Scalable Game Design for Middle School (Case Study 6)

An Engaging Way to Introduce Computing

It’s not so easy to build and design a working video game, but a well-crafted learning environment makes it possible and interesting for many students. The middle school computing curriculum in Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) uses Scalable Game Design to introduce computer programming in engaging ways and helps students develop IT skills aligned with ISTE’S National Educational Technology Standard of Creativity and Innovation.

In the very first lesson, students make their own Frogger-like game to publish on the web. Over the course of a one- to two-month module, students learn more sophisticated topics in order to create increasingly complex games and computational science applications. According to Len Scrogan, Director of Instructional Technology for BVSD, the results of the BVSD implementation include motivated students, engaged teachers, and excited parents.


Scalable Game Design uses the premise that learning is most successful when students engage in tasks that are difficult enough to be interesting but not so difficult that they become frustrating. The psychological notion of “flow” can help manage this tension. This notion suggests that students learn best when in “optimal flow”, where design challenges match design skills and anxiety is relatively low. In this stage, students are highly receptive to guided learning even if the topic appears too difficult. Scaffolding lessons this way helps students progress from simple arcade games to games that require sophisticated artificial intelligence.


AgentSheets, a scalable game design product, has been evaluated in two small studies for its effectiveness in motivating middle-school students to learn programming. In a summer elective course, 36 middle school boys and girls used AgentSheets to experiment with programming concepts and create games or animations. Interestingly, while most students expressed a desire to continue with AgentSheets, students with low-technology experience expressed a slightly stronger desire than those with high-technology experience. By the end of the course, girls and boys also expressed similar levels of desire to continue using AgentSheets. Another study using AgentCubes, a 3D simulation and programming tool developed by the creators of AgentSheets, found that all students were able to create a working 3D game in less than five hours. This study was conducted in an afterschool program that included girls, inner-city low-income students, and students in a U.S. technology hub. All students performed well in developing and troubleshooting their creations.


  • Accessible to students without prior programming experience
  • Simple enough to make a working game in three hours or less
  • Powerful enough to allow implementation of sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms
  • Works for game and computational science applications
  • Transitions to traditional programming such as Java

So far, one product on the market combines these ingredients, AgentSheets. Originally developed at the University of Colorado, AgentSheets is available as a ten day free trial at


  • For more information on AgentSheets and related resources, see AgentSheets is funded by NSF.
  • Ioannidou, A., Repenning, A. and Webb, D. (2008). Using Scalable Game Design to Promote 3D Fluency: Assessing the AgentCubes Incremental 3D End-User Development Framework. Paper resented at the 2008 IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing, Herrsching am Ammersee, Germany.
  • Repenning, A, & Ioannidou, A. (2008). Broadening participation through scalable game design. SIGCSE Bulletin (40)1, 305-309.
  • Walter, S.E., Forssell, K, Barron, B, & Martin, C. (2007). Continuing motivation for game design. CHI ‘07 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2735-2740.
  • Case Study Contributors: Alexander Repenning,, and Len Scrogan,

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Authors: Catherine Ashcraft and Stephanie Hamilton