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Building Awareness of Teens Lived Experience Through Game Design

Listen and learn

Listen and learn : Research paper
Lecture presentation

Tuesday, December 1, 12:45–1:30 pm PST (Pacific Standard Time)
Presentation 1 of 3
Other presentations:
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Dr. Mia Kim Williams  
Letha Mellman  

This mixed-method research investigates how teens incorporated issues important to them into processes of game design. We discuss how and to what extent their self-expression, awareness of systems thinking, and understanding of the interplay between game spaces and personal lived experiences were reflected in their game prototypes.

Audience: Coaches, Teachers, Teacher education/higher ed faculty
Attendee devices: Devices not needed
Topic: Games for learning & gamification
ISTE Standards: For Students:
Empowered Learner
  • Students articulate and set personal learning goals, develop strategies leveraging technology to achieve them and reflect on the learning process itself to improve learning outcomes.
Innovative Designer
  • Students develop, test and refine prototypes as part of a cyclical design process.
Creative Communicator
  • Students communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively by creating or using a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models or simulations.

Proposal summary


The Mechanics Dynamics Aesthetics (MDA) Framework (Hunicke, et al., 2004), widely used both for designing games and analyzing games (Ralph & Monu, 2014; Schrier, 2019; Walk, Görlich, & Barrett, 2017), served as the theoretical framework for this research. Fundamental to the MDA Framework is the concept that games are not transmissive media like film and books are, but instead are “interreactive,” describing the two-way interaction between game and player (Smethurst & Craps, 2015, p. 273). In games, the player consumes what the designer creates in a dynamic system (Hunicke et al., 2004). Through this lens, games are “artifacts, not media,” as the behavior of games changes based on player actions (Hunicke et al., 2004, p. 3).

The MDA framework considers games from both the perspective of both the player and the designers around three lenses-- mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics. Designers create mechanics that cause the game as a dynamic system to behave a certain way. Players experience the aesthetics of the game system when they interact with it (see Figure 1). It is the game’s dynamic system that evokes aesthetics, manifesting as players’ emotional sensations (Hunicke et al., 2004). When playing a game, players may sensate challenge, connection, fear, guilt, and pride.

In the MDA Framework, mechanics refer to all components of games, digital or tangible, from the game pieces to the rulesets, including the core mechanics, or repeated actions players take (e.g., Salen & Zimmerman, 2003; Sicart, 2009). As a concrete example, in the tabletop word-building game Scrabble (Hasbro, 1938), the mechanics are the game board, letter tiles, the letter tile tray, as well as all of the rules that guide or constrain what players can or cannot do when they place tiles on the board. Mechanics remain static until play begins; they sit stored in a board game box, computer algorithm, or in the players’ minds (e.g., mechanics of charades). It is not until players place letter tiles on the Scrabble game board that the dynamic system emerges, and the game becomes more than the sum of its component parts. The dynamic system of Scrabble includes the accumulating scores of each player which can affect player strategy.

In games, players have a sense of agency to make meaningful choices (Murray, 2017), which can lead to emotional investments inconsequential outcomes (Isbister, 2016). As the dynamic system is driven, mechanics are set in motion by “active player choice” resulting in many emotions unique to games (Isbister, 2016, p. 9).

Within the context of designing games, Hunicke et al. (2004) suggest using the MDA framework backward, starting with the aesthetics, making player experience the initial design goal. Next, a dynamic system (or game engine) that can accomplish the aesthetic should be considered, which is finally followed by the mechanics that will set the dynamic system into motion.


Mixed Method Design  
A concurrent nested mixed methods design was used in this study (Creswell, 2003). Qualitative data and analysis procedures was the dominant method, which relied on information generated through participant-created artifacts and observational research notes. A survey provided descriptive data as well as ordinal data that allowed us to investigate any statistically significant change in participants’ awareness of systems thinking. A concurrent nested mixed method afforded us the ability to collect information at different levels, as well as provide corroboration of findings within the study.

Participants (n = 16) were male youth between the ages of 13 and 18 years, from suburban to rural areas in the Rocky Mountain region, who voluntarily enrolled in GDS. All attendees were invited to participate in the study; those who choose not to consent to the study still participated fully in the program, but their artifacts were excluded from this analysis. GDS was not gender-limited and was marketed to local school districts and after school organizations; however, only male youth signed up to participate. Eleven of the participants identified as Caucasian, 6 as Hispanic or Latino, 1 as Asian, and 1 as Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; several of the participants identified as more than one race. All participants had prior game play experience with digital and non-digital games; only 12.5% (n = 2) of participants reported any prior game design experience.

Data Collection
Multiple data were collected during this study; specifically, observational notes, a subset of Likert-like responses from a pre and post survey, and two artifacts: game prototypes and game pitches were employed to answer the research questions addressed in this paper. All participant-created data were also activities that were part of the GDS curriculum for all participants. At the conclusion of GDS, data generated by research participants were separated and non-participant artifacts and survey data were discarded. All data were anonymized in compliance with human subjects’ protections.
Observational field notes. Two researchers participated as observers during the program’s duration. Each collected ethnographic-style notes to capture descriptions of day-to-day happenings, comments, and actions of participants, and comments and actions of facilitators. We also collected perceptions through reflective field notes (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007).

