye

P1: I am already up there, P14, turn around. 


P14: Mayo and Sandwich go together

P1: That’s why I asked if Mayonnaise was related to Sandwich

P14: No you didnt

P1: Yes, I did. I asked … [more voices talking over each other]

[… Participants held off the mobs, but find that the mobs captured their Sheriff and left]

Their failure sparked a series of moderator-facilitated conversations within the group over the next few sessions. The moderators prompted players to think about how they could better handle situations that required teamwork. Players discussed the importance of making strategic plans and using the communication channels to keep everyone in the loop. They also added a rule to guide their interactions on chat: “Don’t boss over others.” This rule emphasized the group’s desire to maintain equitable social relationships within the community, while also potentially aiding them in their ability to solve problems together more quickly. The design features of Survival Lab gave our tween and teen players the chance to stand out, fit it, measure up, and take hold.

Tune In

Tuning in to the developmental needs of players of any age is critical. Doing so allows you to not only meet any learning goal you might have for your game, but also helps your players build knowledge and skills that are not just important to you or your client, but important to them

Special thanks to Krithika Jagannath for her research contribution to this post.

More GBL resources from your friends at Filament Games:

How to Teach with Games eBook
Inclusive Game Design: Key Starting Principles
5 Amazing EdTech and Game-Based Learning Podcasts

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