‘Game on’ for empathy in learning

(Last Updated On: March 18, 2016)

Empathy meets technology when students consider the people they are designing outcomes for – be it a piece of writing, a technology product or a game design, writes Wayne Erb.

Antipas-photo-2Philippa Nicoll Antipas’ laptop slips just as we begin to chat via Skype and suddenly I have a strange new view of her office floor. It’s an unplanned moment, of course, but it sticks in my head as a metaphor for the conversation we delve into – around design thinking, and getting students to consider other people’s perspectives. Point being, you need to drop yourself into an empathetic way of thinking, an understanding of other people’s lives in order to make a difference on what matters to them.

Can this understanding come for students through a school-based learning experience? Philippa believes so, and our chat revolves around this and the Game Design Competition, running in Terms 1 and 2, which challenges Years 7-13 students to collaborate on games that help their target audience learn about safer road use.

Inquiry learning on steroids

Philippa works in Wellington for the Connected Learning Advisory, and has a background in secondary English teaching. Last year, she explored ‘design thinking’ during a CORE eFellowship and a stint running postgraduate course at the Mind Lab by Unitec.

‘Design thinking’ is a way of working with the curriculum that supports students to act as innovative problem finders and solvers. It’s gaining traction abroad (look up NoTosh or the Stanford

Words in action

“Game design provides language-rich learning opportunities at so many different levels,” according to Philippa. She sees students:

using instructional language to teach people how to use the game; 

writing descriptive language to pitch the game and make it sound exciting; 

learning how to receive and manage critiques of their work; and

having rich conversations in order to collaborate within their project team.


“Design thinking is problem-based learning or inquiry learning on steroids. You have to consider far more deeply for whom you are designing. It is human-centred design, and empathy is one of the core tenets of it,” explained Philippa.

“For example, designing a game about road safety is all about empathy and perspective – being able to consider people’s points of view, and how your use of the road impacts on others.”

Philippa talks about the three ‘i’s of design thinking: immersion, ideation and implementation.

Immersion: Teachers start by immersing students in thinking about and researching the topic at hand – safe road use in our example. You could use props or media to get them wondering about who uses roads, why and how. Pose broad questions, write a bug list (a list of what students think would bug different road users about their experiences). Start building that empathy.

This phase concludes with some process to filter or synthesise all that information. Students decide on the question they will focus on, such as: how can we design a game to help children aged 5-8 years learn to walk to school safely?

Ideation: Now they come up with possible solutions. This can be a blue skies approach at first, with no idea too crazy to note down. Then they figure out which of their ideas may be the most feasible, relevant and useful.

Implementation: Time to make a prototype. Even if students are planning a digital outcome, the prototype could be made with cardboard and markers. The thing is to get something ready to share with others and then collect feedback.

She adds that design thinking can help teachers plan learning with a future focus, leading to lessons in which students grapple with authentic societal problems that defy simple solutions.

“You hold on to that idea quite lightly, as it may need to change. Feedback could come from kids in class or people in the target audience,” she added. “You can then loop perhaps a couple of times through feedback and refining your ideas before putting together your final product.”

Wayne Erb is a freelance writer.

Big ideas simply told

“An entry for the Game Design Competition doesn’t have to be a fancy, high-class game to get an important idea across,” said Adrian Stephenson, senior education advisor at the NZ Transport Agency.

Recently the agency created a game to show how difficult it is to do two things at once, by challenging players to use their cellphone while playing a reaction test on a computer.

“Like any game, we had to test it with our target audience of young people. They could see how it became much more difficult once we gave them a phone.”

Check it out at

Game Design Competition 2016

nzta-gameGot the best road safety game idea? Gather your team, make it happen and win!

Organised by the NZ Transport Agency, the Game Design Competition 2016 is open to Year 7-13 students and runs through Terms 1 and 2. It provides an authentic context for students to design digital or non-digital games about road safety.

There are two categories:

Game Design Document 

Or Playable Game + Game Design Document. 

Entries are by teams of three or more. The competition website includes game design tasks linked to curriculum resources across several learning areas.

For more on the Game Design competition, see the centre pages in the latest issue of INTERFACE Magazine or go to

9 apps for creating digital games!

see page 41 of Interface Magazine 70


Categories: Article, Issue 70