As any experienced teacher knows, November and December are often months packed with activity, anticipation, and a dash of pure insanity. Then, after going home to spend time with family, we arrive back to school in January for the midwinter blues. Let’s develop a plan to beat those blues right now by looking forward to the National STEM Video Game Challenge.
The fifth cycle of the National STEM Video Game Challenge, launching in 2016, opens on March 15th, and you can begin preparing your students any time. Whether you’re teaching a full on Computer Science course, like myself; using computer science in your Art, Math, Science, or Technology class; or conducting a STEM or STEAM focused after-school program, the National STEM Video Game Challenge is a good way to motivate your students to kick it up a notch.
Now, I understand that you may have little experience with the topic of game design or perhaps you just aren’t prepared to write a curriculum on the topic over your Holiday Break. So, in the Holiday Spirit, I’ve decided to provide you, my fellow teacher, with a “quick start guide”.
Step 1: Video Game Design 101
Let’s talk about game design. Your students may have extensive experience with Game Development via various popular programming environments, but the fine art of game design focuses on the following powerful 21st century concepts, including but not limited to:
Addison Joins the League
- Designing systems
- Designing for end-users
- Creative problem-solving
These concepts are covered in more detail in the post, Designing Fun: There’s more to game design than programming. So, how do we get our students primed and ready to design a really coherent, engaging, and creative game for the National STEM Video Game Challenge? Here are some of my suggestions for class activities to get students thinking like game designers.
Addison Joins the League & the Apprenticeship Badge
Addison Joins the League, the introductory quest of Gamestar mechanic, is all about introducing students to the five elements of game design and how they work together as a system to create a satisfying and engaging end-user experience.
The Apprenticeship Badge, which can be earned in the Gamestar Mechanic workshop, provides a more in-depth study of what goes wrong in the game design process and how to solve those problems, again to improve the overall system and make better end-user experience.
Additional resources and activities.
If you’re looking for a more scaffolded class-wide cooperative learning experience, I highly recommend the materials at the Gamestar Mechanic learning guide, which provides a wealth of lesson plans and curriculum resources. There’s something here for just about everyone, so check it out.
Not able to be online every day? Add in Gamekit Beta, which is like “Gamestar Mechanic unplugged”. There you’ll find activities that focus on concepts such as the balance of luck and strategy to create fun.
Step 2: Design your entries
Gamestar Mechanic typically has a challenge open right within the workshop that includes a special STEM Challenge template or a way for students to choose an existing game from their Workshop. Now, let’s look at some ways to set your students’ STEM challenge games apart from the rest.
Serious Game design
You may or may not be aware of the growing serious games movement. “A serious game or applied game is a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment. The serious adjective is generally prepended to refer to products used by industries like defense, education, scientific exploration, health care, emergency management, city planning, engineering, religion, and politics” (Wikipedia).
Dr. Jane Mcgonigal talked at length about this in her famous 2010 TED Talk, Gaming can make a better world. Today’s kids are often highly motivated to embrace making a positive difference in all kinds of social action and public service projects.
A good way to get some great content out of your students for the STEM challenge is to get them thinking of how they can make a game that is not only fun to play but also helping the player learn something valuable and even world changing. Here are some serious games made in Gamestar Mechanic as examples:
Finally, here are some lessons from Scholastic to help you level up your students’ game content.
Details details details.
Now that your students have learned the basics about how games use goals, rules, mechanics, components, and space in a balanced way to create flow, it’s time to give them one more trick to suck players (and the judges) in. This is the part that puts the STEAM in STEM. It’s time to talk about story.
Your students have likely been focusing on building their levels up to this point. Now it’s time to visit the game and level settings screens and add some context to this adventure. The game and level intro and win messages are a great place to begin to build a unifying story. Use the game intro and win messages to set up the context of your game in terms of exposition and resolution. What is the setting? Who is your main character? What is going on? This involves the player in the story of the game and gives them a reason to care. Then, as the story unfolds, remind students to use the level intro and win messages to cue each wrinkle in the larger narrative of the game. Each level should build on the unifying theme of the story, including finishing touches, like background & soundtrack. Students should be encouraged to tell the story with the 5 Elements – Don’t lose players by telling a story in cut screens that has nothing to do with the game they’re actually playing. The space, components, mechanics, goals, and rules should fit the story or the story should fit the space, components, mechanics, goals, & rules.
To give the game an epic scope, students can include elements like
- A boss or two (Use a Boss sprite or Just beef up a sprite with the wrench tool)
- Text message blocks to help unfold the story (get these from the message box challenge)
- One or more levels that have an epic scope (aka: Multiple Screen Scrolling)
Step 3: Iteration Feedback Loop
The iteration feedback loop is a key part of the Game design process. In this case, it really helps to have a convenient way for your students to play each other’s games and provide feedback. I have my students post a copy of their game to Edmodo. You could use Google Classroom, Moodle, MyBigCampus, or whatever social / LMS space you have. Then students can go play their classmates’ games and give feedback in Game Alley. Make this an opening / warm-up activity or a closure activity each day, and each day focus on a specific aspect of the design. For example, “play a classmate’s game today and give him or her feedback on how the game space contributed to or detracted from the overall balance of the game”.
We would love to hear about your experiences. Comment below with your successes, frustrations, questions, and any great ides you would like to share. Let’s make some great games this coming spring.