I had the privilege to talk to Stephen Wilson a Board Game Inventor who teaches part-time in a special needs school. Stephen and I talked about his experience with of working with learners at his school to enter the Big Potato Inventor Challenge – a competition for schools with learners age 11-18. The aim of the competition is to find the next big party game!

Ellie: I know that one of your classes won the Big Potato Big Inventor Challenge, congratulations! Is this the first time you’ve done any game design with students?

Stephen: Thank you! This is the first time they have designed a new game from scratch. In the past they’ve worked on custom designs for existing popular games, adding themselves and their peers into the game. A couple we have done are Guess Who and Top Trumps. The students I teach all have special educational needs so these types of games have been really useful tools to promote communication and interaction.

Ellie: How did you get started with the challenge in the classroom?

Stephen: The first steps in our design process was to play a range of existing games and talk about what we liked and perhaps didn’t about these games. This was interesting as students each brought a game from home and taught the other students how to play. They had a great range of mechanics and themes to explore. From all this testing they were able to pick out some key features that they wanted for their game.

Ellie: At the start, could you see how the whole process would pan out with students? Or did you take it lesson by lesson?

Stephen: I had a broad plan for the structure we were going to follow and the brief and resources from Big Potato really helped to guide the process. Additionally, I was clear that I wanted them to design a game that they could all play without support. This would nicely align with Big Potato’s three golden rules: easy to learn, quick to play and with no boring bits in between. Much of the planning had to be lesson by lesson as the direction they were heading in one session would inform where we picked things up the following week.

Ellie: How did you support students to undertake the game design and development work?

Stephen: It was important to take slow and purposeful steps towards designing the game. They worked together on a ‘mood board’ which acted as a great visual reminder of the direction they were heading. We could quickly reference back to this to check our ideas as time progressed. Much of the design and development work was done using IT. Students were more adept at using iPads rather than laptops and learnt some new digital design skills as the challenge progressed.

Ellie: I assume you had lots of failures along the way. How did learners cope with these?

Stephen: I’m not sure about failures exactly but they certainly had ideas that didn’t go anywhere and were left on the drawing board. One of these I recall involved using actual fire in a game and players working to extinguish the flames! An early but surprising challenge with some of the students was to move their thinking away from video games. Two students wanted to make a tabletop version of Fortnite. Interestingly as well I also ran the Big Inventor Challenge with another class who struggled more with the process. Sadly it’s fair to say they ended up with a ‘broken’ game that did not work exactly as they had hoped. They still had a blast throughout and enjoyed learning new things.

Ellie: What do you think the benefits of teaching game design to students are?

Stephen: One of my roles at work is Careers Leader so I am very interested in giving students opportunities to develop key transferable skills. Listening, speaking, problem solving, creativity, staying positive, aiming high, leadership and teamwork. I can’t think of a unit of work in the last few years that has touched on all these areas as effectively as the Big Inventor Challenge. What I also observed was a high level of enthusiasm and motivation amongst my students. I can only assume this is because the learning was meaningful and enjoyable. Students loved hearing and testing each other’s ideas and I think they couldn’t believe they got to play games most weeks in their lesson.

Ellie: What did entering the Big Potato Inventor Challenge involve?

Stephen: Entering was simple. I saw a post on LinkedIn shared by Jack Andrews who worked with James Vaughan to develop and deliver the Big Inventor Challenge. There was a link to a Google form to sign up and then a few weeks later further details were emailed out. Participants were invited to a few online information sessions over the summer ready to start the challenge in the Autumn term.

Ellie: What tips would you give other teachers who are considering entering this competition or embarking upon other game design projects with learners?

Stephen: Do it. If you can’t compete in the challenge due to timings then at least consider a game design project. It can fit in a range of curriculum areas such as DT, ICT, Business or even Art. My biggest tip would be to start with little to no parameters to encourage maximum creativity from your students. The game that we submitted and ultimately won the competition had a really unique name that I would never have considered in a million years. I’m proud to say that the students worked hard on ‘The Game of the Cheese’ and were very proud of themselves when they heard they had won.