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My Child Wants to Design Video Games Part Three: Develop a Portfolio

A unanimous sentiment of our the co-authors is “The biggest, most important piece of advise I can give anyone interested in making games for a living is to start making games now.” A college degree is important, but that degree has to accompanied by a portfolio to the interview question: What games have you worked on that have shipped?

Nothing will educate you better than actually making games, and those games are often what differentiates candidates during interviews. The best way to gain skills is by doing – go ahead and develop games, whether they are board games, digital games, iPad apps, no matter. Your portfolio will open more doors for you than any “training program”. The game design employers always ask about what potential employees are researching/doing in their spare time. Passion for game development is key.

There’s simply no substitute for actually designing games, which means playing a lot and then just trying to do it.  A portfolio accompanies you to college admissions interviews, job interviews, and business plan presentations for investors in your video game business.  It should be divided into three parts: 1) what would you build with unlimited funds, 2) mods (modifications of current games on the market),  and 3) what have you worked on that has shipped (been completed).

Read The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses by Jesse Schell, work your way through Challenges for Game Designers  by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber. Both books will familiarize your child with mechanics and help develop a porfolio.

Heidi McDonald, one of this blog’s co-authors wrote, “Instead of a thank-you note after the interview, I sent a portfolio that included: a sample quest for my favorite game, with dialogue trees; a sample mini-game for one of the company’s titles (including flow-charts and content); and a companion deck I’d written, for fun, for a card deck that my family enjoys. Look for ways your portfolio demonstrates the game design skills of collaboration, production, creativity, handling deadlines, programming, graphic design, music, and purpose.

Collaboration Skills

The ability to work in groups and to constructively listen to and apply criticism are necessary to work in a competitive field filled with extremely talented people who have taken years to hone their craft. Where do they learn to collaborate?

Teachers, parents, or a motivated student can provide the structure of a video game design club.  I am reminded of the Homebrew Computer Club featured in the movie Pirates of Silicon Valley and the book Fire in the Valley: The Making of The Personal Computer.  It was not merely the club where Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs began to develop the first personal computers. Another notable alumnus was Jerry Lawson, creator of the first cartridge-based video game system.

My son, at eleven, learned how to play Dungeons and Dragons.  He grew enamored and started his own game, writing the campaign, inviting friends who had never played, developing characters, organizing schedules, and eventually coming up with a core group that plays every week.  In a conversation with him, I asked what it would take to move the group toward becoming a video game design group.  He is just beginning to learn programming and did one class in Multimedia Fusion 2.  He equated video game designer as somehow who can single handedly produce Skyrim and felt his graphic design and programming skills are woefully inadequate to be a game designer. It takes a Zulama class to teach him to think in terms of play and games, to see his D&D campaign development as game design, and to desire to slowly build components collaboratively with others with something just one step more sophisticated. It takes a video game contest to put him and his friends on a deadline to actually produce something besides ideas.

Parents looking to start a video game design group in the school, with access to computer labs and facilities, may want to consult the Grow a Generation handbook When Being A Homeroom Parent is Not Enough: Opportunity Proposals from Parents to Schools. The handbook is for parents seeking to approach their schools and start a after school program (like a video game design club). The pages walk you through possible projects, help you identify resources of your child’s school, outline safe environment concerns, provide tools to help you recruit other children and their parents, consider funding options, seek coach’s training and trained mentors, prevent meeting space problems, provide ideas for team building and conflict resolution, inspire success on competition day, consider liability and photographic legal release paperwork, format evaluations and end of year reports, and cultivate the skills of innovation, critical thinking, collaboration, emotional intelligence, resilience, leadership, and vision in the young people in your life.

Production Skills

Encourage kids to make games, to program games, to create game art, to write game storylines and character sketches, and then share them with their friends and get feedback. The only good video games are the ones that are fun to play. Impress this more than anything. Games HAVE to be fun. The rest is just window dressing.

Playing games with your kids is an important part of helping them develop this sense. Some questions to ask as you play:

  • Can you summarize and plan out the game plots, level designs, character back stories, story arcs, etc?
  • What would you do differently if you were going to re-make this game so it is more fun, better looking, etc?
  • Why is that character doing that?
  • What is the goal of this level? Does that make sense?
  • Why do you like playing this game so much? Why is it better/worse than that game?
  • Write a game reviews (like a film review) of the games they play. You can follow submission guidelines in online and print kids magazines to submit them.
  • Do the games they play have rich back stories and historical context?
  • How does what they are playing relates to what they are learning in school?
  • What are the math, physics and engine mechanics with the video game? For example, Is that the way a ball would really bounce? In space? On Mars?

