Gamestar Mechanic Teacher Blog

STEM Video Game Challenge: A Quick Start Guide

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Posted Nov. 25, 2015

CategoryChallenges and Contests, Events

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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.

Gamekit Beta

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”.

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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.

DFTBA

 

Designing Fun: There’s more to game design than programming

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Posted Apr. 17, 2014

CategoryGaming Education

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This is not fun…

Your students are programming ninjas. They’ve spent the last nine weeks iterating, code tweaking, and testing their programs. Having them design games turned out to be a great move. Not only have your students been engaged, but they’ve also been applying and comfortably discussing core computational concepts, such as sequences, loops, parallelism, conditionals, and operators. The time has come for beta testing. As you and your students view and play the final products, something feels wrong… Yes, they exemplify mastery of core computational concepts. Some of them are even pretty darn awesome looking. The problem is, they’re not fun to play. What went wrong?

The reason games are wildly successful is their engagement factor. A big part of game design is the study of the concepts behind the basic elements of a game, and how the balance of ease and challenge in games creates fun, engaging experiences for the end-user. Games are made for other people to play. If other people don’t enjoy a game, it isn’t designed well. When you make a game for someone else, you have to balance it, consider the elements that make up the game as a system, and how the experience will affect the user (the player). In other words, games are a complex system designed around creating an intuitive, immersive, and satisfying user experience. To be successful as a game designer, you must approach this complex system holistically. Skill and drill coding exercises and practice will not help here. Students need a solid perspective on systems to design great games and any great interactive experience. This is as important to STE[a]M as the ability to write solid code.

Designing Fun

Balance & FlowWhat makes a game fun? What gives a game its addictive qualities? Great games induce a cognitive flow state in players. A game is actually just a complex system, made up of various elements that work together to produce a satisfying experience. Cognitive flow is created when all of the game’s elements are working together in perfect harmony to create the ideal balance of ease and challenge. As an educator, you may be familiar with the ZPD, or Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. This is the same idea. “A game is balanced when it is easy to play, but difficult to win” (Gamestar Mechanic learning guide).

So, how do we teach students how to design fun and engaging experiences? When I started my first game design project, I gave students three blocks-based programming tools, a video on cognitive flow, and an article on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. This did not work. You’re surprised, right? Seriously, feel free to make fun of me.

One of my students actually asked me during my first run of this project if he could use a tool he found, called Gamestar Mechanic. I said, “Sure.” I immediately Googled Gamestar Mechanic myself and made a teacher account. I was immediately stoked to find that Gamestar teaches flow! It approaches this problem by teaching students about the systemic nature of games and how to use the elements of the game to bring balance. Further, it does all of this with game-based lessons wrapped in a gamified narrative scaffold. Students begin by completing the quest, Addison Joins the League, which introduces them to three important concepts in end-user experience: systems thinking, user-centered design, and the iteration feedback loop. By the time students have finished, they’ve balanced multiple games in repair missions and have designed and published their own game in a space where they can get feedback from fellow designers.

 

STE[a]M, fun, and the future.

In the grand scheme of things, making an experience engaging (fun) may not seem as important as teaching students to code, understand programming logic, or build a working circuit. The companies and designers who are most successful–whose devices are in our pocket right now–are not successful because they build utilitarian functional items. They’re successful because they make stuff that’s fun to use. They design end-user experiences that are intuitive, immersive, and satisfying. Learning to design fun engaging experiences, whether in games or otherwise is a pathway to career success in multiple fields.

This is something that I want for my students. I want to prepare them to thrive, rather than survive. I want them to know how to innovate. I want them designing the next game, device, tool that I didn’t even know I needed or wanted but that I just can’t live without. I need to empower my students to be entrepreneurs, industry leaders, and sought-after creative consultants.  That’s a 21st Century skill, and that’s what STE[a]M in education is all about.

qCraft Curriculum

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Posted Jan. 06, 2014

CategoryGaming Community, Gaming Education

Recently I wrote a post on the exciting new mod for Minecraft, qCraft! The curriculum that accompanies the mod is now released and freely available here. It includes three 60-minute lessons on the basics of quantum physics appropriate for middle and high school students. Learn more about our development and testing of the qCraft curriculum in this interview by GamesAndLearning.org. If you bring quantum physics into your classroom with qCraft and its curriculum, let us know at educators at qcraft dot org.

Want to be in a case study on games?

