Gamestar Mechanic Teacher Blog

All posts from 2012

Games and Quizzes


Posted Dec. 20, 2012

CategoryGaming Education


Chava, our super intern, wrote a nice piece about how multiple choice quizzes embedded in games don’t necessarily make the games fun or good for learning. Check out what she has to say!

Games and Quizzes

School is known for its tests and quizzes. They keep students up at night, sometimes in a frantic sweat as they try to cram information into their short-term memories so that they’ll have the info they need for tomorrow’s exam. But how much long-term learning is there? This debate has plagued education discussions for a long time. And what about gaming? The Situated Learning theory (by Lave and Wenger) states that students learn best in context, where the learning is situated in the activity. This is immersion in a game.

It’s a start to suppose that disguising multiple-choice quizzes as games, with colorful components and the risk of “dying”, will make the learning better. But the issue is still the same – there is no need for critical thinking or problem solving, and no immersion in the subject. Multiple-choice quiz-games can be won by trial and error – “If I go down path A, I die; path B gets me to the next level. Wait, was there a question there too?”

Game designers have used Gamestar to create some pretty cool learning games that avoid the multiple-choice determiner and instead provide a fun, interactive immersion into the lesson. BobbyGurecki’s game that models the water cycle (with pollution and all!) situates the learner by placing them in the role of the water droplet – and what better way to learn about the water cycle than by being a part of it?

Boesemad’s game depicts the food chain, where you play as a part of the food chain by having to go after your food before you become food.

These examples replace the trial-and-error of quiz questions with an active situated learning approach. You can’t avoid learning when you’re a part of it. – Chava Wernick

Games for Change Workshop


Posted Dec. 11, 2012

CategoryEvents, Gaming Community


Recently Games for Change posted the video of the workshop that Brian Alspach and I gave at the 9th Annual Games for Change Festival. This workshop was particularly fun because we were in a space where the audience was full of gamers and teachers who had tons of questions and insight on teaching game design to kids.

In this video you’ll see our presentation on what makes up a game, what makes good game design, and how to design with Gamestar Mechanic. Also, make sure to check this out if you are an ultimate frisbee or competitive rock-paper-scissors fan!

Level Maps


Posted Nov. 20, 2012

CategoryGaming Education


One important part of level design is stepping back to see the whole picture. The new level map tool in Gamestar allows designers to see an full picture of their level design, especially when the level is bigger than one screen.

In the classroom this tool can be super helpful when asking students think about designing space and choice in their games. Often students make maze games that are confusing and don’t seems to have a natural path. When you see your level all in one image, you can see the choice points of a maze in context.

Level maps could also be printed out and marked up by a teacher or peer to show what parts of the level was fun or difficult. I could imagine making a Voicethread feedback using a level map image.

To get levels maps, have your students take the level map challenge under Challenges in their Workshop.

Happy mapping!

Gamestar Gets Political


Posted Oct. 18, 2012

CategoryGames by Kids


It’s election season! If there’s one thing we know about politics, they’re hard to talk about – which is why the Gamestar team was so impressed by Stella99 and her game Romney vs. Obama.

The game begins with a mock election in level one: You play the level to decide who to vote for and see the tally of other Gamestar user’s votes. Once you decide who you’ll vote for, you leave a comment and Stella99 updates the level with sprites representing how many votes each candidate gets.

Level 2 is a political mini game. You play as either Obama or Romney and travel around trying to gather votes (points) from citizens. It’s a surprisingly tough level, but very fun!

The coolest thing about this game has been the community’s response. Kids are talking in the comments about how they view politics as a youth, what issues matter to them (“My little brother loves PBS!”), and the latest current events on the election trail. For the most part, the comments have been smart, insightful, and respectful. Stella99 notes in the outro of the game “. . there is no offense intended to either candidate, because I am sure that both candidates are worthy to become president.” If this is not a bipartisan, adult exercise in talking about politics, I’m not sure what is.

Online Learning


Posted Sep. 12, 2012

CategoryGaming Education


Voyage of the Knight by Drago1500

As this summer concludes, so does Gamestar Mechanic’s first ever Online Learning course. We learned A LOT this summer about what it takes to run a course online and were so impressed by the creativity and dedication of our students.

