Gamestar Mechanic Teacher Blog

All posts in the “Gaming Education” Category

Game of Sprites – An epic adventure in STEAM learning.

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Posted Dec. 02, 2016

CategoryChallenges and Contests, Events, Gaming Education

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 “Greetings, valiant Mechanics! Are you ready to embark on a grand adventure? Then prepare yourselves for Game of Sprites!” (GSM News, Nov. 16, 2016)

The Holidays are upon us! The students are restless… It’s time for a new challenge! Starting November 18th, the awesome team at Gamestar Mechanic began releasing a series of brand-new Challenges for your students to play through. These challenges will not only allow your students to unlock new sprites and gear but also provide them with a great lead up to a new Contest that will task them with creating their own games using these newly-released sprites! This challenge is awesome for lessons in game design, plot, character development, user-centric design, and creative writing, among other things.

As mentioned in earlier posts, designing a balanced game, one with flow, involves system-based thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, art, storytelling, and digital media literacy. It involves “Systems-Thinking” and “User-Centered Design”. To develop even a simple game, a student must act as sociotechnical engineer, thinking about how people will interact with a system and how said systems shape both competitive and collaborative social interaction. This is the 21st Century Story-Teller’s Art. This is where Liberal Arts meet STEM. This is what STEAM is all about! This is why those of us who were children of the 90′s remember and even revisit a great old game, much as though it were a great piece of literature we had read in childhood. I’m not trying to blaspheme here. Please do not attack me for putting Cloud and Frodo in the same basket, but I would argue that they might just belong together.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the team at Gamestar clearly had a lot of fun putting these challenges together. They are well-designed games in which students will have the opportunity to earn never-before-seen sprites that also contain a lot of humor. I may be getting my geek on a little too much, but I seriously had some “laugh-out-loud” moments as I played through the two challenges that have been released so far. I’m seriously stoked for Episode III to be released today!

As this is the Gamestar Mechanic Teacher Blog and I am a teacher, I think in lesson plans. So without further ado, here is a sample lesson plan for you! (I am so a poet and totally know it!)

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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.

Focus Testing Games for Learning

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Posted Jul. 30, 2013

CategoryGames Research, Gaming Education

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I’ve spent a lot of time in the past couple weeks focus testing a new game. Testing with kids is a touchy subject; we need to be careful that we’re getting accurate feedback from kids, that kids understand what we are asking them, and that parents and schools also understand what and why we’re testing.  I thought I’d share some of my insights from my recent focus tests:

Handshakes – Kids who are participating in a playtest are doing a HUGE service for the company and game.  They are giving opinions and information that us grownups can only speculate on, no matter how well we remember elementary school. They should be treated like they are a super integral part of the development process, because they are! I’ve started giving kids formal handshakes before they start the testing, and another handshake to thank them when they are done.  This kind of “thank you for your time” gesture might seem a little odd to do with a 9 year old, but I’m finding that it helps the kids understand how important they are to the design process, and then they really step up to give great feedback.

Introductions – I’ve started asking kids who they are, what they like to do in and out of school, and how they describe their own personality before we start the testing.  Not only is this helping make kids feel comfortable during the session, but it also lets me think about who they are as gamers before they start playing. A kid who loves shooters might give different feedback than a kid who loves playing Angry Birds on a cellphone.  Once the kids talk about who they are, sometimes they start giving feedback through that lens too, saying things like, “Well, since I love sports, I like scoring points in the game.”

Repeating – When I taught ESL in schools, I tried my best not to repeat what my students said, letting the kids speak for themselves.  When filming a focus testing session, however, I find that repeating their feedback really helps.  Kids can get really into playing a game and they might start speaking to the game and not to the tester.  If I repeat what they said for confirmation, I have the benefit of hearing the kid’s ideas clearly when I review the footage.  Ideally, you’d have multiple people testing with excellent cameras and mics.  But, realistically, it might just be you and your camera phone.

Groups – I’ve mostly been conducting focus interviews one on one.  Having a kid answer questions individually is good because there is no confirmation bias; they say what they are thinking without being influenced by their peers. However, I’ve also tested in pairs to see how kids play a single-player game together (which happens all the time in the real world!), and in a large group to see how a bunch of kids in a classroom environment would react to the game.  I’ve gotten useful and different information from testing in each of these settings.

Another note, if you’re ever testing games for learning, check out the book Game Usability first. It’s full of tips and proven methods!

