Gamestar Mechanic Teacher Blog

All posts from July, 2012

Gamestar Mechanic as a Pathway to Programming

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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

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Posted Jul. 03, 2012

CategoryChallenges and Contests, Gaming Education

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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!