Games Development the ideal cross-curricular topic

I spent over 10 years as a software engineer in industry, working mainly on database systems and in that time I never once used Physics and very rarely used Maths. However when I started teaching Games Development around 7 years ago, I finally started to use both Maths and Physics and it quickly dawned on me that Games Development would be an ideal way to engage students in Maths & Physics.

Around 3 years ago (2010-2011) Curriculum for Excellence came into schools in Scotland and was implemented in Primary Schools first. Part of curriculum for excellence was to contextualise subjects to make links between subject areas in order to make the learning relevant and meaningful for students. Teachers started developing cross-curricular topics in Primary Schools and were fairly successful at implementing these.

“Curriculum for Excellence encourages teachers to use their professional expertise and creativity to show how subjects can be linked, just as they are in life and work.” ( 2011)

High Schools only properly started implementing Curriculum for Excellence in the last academic year (2012-2013) and I think it would be fair to say that they found it harder to find cross-curricular topics to make this work in High School.

This leads me back to Games Development, which I believe is the ideal cross-curricular topic to engage learners in traditional subjects like Maths, Physics, English, Music and Art, as well as ICT. These are subjects in which males in particular, have been disengaging in recent years.

In recent years Valve, a major games company, have been trying to get involved in education. They said,

“It’s eye-opening to see how video games can be used in amazing and unexpected ways to help educate our next generation”

In 2011 Valve made their popular puzzle game Portal free as they wanted teachers to play it and understand how much potential it has in educating young students, in subjects like Physics. Valve are quoted as saying,

“Using interactive tools like the Portal series to draw them in makes physics, maths, logic, spatial reasoning, probability, and problem-solving interesting, cool, and fun which gets us one step closer to our goal—engaged, thoughtful kids.”

( 2011).

In 2011 NESTA collaborated with industry luminaries Alex Hope and Ian Livingstone to publish Next Gen – a widely-applauded government advice paper on how to improve the teaching of computer science in English Schools.

The report came up with some interesting recommendations:

  • Use video games and visual effects at school to draw greater numbers of young people into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and computer science.
  • Include art and computer science in the English Baccalaureate.
  • Encourage art-tech crossover and work-based learning through school clubs.
  • Introduce a new National Video Games Development and Animation Schools Competition.

In February 2013, Michael Gove adopted one of the main recommendations of the report by announcing that Computer Science was going to become part of the English Baccalaureate.

Learning and Teaching Scotland (now Education Scotland) started a game based learning initiative in 2006 called “The Consolarium” which focused on game based learning,

“The vibrant and dynamic world of the computer game and its impacts on learning and teaching is an area that Learning and Teaching Scotland is committed to exploring, promoting and developing.” ( 2011)

The Consolarium also looked at Game Design as well as game based learning,

“Game Design is a creative medium. It challenges pupils to analyse problems, structure solutions and continuously evaluate their progress. There are many game design tools available for use in schools and at home. It can be used in a number of different ways in our curriculum – not just within computing clasrooms.”

( 2011)

With all this supporting evidence, I believe that Secondary Schools should use Games development as an integrated learning context to support Curriculum for Excellence. Games development is an ideal topic for the “Joyning the learning” approach that is an integral part of Curriculum for Excellence. Games development involves Computer Programming, Physics, Maths, English, Music and Art. Many would consider that Games Development is 90% programming and although programming is a vital part of it, there are so many other curricular areas involved.

Girls are currently outperforming boys, at most levels and in most subjects (even traditionally male subjects). This should help re-address this issue; however it should not disenfranchise female learners, as more and more females are getting involved in gaming. Indeed it should actually help address the issue of the lack of females choosing Computer Science as a subject in secondary school, when they choose subjects to study in the senior phase. This is reflected by the lack of females working in the computing industry and in particular within the games industry.

A Level Entry by Subject
A Level Entry by Subject

Adding further encouragement to using Games Development as a cross-curricular topic is the fact that from the early level through to the fourth level, curriculum for excellence lists Games Development as an experience and outcome that all students are meant to experience.

CFE Experiences and Outcomes for Games Dev
CFE Experiences and Outcomes for Games Dev

How do the various subject areas fit into Games Development?

I will now examine how different subject areas tie in with Games Development as a cross-curricular topic.

Computer Programming

Programming is still central to games development and a topic that has been losing interest in secondary schools until recently; however you can teach the same programming skills that you would learn making a Business application by making a computer game or mobile phone app. If anything games programming is slightly more difficult as it encompasses things like Physics and Maths.  Programming is a vital 21st century skill and a skill that is in high demand by industry. There are currently more jobs available in programming, than there are graduates to fill those positions. Games programming is the ideal way to get young learners interested in programming.


Physics is central to games, the Holy Grail in games is to make the game experience as realistic as possible and this is achieved by making games look and feel as real as possible. A major part of this is applying real world physics into the games. Things like Newton’s laws of motion, projectile physics and aerodynamics can all be applied in games.

Physics in Angry Birds
Physics in Angry Birds


English isn’t a subject you would normally associate with computer games, however more and more authors are getting involved in writing the storylines for games. Some of the big games have better production values and better writing in them, than some Hollywood movies. The biggest computer games make far more money than any Hollywood blockbuster. Students involved in essay writing, could write the storyline for a game, that they will then go onto make in computing. The story may even be displayed in the game or incorporated visually. 


More and more games companies are employing people to work in specific areas, such as art direction, 3D animation, 2D animation etc. Art and in particular 2D and 3D graphics are vital to any game. Learners could be set tasks to produce art work, that would then be incorporated into a game. The art doesn’t necessarily have to be electronic, as the art could be scanned into an electronic format to be included in a game. Something my students did very successfully recently, when producing games for this years HNC graded unit projects in my college. Where they scanned in art work created by local Primary School children and incorporated the art into their games.


In a similar vein to Art, Music and Sound Effects are specific job roles in computer games development. Games need original music and sound effects to make the game a fully immersive experience. Again students could be set projects to produce sound effects or original music scores that could be incoporated into a game.


Maths is one of the main skills that games companies look for from potential employees. Maths is involved at so many levels in games development. A simple example of this is the use of trigonometry in games to work out the direction a vehicle is moving in. Learners could be set problems to solve that could then be directly implemented in a computer game.

Trigonometry in Games
Trigonometry in Games


To support all these subject areas would require a whole range of ICT skills, such as Word Processing, Photoshop, Music Applications, Sound Editing Software, 2D/3D animation packages and so on.


Enterprise is an area in secondary education that is becoming more and more popular and games development is an ideal topic for this. It includes core skills central to Enterprise, such as communication skills, problem solving skills and team work where you can develop a game in a group by assigning different roles and therefore takes advantage of the different skills sets the learners possess. In 2012 Paisley Grammar pupils came into Reid Kerr College for advice as part of an Enterprise project where they were attempting to develop an iPhone App; we were able to help them by producing a PC prototype of their game.


Two main problems exist in making this happen, one is a lack of programming skills amongst secondary school computing teachers, who for years have been primarily teaching Microsoft Office. The other problem is getting different departments and indeed teachers within those departments to work together to make this happen across subject areas.

The Scottish government have just announced £400,000 over 2 years to CAS (Computing at Schools) Scotland for CPD training of computing teachers ( 2013). Hopefully this money will be used effectively to help computing teachers, throughout Scotland, to update their skills, particularly in the area of computer programming.

In regards to the second problem, it will require management within secondary schools to recognise the value of Games Development as a cross-curricular topic and then show strong leadership to implement it by getting departments to work together.