The Hungercraft Experience

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Posted Jul. 16, 2013

CategoryGaming Education

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In light of E-Line Media’s new partnership with MinecraftEDU we’ve been playing a lot of Minecraft in the office.  Last week E-Line’s entire development team in Seattle played Joel Levin’s (@MinecraftTeachr) mod called Hungercraft.  In Hungercraft, players explore the world of the Hunger Games in a setting 75 years before Katniss’ rise to fame.  Each person enters the Minecraft mod as either a member of the oppressive Capitol or a lowly coal miner of District 12.  The only place the two groups in the game can meet is the trading room, where they can choose to trade coal for food.  The Capitol needs coal to make food, and District 12 has no access to food, but plenty of coal. There are no right or wrong ways to solve the conflict in Hungercraft; teams can cooperate, orchestrate an uprising, battle, steal, etc.

We weren’t the only group to try out Hungercraft.  This article in the Huffington Post’s Blog describes the experience of Hungercraft with two groups of high schoolers at Brooklyn Public Library.  For these high schoolers, Hungercraft started out civil, with each side trading their goods.  But when an instigator from District 12 broke into the Capitol, conflict was unavoidable.  The teens wrote about the experience:

“We viewed this event as an opportunity to open our minds. Sure it was very fun and entertaining, but the teens from both groups also went away realizing the need for better communication and delegates, increasing the significance of the United Nations. These revelations all occurred within the walls of the Brooklyn Public Library. Who said video games aren’t educational?”

At E-Line, our teams spent their time finding loopholes and resources on their own sides before interacting at all. Once District 12 had scrounged up their own food without asking the Capitol, they prepared for attack.  It’s good to know resourcefulness and independence are prevalent qualities at E-Line!

Educator Highlight: Dara Ross

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Posted Apr. 22, 2013

CategoryGaming Education

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For the past 7 months I’ve been teaching game design classes once a week at Brooklyn International High School.  This school has such a positive vibe with enthusiastic students and teachers who are truly flexible and willing to take risks.  Dara Ross, a humanities teacher I’ve worked with at BIHS, has done many great projects with her students including working with Gamestar Mechanic.  I asked her to tell us a little bit about her experience teaching with Gamestar.  Here’s Dara:

Dara Ross

I teach 9th and 10th grade Humanities at the Brooklyn International High School. All of my students are recently arrived immigrants who are learning English. They have all been in the country for four years or less. My classroom is very diverse. I teach students from countries such as Yemen, Haiti, Tibet, Uzbekistan, China and Bangladesh. I teach students who don’t speak any English. In my classroom, I have students who love video games and who played fervently in their home countries as well as students who did not play any games in their home countries. I have a few students who had limited access to technology in their home countries and some students who never even used a computer before coming to New York City. Gamestar Mechanic has been an effective tool for teaching all of my learners how to problem-solve and how to think like a real game designer.

In my classroom I use Gamestar Mechanic as an end of unit assessment where students can create a game that shows their mastery of the content that I have taught. If we read Ancient Greece myths or Macbeth, then students can create a game that explores theme, characterization or plot structures. It’s also a great tool for storytelling and literacy. I have been surprised at how effective Gamestar Mechanic is at motivating students to revise and to make multiple iterations of their games. I have been also very happy at how the students so willingly and completely incorporate feedback into their game revisions. Now, when we are writing essays I can help them see how the process of revising a game is similar to the process of writing.

BIHS students

One thing that I find insanely challenging about Gamestar Mechanic is playing all of the wonderful games that my students create. I grew up playing Pitfall on Atari 2600 and later Castlevania on Nintendo NES, so I am used to using a joystick or a gamepad controller to play games. It’s super hard for me to play the games that my students create by pressing keys on the keyboard. The students create some very complex games using transporters, mazes and multiple enemies. I usually run out of health and die within the first few seconds of a student-created game. I have to use the cheat feature for teachers to skip ahead but then I don’t get the full experience of playing the games all the way through. This is when having student groups conducting peer reviews becomes very helpful. I have to rely on the students to play, assess and give feedback to their peers on my behalf which is a win-win situation. The inherent feedback and iteration loop of game design gives my students authentic and meaningful opportunities for using both their oral and written language skills.

There are a few things that I would love to see added into Gamestar Mechanic in the future (besides old-school Atari 2600 joystick integration). If I could, I would love if there were more audio and sound incorporated into Addison’s learning quest. It would also be great if there was the option for more customization in the game design where the students could draw and/or import their own avatars and enemies. I would also love to see a guide that breaks down what the different blocks, avatars and enemies can do.