Coming from the perspective of a classroom teacher, it took me a little while to switch gears into the Online Learning mentality. There is some reading between the lines (or the game levels) in figuring out where your students are in their learning pathway that wouldn’t otherwise occur in a face-to-face setting. We asked our students to design a whole bunch of games in a variety of genres (platformer, action, and adventure) and helped them go through the game design process of brainstorming, prototyping, designing, and iterating. We supported our students as much as possible, but it was really up to them to take initiative to move through the course.

I was super impressed by many of the games that came out of this course, not only because the games were great, but because the students who made them were so disciplined and determined to better their game design skills. These are three superb games that came from three outstanding students:

Adventure Challenge Entry
Time’s Up
Voyage of the Knight

This fall we have released another iteration of Gamestar Mechanic Online Learning. We used what we learned over the summer to make our new version of the program even more focused on scaffolding students in the game design process and giving them more opportunities for reflection.

For a more in depth look at this Online Learning program from one of our instructors, check out this blog post by Meagan Bromley.

Turn-based Gamestar


Posted Aug. 23, 2012

CategoryGames by Kids


I’m constantly impressed by how creative Gamestar Mechanic designers can be. This week the Gamestar staff ran across two superb games in Game Alley. Both of these designers took on the challenge of making a turn-based game using the Gamestar platform. Now, Gamestar can be used to create games in a wide variety of genres including action, adventure, and platformer games, but all these genres are played in real-time. This means, if you take on an enemy, you and the enemy are battling at the same time. Many popular games (think Pokemon) use turn based mechanics where you can do battle turn by turn.

These two designers took the real-time constraint in Gamestar and turned it on it’s head. In these games you can battle bosses in a turned-based way, every turn choosing what kind of action or item you want to take. These games use keys and locks to represent the enemies hit points (health) in a surprising and innovative manner. Truly one of the best parts of working on Gamestar is seeing the brilliant ideas that come out of young designers. Enjoy!

A Turn-Based Game by Omni_builder

Turn-based Combat Example by jec41

Two Awesome Posts


Posted Aug. 07, 2012

CategoryGaming Education


One of the most rewarding parts of working on games and educational tools is when people make thoughtful observations about their experiences using the tool. Much of what I learn about Gamestar comes from the Gamestar community opening my eyes to various experiences and takeaways – often ones that I didn’t expect!

Here are two recent blog posts about Gamestar Mechanic. The first is from Meagan Bromley, an instructor on Gamestar’s Online Learning Program. In this post, Meagan reflects on her experience as an online instructor and emphasizes how very awesome her students are. She describes the diversity of her students’ goals and backgrounds, from experienced game designers to novice experimenters. One of her students is even writing his own blog on his experience in the program! It’s great to hear about how this platform can support this wide array of interests and aspirations.

This next blog post from Michelle Cook, a teacher librarian, describes a series of “epiphanies” that she had while teaching with Gamestar and the realizations that her students made while learning with Gamestar. My personal favorite teacher epiphany is all about validating your students’ interests. Cook writes:

“It is our role as educators of the 21st Century to meet these students where they are at, employ skills and techniques that they are familiar with to gain their trust and attention that you’re on their side and have their best interests at heart.”

This point is so important when using games in the classroom. Yes, games and game design can do many wonderful things like teach systems thinking and collaboration, but they are even more powerful teaching tools because they come from our kids’ natural passion. Whether or not we use games as educational resources, kids will play them in their spare time. Cook, and many other teachers, have realized that by connecting learning to what kids really like to do outside of school, we are providing students with interest-driven pathways and letting them know that we really do value and care about their passions.

Gamestar Mechanic as a Pathway to Programming


Posted Jul. 13, 2012

CategoryGaming Education

In addition to interning full time on Gamestar Mechanic’s recently launched Summer Online Learning Program, I’ve been poking around on Unity, a popular 3-D game design engine that requires some basic programming knowledge. As I started programming my very first game, I realized that the game design concepts I had learned from working on Gamestar Mechanic the past two summers were proving to be invaluable. Huh? How does Gamestar Mechanic, an engine that doesn’t require programming from its designers, help you with an engine like Unity?

