The Game Design merit badge teaches planning and critical-thinking skills, while introducing Scouts to an industry that’s bigger than Hollywood.
Boy Scout leader and lifelong gamer Tom Miller of Irvine, Calif., began planning the badge as part of his Wood Badge ticket. Two years later, he was joined by Salem, Mass., resident David Radue, who runs the Salem Board Games Meetup Group.
Scouting talked with the two Eagle Scouts to learn more about the badge and how to teach it.
What are the badge requirements? Scouts begin by learning gaming terminology and analyzing various types of games they’ve played. They then pick one game, tweak its rules or objectives, and track how the changes affect players’ actions and emotional experiences. After that, they design a new game, a process that includes writing rules, creating a prototype, and play-testing. Finally, as with other career-oriented badges, they learn about jobs in the game-development industry.
The order of requirements is important. “Unlike some of the merit badges, this one really needs to be done in sequence,” Miller says. “It builds up from the first requirement.”
Can the badge be earned in a group setting? Much of the badge involves group interaction, so Scouts are encouraged to work together. “The first half works very well in group settings,” Radue says. “The project portion also works very well in group settings, but we have specifically required each Scout to make his own game. We strongly encourage Scouts to work together to test one another’s games.”
What if only one Scout in a troop wants to earn the badge? A Scout could play games with friends at school or have his family play-test his game. “You don’t necessarily have to work with other Scouts,” Radue says. “You can also [play-test a game] with just a counselor and a Scout, depending on the type of game you want to play.” Of course, normal Youth Protection standards apply. Sessions with a merit badge counselor must take place where others can view the interaction, or the Scout must have a buddy along with him.
Does someone have to be a game designer to counsel the badge? No. “While the merit badge will have a career focus, the counselors don’t need to be doing it as a career,” Miller says. “Anybody who has played games seriously would be able to be a counselor for the merit badge.”
That’s true even though Scouts must work with several types of games. “Most people who do gaming as a hobby don’t limit themselves to one genre or medium,” he says. “People who play video games will also tend to play card games and board games.”
How can an amateur gamer evaluate a Scout’s game concept? The requirements include easily measurable benchmarks Scouts have to meet. For example, they must go through at least three rounds of testing, changing one rule, mechanic, or objective each time. “We wanted to properly arm the counselors so that even counselors who are amateur board-game players would have the right kind of tools to effectively teach the merit badge,” Radue says.
How elaborate should a Scout make the game he creates? How much time should he devote to it? Radue field-tested the board game, card game, and party game options with a group of Scouts who met during a three-week period. He found that they spent a little over eight hours each. “Somewhere between six and 10 hours for the project is very doable,” he says. “Everyone could complete a project in that timeframe.”
Miller worked with Scouts to create role-playing games and electronic games. They spent roughly the same amount of time but could have spent much more. “You almost need to have the kids pull back to what would be closer to a playable, minimal game,” he says. “It needs to have the functionality, but doesn’t necessarily need to look good. They can always continue to improve their game after the merit badge is completed.”
What technical skills do Scouts need to create electronic games? Almost none. Free programs such as GameMaker: Studio and GameSalad Creator let anyone develop games. “You don’t have to know programming,” Miller says. “That’s the key thing.”
Does this badge work better with older Scouts? Not necessarily. “We had some 12-year-olds in the class, and the software was accessible to them,” Miller says. “One of the parents brought in a commercially published board game she had seen that was designed by a 9-year-old. Age really isn’t a barrier.”
Where can Scout leaders find resources to teach the badge? The first resource is the merit badge pamphlet. “It’s robust enough that a counselor could teach himself the terminology and then teach Scouts, even without a background in game design,” Radue says.
Your Scouts may know of other resources. “There are lots of classes and clubs at the high-school and college level for video game design,” Miller says.
Does the badge teach skills that are useful beyond the world of game design? “There’s a lot of scientific process in coming up with the rules, predicting what’s going to happen, playing the game, and looking at the outcome to see if it matches the prediction,” Radue says. “The critical-thinking skills are useful. The social-interaction skills are useful. We feel like the skill set is broadly applicable.”
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