The Alleynian Review: Encouraging Sport Participation Through Game Design

Junior School PE teacher, Vivian Rodrigues, explains the role game design plays in developing student agency and the connection between physical experiences and self-esteem.

Setting the Stage: Early stumbling blocks to life-long participation

When we play games, very often the game player is not a part of the invention or the construction of the game. Players remain passive and are asked to perform at a certain level or expectation. Rarely they are involved in the developing of ideas or strategies, which is commonly the role of the teacher or coach. The players are simply taught the rules, described roles, and shown areas of responsibility. They are often not allowed an individualised approach in lessons. This one-size-fits-all approach is applied at many levels of sport, and unfortunately within the physical education classroom.

Research suggests that the greatest impact and learning benefit of games is felt when the player is involved in its design and construction. Therein lies the very definition of student agency. It also suggests that it’s a concrete way to motivate a life-long participation in sports and games thereafter.

Games are considered a major learning tool, not just in physical education. There is evidence of their benefits horizontally through various subjects and age groups, and also vertically in lesson planning (Rovengo & Bandhauer, 1994). Most results suggest that games bring a renewed interest in a subject and enhanced participation in lessons.

Games, especially in physical education, encourage active engagement as time and space is given to students to explore the components of game play, skills, and strategy at their own pace with a personalised starting point. In supportive environments such as these most, if not all, students start to find multiple opportunities to learn cooperatively and to proactively solve problems in groups and social situations. When given the opportunity to think critically from their own experiences of playing games and sports, students start to reflect and construct deeper meanings as to their own failures or successes. What it means if they do indeed fail. What it takes to succeed and further improve.

The key to all this, of course, is the game design lesson/s where students would follow a sequence of scaffolding events; 1) the crafting stage, 2) the testing stage, and 3) the refining stage. When the game has gone through the sequence (sometimes having to go back a stage or two for reconsideration and review), it will be presented, explained and demonstrated before being played and then evaluated by others.

The Crafting Stage

In the crafting stage students begin to develop their game in an autonomous environment. To start the design process, shareable artifacts or objects are presented to the students to jump start invention and reflection. Objects such as a ball, rubber spot or a disc marker are examples of the pieces of equipment that students may use to construct connections between an old game and a new game, a new approach to an old game, or revise between old and new knowledge (Papert, 1993). Together with the teacher as a facilitator, students will then use past experiences to create and build a game and its associative parameters in order to move a game into trial stage. A large inventory of equipment helps inspire ingenuity and originality, but a more limited one develops creativeness, inventiveness and resourcefulness. The provision of these ‘objects-to-think-with’ will therefore depend on the main lesson objective and the sportsmanship and sports for life characteristics the teacher is planning to develop and enhance.

The Testing Stage

In the following stage, students will start to work in groups to springboard off these objects to conceptualise, invent and test a game. They will present their ideas, trial the games and gain feedback from their peers as to what makes a game interesting or challenging. There should be a balance between the intensity of the task and the active engagement during the game. Should either of these lean to one side, one of two things may happen: 1) Students involved in game design will realise that the more athletic will feel disenchanted quickly if there is no avenue to showcase their talents and improve on their ability to perform. Or, 2) on the other end of the spectrum, students who are challenged at classroom level to physically perform will find themselves further disinterested in participation as it is no different from previous physical education classes. Inventiveness, thoughtfulness and forward planning skills become paramount. Such traits are beneficial in any learning environment but within sport- specific objectives, they give rise to thinking out of the box, achieving sports goals and self-satisfaction. Students will start associating those feelings of achievement with being physically active. 

The Refining Stage

In the final stage, students learn to ascertain levels of engagement, levels of entry, and the emotional quality and intensity of their peers’ active involvement in the activity, which is paramount to a successful design (Kendrick, 1997). Students trialling games will eventually start to understand how to pitch a game and consciously design parameters that include broad challenges whilst considering qualitatively different contests, as well as an affirmative emergent structure possibly providing more concrete feedback and a clearer performance criterion.