Bring it on, Unity. I’m not afraid of the word “boolean.”

As much as I enjoy it, programming can be a long, arduous process. This makes it really important for me to prioritize my programming tasks. As I’ve learned in Gamestar, you can spend quite a bit of time making your game look pretty, but if the core gameplay isn’t fun, then you might have to scrap the whole project.

In Unity, I could have spent a month programming the water in my game to flow in an ultra-realistic manner. But if the core mechanic of my game – fighting zombies – wasn’t fun, nobody would care about the tiny details of my game. Thus I decided to dedicate my programming resources towards making a prototype. In this prototype, I focused on making a combat system that was fun to play and required strategic decisions from the player.

I suppose the word “strategic” doesn’t mean much in zombie games.

In addition to the concept of prototyping, Gamestar Mechanic taught me how to dissect games through the elements of game design. Thinking about the element of space, I looked at my game through a critical lens: what is the space of my game like, and how will it affect the core gameplay? I realized that most of the combat in my game will take place on a raft, which is a flat, wide open space.

This type of space doesn’t always lend itself well to combat (see my previous blog post about Game Design Pitfalls to learn about why!) This led me to two game design decisions: 1) create a fairly robust combat system with attacking, parrying, and dodging; and 2) give the player the ability to customize and upgrade their raft into a full fledged boat. With different floors, compartments, and objects, an upgraded boat would make for a much better combat space than just a simple raft.

When I look at this screenshot, I’m often comforted by the old maritime proverb: every great ship starts off as a simple plank of wood… I may have just made that up.

As you can see, my game is still in its early phases. But because of my experience with Gamestar Mechanic, I’m confident that my time has been well spent. Have any of your students tried programming before or expressed interest in programming because of their experience with Gamestar Mechanic?

Games and Storytelling


Posted Jul. 03, 2012

CategoryChallenges and Contests, Gaming Education


Right now, in Gamestar Mechanic we are featuring the Scholastic What’s Your Story? Contest. This contests is open through August 1st and serves as part of the Start. Write. Now. Alliance for Young Writers and Artists initiative. This all leads up to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards that open in September.

These days, the idea that games can tell effective stories is not exactly new. Now many teachers are using games with their students to deconstruct stories or game design to understand narrative development. But the art of telling stories through video games is still in its adolescence. This funny video by Extra Credits and Daniel Floyd gives some good examples of how storytelling and writing, in particular, are faring in the world of video game creation.

Keep in mind this video was made 4 years ago, and 4 years can make a lot of difference. There are three main points that Floyd makes in his piece that I feel are changing by the minute:
1. Mainstream consumers are beginning to pay attention to good writing. Since 2008 a number of smash hit video games have come out with exceptional writing, the most notable of which are the two most recent installations of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series.
2. Games are no longer only a consumer product. The implementation of games in education is picking up quickly as educators recognize the potential for games to teach. While there is a lot of buzz about games teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, teachers are also realizing the power of teaching narrative in games.
3. Writing is not always seen as the key element in game storytelling. As we are seeing in a lot of Indie Games, stories in games can be enthralling and rich with almost no writing at all. Check out the popular adventure games by Aminata Design for example.

While writing and storytelling in games may never be exactly the same to that in movies or books, games are certainly growing as a medium for narrative. Because we believe in the power of games to tell stories, and the power of game design to inspire youth to create narratives, we are featuring challenges like the Scholastic What’s Your Story? Contest. Can you tell a story through your game design? Give it a shot!



Posted Jun. 05, 2012

CategoryChallenges and Contests


Often playing video games is associated with unhealthy behavior.  There is a strong stereotype of a gamer who stays in the basement, eating junk food and never leaving the house.

So it may come as a surprise to some when Green Ribbon Schools added a game design contest as part of their Healthivores program.  For this contest, Gamestar made some new sprites depicting both healthy foods and fast foods.  The kids who entered the Healthivores contest made use of these sprites in very interesting ways.

Their were over 400 entries to the competition.  The winning game described a war against the “fast foodies,” where the hero (you) learns that apples and other health foods give you nutrients and “special powers” to fight in the war, like running faster and jumping higher.

Check out the competition page and play the games of the winners!