Encourage your child to read everything. I would encourage you to explore your local library. Many have books available on the history and industry of video game design. Others have subscriptions to gaming magazines.  You may want to consider subscribing to the following blogs for your high school student: Kotaku, GamaSutra, GameSpy, and IGN so that they can stay up on all the latest industry news.

Creativity Practice

Suggest they begin to build the game they would make if they had unlimited talent and resources.  Have them write down your set of ideas, draw them, make paper prototypes of them. Nothing shows your creativity and passion more than that.  Keep the files and any concept drawings in a file or drawer (including backups!).

Heidi McDonald, a game designer at Schell Games, said, “I was told later that my answer to the interview question, “If you had unlimited funds, what game would you make?” was part of what got me in. I could have gone on for half an hour with the list I already had in my head and on paper.

Demonstrating Perseverance

Colleges and employers want to see demonstrated ability to cope with deadlines and complete work. This can be shown through competition entries and Mods. Competitions that are available include:

  • The STEM Challenge has middle school, high school and collegiate categories. Games can be made with Gamestar Mechanic, Gamemaker, Kodu, Scratch, Open Platforms, and PBS KIDS Stream.  Even professional educators can enter their own designs.
  • MassDIGI Game Challenge gives students a chance to pitch ideas for games and receive mentorship for industry professionals. The 2011 Best Prototype winner was a junior in high school and he will get professional help and mentorship to build his game.
  • Microsoft’s Kudo Cup with two categories for 9–12 and 13–17.
  • The Jennifer Ann Game Design Challenge for anyone over 13.
  • The Future Game Designer Challenge has a category just for girls and women game designers, along with middle school, high school and collegiate categories.
  • The CS2N competition is unique because it asks participants to provide peer review of their competitors. It uses the free downloadable CMU software Programming with Alice.  Alice is also popular with various local design competitions, for example Maryland’s MESA Day  and Mercer University.
  • Science Fair Entries. Eleven year old Hannah Wyman was featured at the White House Science Fair. She won the grand prize in her age group (age 9-12) for her video game, “Toxic,” in Microsoft’s first-ever U.S. Kodu Cup. In Hannah’s game, which is now available for free on the Kodu Game Lab site, a player must solve puzzles and collect coins in order to remove soot from trees, zap pollution clouds to clean the air, and convince friends to plant more trees, all in an effort to save the environment.

Mods are modifications to games (generally PC Games).  The two recent ones suggested by several co-authors were the Neverwinter Nights 2 Toolset and the Dragon Age Toolset (look in the games map editor). These are programs that allow people to make their own playable content to go along with those games. As these programs are now a few years old, there are tons of online tutorials about how to use them. Heidi McDonald shared, “I learned modding from Neverwinter Nights 2 and it was the single most educational thing I did to help me learn how to design a game. It was this understanding that got me in the door over here. BioWare, a major company, will not even look at your resume unless you also submit a mod (playable content package) from the Neverwinter Nights 2 toolset.”  Mods Phil Light, cofounder of Electric Owl Studios shared that Mods “are probably the best stepping stone for someone who wants to work in video games. Finished (or not!) mods are so valuable, in fact, that they should be included on a resume when someone applies for a job. They’re a huge leg up on competition.”

Programming Skills

Have your child or video club experiment with each platform and decide on one to compete with. Each has their strength and weaknesses.  Invite your child to look for the tool that will best help them bring their own creative ideas to life.

Graphic Design Skills

Draw, draw, draw and draw some more.  Have your son/daughter pick up digital art (Photoshop, Paint, Maya) as early as possible. Get them a digital tablet (about $50 or less) to work with the art programs on their computers.


Connect a music person to your video game club and ask them for epic sounding soundtracks!


Games with a Purpose (Gwaps) includes using the online gaming community to solve large-scale computational problems (for example labeling random images using the ESP game),  advertisers to pay for mind numbing time wasters and raise funds for, or a baseball game widget that funds cancer research. Ask your child to consider designing a game with a purpose for a senior project, eagle scout project, or gold award project.

Grow a Generation is looking for handbooks on these topics, whether a step by step guide to developing a video game design portfolio or a Project Guide for developing a video game as a senior or scouting project. View the submission guidelines and let me know if you would like to help write!

Go To:

Part One:  Are there jobs out there?

Part Two: What type of training or classes should they take?



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  1. thank you for the info, it really helps.

  2. I love your post, great blog
    Bonita Porter

  3. There are also summer programs out there that can give children the opportunity to get their feet wet and take classes in video game design and development. I have personally been a part of the iD Gaming Academy, and have been very impressed!

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