Another benefit of the trial and error stage is that students will start to dynamically appreciate that they can isolate parts of the game from various stimuli and either decrease or increase challenges to match skill. Unpacking of smaller components of the game and building it based on matching skill levels help with understanding how a distinctive level of success may be achieved. Questioning elements and encouraging further refinement at this stage determines the way the game develops and how small rule changes might produce a more meaningful outcome. Intervening at specific points is designed to guide the students towards constructive self-critique and allows modification upon reflection. In this way, students start to appreciate the intricacies of game design and game play. They develop a completely different lens to viewing participation by discovering there is more than meets the eye in game play, and will recognise areas in which they might influence a positive outcome through essential self-assessment in a sports for life culture. They will be less averse to risk taking and will view many different types of sports and their participation in a new way.

The Ultimate Objective

Involving students in game design puts them in control of developing their own definition of motor competence and attainment. Students will be able to self-select skill sets according to what they deem important or desirable to increase the likelihood of success and achievement. Peer insight and empowered jurisdiction over modification of such games and making them more developmentally appropriate is an extremely good way of getting everyone involved. More to the point, it is because everyone had begun at a ‘common’ level, where no one was favored by past skills or experience in such original, freshly designed peer games, so students have sufficient control as to what interested them and what was too difficult. This levelling out made most student-designed games more achievable and snowballed into higher levels of participation at a more horizontal level. The more positive a practice, the greater the affirmative completion of each level, and the mastery of that skill. Students will also design a game that is within their reach and so pitch it in a friendlier manner. Simply, students from a particular year group will be in the best position to understand what their peers can or cannot do, and what they like or do not like, better than anyone (Hastie, 2010).

As a result, understanding game design and following through with games of their own allows mass appropriation of all levels and abilities. It is a prime example of inclusivity through student agency. As physical educators and advocates of life-long participation in sports and games, we see that an understanding of game design will achieve this in one fell swoop. Emotionally and cognitively, delivering such an opportunity in a multitude of game settings will provide students a sporting foundation with strong connections to concepts of considered effort and ownership for their physical learning. Applied vertically, previously disillusioned students find greater enjoyment in their own designed games and therefore greater levels of physical participation and interest.

On a much deeper level, students involved in game design come to more complete insights as to what makes a great game, what constitutes skill development, that some effective games can be about inclusion rather than elimination, and how success can be achieved by all as long as the attainment of skill and strategy is well thought out. These are insights that they would have never stumbled on if they were only involved in the superficial and, to an extent, mechanical playing of a game during a standard lesson. Perspectives as to what constitutes a good game now not only involve context and structure, but the refining of experience of the players in the game. Positive active experiences when facilitated through thoughtfully constructed student-designed games will help increase motivation, confidence and a life-long participation in sports and games (Gruber, 1996).

The key to consistent long-term participation in sports and games is this positive association and the correlation between inclusive physical experiences and self-esteem. By enabling involvement in a cooperative, creative and autonomy-supportive environment, students will start to learn on their own that there is more to achievement than the score at the end of the match. Multiple exposures will ingrain a mindset that anything is in their power to change a journey and its results. Through thoughtful and structured student agency, they will start to self-actualise inspired performances and enact highly engaged participation in sport and games that will undeniably endure.



Gruber, J. (1996). Physical activity and self-esteem development in children. In G.A. Stull and H.M Eckhert (ed.). The Academy papers, Champaign, IL. Human Kinetics.

Hastie, P. (2010). Student-Designed Games; Strategies for Promoting Creativity, Cooperation and Skill Development. USA: Human Kinetics.

Kendrick, C. (1997). Designers guide to multiplayer quake game player. USA.

Papert, S. (1993). The children's machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books.

Rovengo, I., & Bandhauer, D. (1994). Child-designed games: Experience changes teachers' conceptions. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance.