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Designing Games For Learning

A few weeks ago, my brother introduced me to the 99% Invisible podcast: a podcast on design that uses storytelling to share ideas. We were driving home from our family’s cottage and he had me listen to episode 77 (“Game Changer”) in which the authors share the story about how basketball’s 24-second shot clock came to be.

It turns out that basketball used to be quite the boring game.We all know the old peach basket story (especially any fellow Canadians who have seen more than a few Heritage Moments… I’m looking at you, Maritimers), but I never realized how much later the 24-second shot clock came into basketball’s history.

You see, without the shot clock, the team with the lead would just hold onto the ball and run out the clock. Although you cannot argue the logic behind that strategy, you can probably understand why it didn’t fill up basketball arenas.

It wasn’t until Danny Biasone introduced the 24-second shot clock in 1954 that the game got really exciting. Why 24 seconds? Well, Biasone did some simple math to come up with that:

A basketball game is 4 quarters of 12 minutes. That means that each game has a duration of 48 minutes (in case you are wondering, no… I’m not a math wizard). Through observations, Biasone decided that, for a game to be interesting to watch, each team would have to score around 80 points. To score about 80 points, Biasone figured that each team would have to take about 60 shots, meaning there would be a total of 120 shots in a game.

48 minutes broken down is 2880 seconds. 2880 divided by 120 is 24, and that is where the 24 seconds in the 24-second shot clock come from.

Adding that simple rule, that teams have 24 seconds to take a shot before having to turn the ball over, made the game of basketball more exciting for fans and increased its pace for players.

Ok, so why am I sharing this with you? Aside from it being an awesome story, I wanted to share this example of game design because, as physical educators, we design games everyday.

Proper game design can allow our students to develop a variety skills, an understanding of tactics, as well as help them reach a multitude of curriculum outcomes.

For example, let’s take a look at Lobster Ball.

I used this game earlier this year during a net/wall game foundations unit. One of the curriculum objectives the unit was designed around was “Attacks by projecting the object to an open space in their opponent’s territory”.

To have my students work on mastering this objective, I designed the game to have them think about attacking different areas in their opponent’s territory (see Build Three in the video above). By making courts short and wide, players focused on attacking the left or right side of their opponent’s territory (depending on their opponent’s court positioning). By making courts long and narrow, players focused on attacking the front/back areas of their opponents territory (again, depending on their opponent’s court positioning).

These changes in game design (a.k.a. modifications, builds, layers, etc), allow us to create situations in which students will be presented with situations where they will get to practice specific skills and develop tactics… all within a game context (rather than a isolated drill).

Where it gets really interesting is when, after having taught your students the difference between primary and secondary rules, you can have, within a single game, players playing with different secondary rules so that each of them are developing skills/tactics that meet their learning needs.

An example of this, if we were to look at Lobster Ball again, would be to have games going on where each player has a different size court. Or perhaps one of the players has mastered catching/lobbing the ball, so that player must send the ball back by striking it with a racket. Maybe one player needs to focus on court positioning so they have to run back and touch a poly spot in the middle of their court after each exchange.

Modifying secondary rules to meet the needs of the learner is one of the main principle I learned from the Teaching Games for Understanding model and has had a huge impact on the way I design games to ensure that my students are learning. You can learn more about the TGfU model in the video below that Kelly Ann Parry and I created:

I would love to hear how you use game design to help your students learn in your physical education classes, so please leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!

Thank you for reading, and happy teaching!

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Joey Feith is the founder of ThePhysicalEducator.com. He currently teaches elementary physical education at St. George’s School of Montreal in Quebec, Canada.

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