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Posted Dec. 16, 2013

CategoryGames Research

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Hi Gamestar Mechanic NYC Educators!

Our friends at BrainPOP are involved in a cool research study funded by Gates on how teachers are using digital games for formative assessment. Part of the research involves creating some case studies, and they’re looking for local NYC-area teachers to participate.

Here’s the criteria to participate:

  • Teach grades 5-8 in NYC or the immediate area around NYC.
  • Teach in the content areas of social studies/history, ELA, math or science.
  • Able to use a selected game from BrainPOP’s GameUp as part of your regular curriculum in Winter/Spring 2014.
  • Be willing to participate in a PD session related to GameUp in late January, 2014.
  • Allow researchers to visit your classroom to observe use of the game, and participate in a debriefing interview about your experience with the game.

All teachers who participate in the case studies will receive:

  • Premium access to the BrainPOP web site.
  • A $250 expense allowance for your participation in the professional development.

If you are interested, you can read more here:  http://create.nyu.edu/agames and then you should complete this application: http://create.nyu.edu/application

It’s a pretty cool opportunity!

What the quantum?

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Posted Nov. 22, 2013

CategoryGaming Community, Partner Highlight

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Here at E-Line Media we’ve been working hard on a new, exciting project: teaching principles of quantum mechanics to kids through Minecraft. When I say this in conversation, I get reactions ranging from skeptical to shocked. Learning quantum mechanics is usually not in a kid’s normal curriculum, and Minecraft does not model much classical physics, not to mention quantum physics. But the truth is, understanding quantum physics will become more and more important through upcoming years and decades. Scientists are harnessing quantum principles to explore radical new technologies and concepts, including some that are already being built, like quantum computers. Joel Levin (MinecraftTeachr, TeacherGaming) says in this post:

By the time our 7-year-olds finish grad school, quantum computers may be commonplace.  A fundamental shift is on the horizon.  Some of the hardest problems in medicine, aerospace, statistics, and more will be tackled by machines using qubits instead of bits.  And it is the kids of today who will research, build, and utilize this revolutionary new class of hardware.  And to be perfectly frank, too few children are exposed to these sciences or are encouraged to pursue them as a career path.

That’s why we teamed up with TeacherGaming (the folks behind MinecraftEdu), quantum specialists at the California Institute of Technology, and our friends at Google to make qCraft, a mod of Minecraft that exposes basic principles in quantum mechanics. This mod includes blocks that have different properties depending on where you observe them, blocks that exist in superposition (multiple states at once) until you observe them, and the ability to entangle blocks so that observing one will also affect its entangled partners. These features are not meant to give a rigorous, in-depth look at the math and physics behind quantum mechanics. Instead they are a gateway for kids to play with and create worlds where the weirdness that happens on the quantum scale is manipulatable at an observable scale.

If you have students who play with and design systems in Gamestar Mechanic, or are builders and creators in Minecraft, the qCraft mod will let them use their game design and building skills to explore a new and fascinating area of science. Check out the qCraft sitewiki, and blog to learn more about the mod. In a few weeks, we’ll also be releasing a classroom curriculum featuring a teacher guide and MinecraftEdu maps to provide teachers with resources for using the mod with students. Stay tuned for more info on the curriculum and if you’re interested in helping us to beta test it by providing some early feedback, please let us know via email at educators at qcraft dot org.

Game Designer Guest Speaker

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Posted Oct. 10, 2013

CategoryGaming Community, Guest Post

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One of our game designers here at E-Line Media, Mike Wikan, had a unique opportunity recently. He visited a middle school class in St. Gabriel’s Catholic School in Austin, TX where he spent time with the students talking about what it means to be a professional game designer. Here’s Mike’s recap of his visit:

I got to spend some time with the wonderful Technology Class at St. Gabriel’s Catholic School in Austin the other day! They let me take up an hour regaling them with stories about game development, what skills I use, and my opinions on the importance of story in development, as well as answering their myriad questions! For example, one of the kids asked “When you are making a game, what is the process for getting Art into the game?”

I described the process of bringing a character into a game: First the designer describes the sort of creature he wants to make and creates a written design describing its properties!  It’s important to give enough detail for the artists, but not so much detail that the artists don’t have room to add their own ideas.  It then passes to the concept artist, who creates drawings to show what the creature might look like.  After we get it looking right, it passes to the modeler, who then creates a 3D mesh of the character and adds all the texture maps that give it color and the right look.

Usually at this point the modeler adds a “skeleton” to the model so it can be made to move.  It then passes to an animator who adds all the animations so it can be made to move around and perform in the ways the designer specified at the beginning. Lastly, it goes to the programmer, who adds all the computer code to make it move around in the world and perform its behavior. It takes a lot of talented people working together to make anything from scratch in a game. It’s important to leave enough room for everyone to add their own special creativity to everything they work on!

It was very enjoyable talking with them and their teacher followed up with a note that the talk seemed to have really inspired them and she has had a substantial increase in interest in the subject from her students. It was lots of fun and I highly encourage other game professionals to take the time to work little trips like this into their schedules!

 

 

Gamestar Girl Reflects on Experience

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Posted Oct. 03, 2013

CategoryGames by Kids, Gaming Community, Guest Post

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One of the best things about working on a game for kids, is finding out how kids play the game. We talked with mustelidae, a Gamestar player who has been a strong part of our community for years. She’s a high school student and an aspiring game designer.

How did you get into Gamestar? 

           It began one night when I was nine years old. I remember that night clearly – my dad was driving me somewhere and it was raining hard. I don’t know what put the idea into my head, but as we were driving I decided that I wanted to make a video game.

           After that night, I embarked on an endless quest to find the means to make my dream come true. It wasn’t until several years later that I discovered Gamestar Mechanic through the STEM challenge. There’s something special about Gamestar Mechanic that I’ve always loved. Even though there are more powerful tools out there, the way that Gamestar Mechanic allows me to create in a very concrete, intuitive way is something that I haven’t found anywhere else.        

What do you like about being part of the community? 

           I really like being able to have other users review my games. It’s always interesting to see the opinions of people who don’t know me personally. I’ve found that their opinions are usually very honest and unbiased. These reviews have definitely helped me improve my game-design skills.  

           I also like seeing others’ games. I often get inspired after playing games by other users. Playing games can also broaden my perspective on what’s possible. Sometimes I get stuck within the confines of my usual game design patterns, but playing other users’ games can help me formulate new ideas.

Has Gamestar influenced any of your goals? 

           Gamestar Mechanic has definitely encouraged me to become a game designer. It was always a dream of mine, but it wasn’t until I found Gamestar Mechanic that I was able to actually try my hand at it. I found that I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would. Being able to participate in contests through Gamestar Mechanic has been great and has probably influenced my goals as well.

What would you change about Gamestar?

           There’s not a lot about Gamestar Mechanic that I would change. It’s a really great tool as is.

           However, I would love to have the ability to duplicate levels. My sister and I have both spent hours trying to create exact duplicates of environments that we wanted to use for several levels.

          I would also love to see some more features for creating quest or adventure games. Gamestar Mechanic has pretty much all of the action features that you could wish for, but it would be cool to see some more adventure features. Some of Gamestar’s newer sprites, such as the checkpoint and the backpack, work well for adventure games. I would love to see Gamestar Mechanic release more sprites and features along these lines. It would also be really cool if there was a feature that allowed users to incorporate some simple logic into their games. This would open up all sorts of possibilities for more complex games and stories.

Thanks so much, mustelidae, for sharing your feedback and experience!

Toon Academy: Minecraft

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Posted Oct. 01, 2013

CategoryChallenges and Contests, Partner Highlight

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Looking for something super fun to do with your students this month? Look no further. Our partner MinecraftEdu has teamed up with Toontastic  on a contest for kids to show what they are learning by playing Minecraft starting October 7th. There’s even created a Common Core-aligned Mission Plan and a Launchpad Toytivity to help teachers and parents work with kids to create their contest entries teaching others their favorite Minecraft activities.

Here’s how you enter:

  1. Create a Minecraft “How Toon” on Toontastic that teaches other kids your favorite Minecraft activity.
  2. Submit your cartoon to the contest between October 7th and October 17th, 2013.
  3. Share you How Toons with friends and family on Facebook and Twitter – each like, share, comment and tweet counts as a vote for your cartoon!

At the end of the contest, the cartoon with the most votes will win a “How Toons” Prize Package from Launchpad Toys and MinecraftEdu. For more information, check out the post over at Toontastic.

Playtesting from a Designer’s Perspective

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Posted Aug. 25, 2013

CategoryGames Research

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Recently I wrote about my experience focus testing games and what I’ve learned.  I thought it’d be interesting to get another point of view on the testing process from someone who designed the games. So I asked MKG, a designer on Gamestar Mechanic, to tell us a little bit about his experience when testing his designs with kids. Here’s what he had to say:


Hi, everyone! My name is Michael Gi (aka MKG) and I’ll be writing today’s blog post to share what I’ve learned and experienced when going into the classrooms. I’m a game designer at E-Line Media and I’ve worked primarily on Gamestar Mechanic, designing the quest, levels, sprites, challenges, and more. I have also had the opportunity to travel to many classes and see Gamestar Mechanic in action with the kids it was intended for. I’m pleased to say that every time it has been an amazing and gratifying experience.

As a game designer, I’m constantly trying to create new and unique levels, scaffold features and functionality, and find a balance for the players of a younger age group. This isn’t easy when you aren’t a middle school student yourself! By coming into classrooms I get to notice so many things that I never accounted for originally. I remember seeing firsthand how difficult it can be for a young, non-gamer to grasp WASD as movement, or how frustrating a timer can be when the solution itself is so clear.

However beyond just difficulty, it’s amazing to me how kids begin to see aspects of the game differently than how you may have originally intended. One eye-opening moment was when a young 10 year old stated, “I collected the Teleporter Sprite, and that’s my favorite so far!” likening the experience to collecting Pokémon (which was totally unintended). When I get the chance to ask students what they’d like to see changed or added in Gamestar Mechanic, their feedback is invaluable and often beyond what we even noted as a team. Our young generation is full of remarkable thinkers; being able to bring out this sort of critical thinking and creative problem solving to a game system is very powerful and rewarding.

The last thing I’d like to share is how engaged and excited these kids are. It’s extremely gratifying as a game developer to see the game I’ve spent so much time working and collaborating on be enjoyed so much by so many players. I’ve had kids ask for my gamer tag, e-mail address, and even autograph! But in the end nothing trumps the face of joy that lights up a student’s face when they’re busy playing, designing, and sharing.

SXSWedu Sessions

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Posted Aug. 19, 2013

CategoryEvents, Gaming Community

We’re excited to announce that E-Line Media has six sessions up for consideration for SXSWedu 2014! SXSWedu is an influential event for educators and technologists to have meaningful conversations and collaborations around teaching and learning. It’s super important for educators to have a presence at the conference and a hand in choosing what panels get selected. Visit the Panel Picker to vote for E-Line’s sessions:

  • Minecraft Your Classroom - Join us in this hands-on workshop and rotate through game-based activities designed to help you learn how to get started with Minecraft and how to use this game to deeply engage students in core subject areas.
  • The Competitive Advantage of Teacher Leadership - We’ll discuss how companies can create conditions for teacher leadership and how educators can partner with companies to get the greatest dividends for their students, their careers and their profession.
  • Game Based Cultural Storytelling - Gloria O’Neill, CEO of Upper One Games, the first indigenous-owned game company and Alan Gershenfeld, President of E-Line Media, will describe the inclusive development process, challenges and opportunities for taking cultural storytelling into the modern era through a unique commercial video game they are developing.
  • Game Based Civic Engagement & Global Youth - Join this panel of experts from USAID, NetHope and E-Line Media for a discussion of “Our City”, a Facebook game, piloted in Jordan, and designed to foster civic learning and real-world engagement.
  • Scaling Up Classroom Grown Games - This panel will bring together a group of teacher entrepreneurs and leading educational games publishers who teamed up to take games developed by and for a single classroom to students around the country. We will discuss the ups and downs, the benefits and challenges of forming an effective and equitable partnership between classroom teachers and edtech publishers.
  • Bridging the Teacher-Entrepreneur Divide - In this problem solving session, we will bring up the issues that exist between teachers and technologists and facilitate participants in creating a resource that both groups can use to learn more about each other and better communicate and collaborate.

Also, Gamestar’s general manager has teamed up with BrainPOP, Filament Games, and Learning Games Lab to present this boldly named panel: Designing Learning Games That Don’t Suck. And E-Line’s president Alan Gershenfeld along with Pearson will present on teaching and measuring higher order thinking in Mapping Games-Simulations to 21 Century Skills. So don’t forget to send a vote their way too!

Once you’re in the Panel Picker, create a username and password (it takes only a few seconds!) and click the “thumbs up” icon next to the sessions to cast your vote. You can vote until September 6. Thanks for participating and we’ll see you at SXSWedu!