Pre- and post-survey. A pre- and post-survey was conducted on Qualtrics that included demographic information, seven open-ended questions, and 16 Likert-like scale items with five response choices (strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree). The survey questions focused on participants’ perceptions of gaming, gameplay, systems, and teen issues. For this paper, three Likert-like scale items were used to identify any change in participants perceptions about gaming and teen issues. Questions pertaining to systems thinking competencies were adapted from Shute et al. (2013) which had validated its interrater reliability of systems thinking scores. Questions about teen perceptions were adapted from validated and reliable studies pertaining to youth attitude and perceptions on topics such as educational games to sociocultural issues (e.g., Çankaya & Karamete, 2009; Chen, Lien, Annetta, & Lu, 2010; Hedden & Zhang, 2002).

Artifacts. The game prototypes and game pitches were created by the participants as GDS activities. We collected images of the games as well as paper or digital prototypes. Game pitches were captured on video; the slide decks that were used by participants during the pitches were also collected as artifacts. All were used in the analysis of the games.

Teams were given bounded time each day to prototype games based on their design prompt. Paper and digital prototype games were created, and the final prototype at the completion of GDS was used as the artifact in this research. The prototyping process was iterative throughout the duration of GDS and based on the facilitator and other teams’ feedback during playtests. Games were early prototypes; rules were not always yet written and components not fully completed.

The “Game Pitch” was the culminating activity of GDS and took place on the final day of game design. It focused teams on a delivery date for prototypes and supported their process to think about the design as one entity to be shared. Participants were given a Google Slides deck template and a list of requirements. The goal of pitch preparation was for youth to practice talking about their design and how it speaks to their design prompt and not spend too much time developing slides. Game prototypes were pitched to professionals in the field. The Game Pitch was not competitive, but the experts asked probing questions.

Data Analysis
Consistent with a concurrent mixed method design, various data were analyzed simultaneously and brought together to develop findings.

Qualitative data analysis. The game design artifacts were coded and analyzed for a deeper understanding of teens’ lived experience, the systems that impact their lived experience, and their ability to express and experiment with those systems through the act of making games. Data analysis follows an interpretivist approach, a paradigm that gleans meaning from observed experiences, artifacts and actions (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). Utilizing a constant comparative analysis of the data collected (Corbin & Strauss, 2008), artifacts and observation field notes were read and viewed as they are generated and again at the end of the data collection period.

The MDA Framework was used as a lens to analyze the participants’ games. According to Hunicke et al. (2004), first mechanics should be analyzed, followed by dynamics, and then aesthetics. As these were prototypes and not finished games, aesthetics shared by teams were what the designers intended, and were not necessarily fully realized. Time constraints limited teams’ ability to iterate on ideas to create playable completed games. Each team’s planned aesthetics were captured in a slidedeck as well as a Zoom recording of their presentation given during the pitch session. Reliability of the qualitative analysis was established by repetitive analysis by at least three of the researchers.

Survey analysis. Participants’ pre and post responses were compared to determine whether there was any significant change in perceptions about connections between game design and life experience. This comparison was completed for a subset of Likert-like items on the survey. A Paired t Test was conducted with the level of statistical significance set at .05. The analysis presented three critical pieces of information: (1) the mean pretest score, (2) the mean posttest score, and (3) the p value. A p value less than the specified level (.05), indicates there was a statistically significant difference between the pretest and posttest score. A p value larger than .05 suggesting that participation in the GDS had no statistically significant impact on participants perceptions. A two-directional analysis was made.


Preliminary results show that participants are aware of systems thinking components and themes of issues important to teens have been developed. We are currently conducting analysis to better understand the variances in teens awareness about how game mechanics are or are not connected to lived experience. Additionally, we are interested in understanding how they developed this awareness through the game design process in the GDS.


Social emotional health is of significant importance in the educational spaces of today’s youth. Having a space and strategy for unpacking issues familiar in their lived experience can be a powerful way to both address and process a turbulent world. In Game Design Studio camp, we propose a way for creating such a space through gameplay and design. This study explores the experiences of participants in a GDS camp through this social emotional lens.


Chen, H.-P., Lien, C.-J., Annetta, L., & Lu, Y.-L. (2010). The Influence of an Educational Computer Game on Children's Cultural Identities. Educational Technology & Society, 13 (1), 94–105.

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Ralph, P., & Monu, K. (2014). A working theory of game design: Mechanics, technology, dynamics, aesthetics, & narratives. Retrieved from: www.firstper  

Rivers, S., & Rappolt-Schlichtmann, G. (2017, November 1). We can’t design games for teens without this. Retrieved from iThrives Games website:

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Sellers, M. (2017). Advanced game design: A systems approach. New York, NY: Pearson Education.

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Shute, V. J., Sun, C., & Asbell-Clarke, J. (2017). Demystifying computational
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Upton, B. (2018). Situational game design. New York, NY: Routledge.

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Dr. Mia Kim Williams, University of Wyoming
Letha Mellman, University of Northern Colorado

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