One recommendation that I have for teachers looking to use Gamestar Mechanic is to be prepared to play and to have lots of fun! I would also caution teachers to not worry too much when the sights and sounds of their classroom begin to look less like a “traditional” classroom and more like the arcade that you used to hang out at after-school when you were a teenager. Just remember that your students are not only having tons of fun, but through designing their own games they are learning a massive amount of skills such as: giving and incorporating meaningful feedback; revising and iteration processes; motor skills; problem solving; and strategic thinking.

Thanks, Dara! We hear your advice and will definitely take it into account!

If you’re a teacher using Gamestar Mechanic in your classroom and want to share your story, please get in touch!

Educator Highlight: Tyler Watts

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Posted Apr. 16, 2013

CategoryGaming Community, Gaming Education, Guest Post

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Two of Tyler's students using Gamestar

We’re starting a new blog series here to showcase some of the amazing teachers who have been using Gamestar Mechanic in their classrooms and to encourage them to share their stories, ideas and projects with other teachers.

Today, we’re talking to Tyler Watts.  Tyler has been using Gamestar Mechanic for three years now with his students in Kansas City, MO.

Tyler, thanks so much for being a part of our new teacher series! We’re excited to hear more about the ways you’re using Gamestar Mechanic and other game design tools in your classroom. Why don’t we start with a little background on you – where you’re from and what you teach.

Tyler:  I am from Kansas City, MO, and I teach at KIPP Endeavor Academy, a charter middle school that teaches grades 5-8th. I teach Computer Science, which focuses on teaching programming and computational thinking. We work to become producers of digital content rather than only consumers of it.

What made you start using Gamestar Mechanic with your students?

Tyler:  I used Scratch with great success with my Computer Science students, and they would learn how to create animations in Scratch well. When I told my students to make a game, they would struggle on where to start. It was evident that they knew how to play games, but lacked game design knowledge. I needed something to teach them the elements of game design, and that is what caused me to find Gamestar Mechanic.

Were there any challenges in the beginning and if so, how did you overcome them?

Tyler:  I faced two challenges in Gamestar Mechanic. The first was that some students lacked the hand-eye coordination skills to complete some of the timed Platformer levels. This challenge was overcome by allowing me showcase my NES skills. :) I will show a student how to get to the end of a level and purposely lose at the end, so that the student completes it for themself. I encourage students to ask for help from a peer before coming to me.

The second challenge was that students love Gamestar Mechanic too much! I signed up my first group of 123 students up for Gamestar on a Friday, and over 30% of them logged on to Gamestar over the weekend. This statistic amazed me because, due to the Digital Divide, many of my students do not have Internet access at home, so some were going to the library just to play Gamestar. They were choosing to do game design just because it was fun! I didn’t tell them that they could or could not log in to Gamestar at home.

How have you seen game design impact your classroom?

Tyler:  Game design encourages students to think of how many small elements can form together to make a product. This thought process teaches computational thinking, which supports problem solving and STEM skills. Thinking of your audience for a game teaches a student empathy and digital citizenship because it encourages students to think of others’ experiences. Finally, game design encourages creativity, which I agree with Sir Ken Robinson in that it is a new “literacy” for the 21st century.

How do you see game design impacting education as a whole?

Tyler:  In the United States education system, we are removing the fun and playfulness of learning. Playing is a natural element of the way that the human mind learns. Game design challenges students to think creatively, collaborate, and problem solve. These skills will be key for success in our students’ future.

Are you using other game design tools with your classes? And if so, do you start them on one and then move them to another or how do you decide which tools to use?

Tyler:  Gamestar Mechnic prepares students for MIT’s Scratch. From Scratch, students move on to MIT’s AppInventor to design apps for Android phones.  Other resources that I am thinking about using are YoYo Game’s GameMaker and or AgentSheets.

What inspires you as a teacher? What keeps you driven to engage your students?

Tyler:  Seeing the joy of creating something on a computer either in Gamestar, Scatch, or AppInventor. As the video at Code.org says, programmers are today’s wizards.  They can make something out of nothing, and share it with the world.

What else would you like to share about your classes or your teaching practice?

Tyler:  Instead of describing in words, I would rather show a video of my students that was created by one of my professors, Dr. Friend, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It can be found at http://vimeo.com/51598746.

Thanks again, Tyler, for sharing your story with our audience!

If you’re a teacher using Gamestar Mechanic in your classroom and want to share your story, please get in touch!

Games as Art

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Posted Mar. 14, 2013

CategoryEvents, Gaming Community, Gaming Education

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Last weekend I was in Fort Worth, Texas for NAEA, an awesome conference full of enthusiastic art educators.  I lead a workshop on game design specifically for the art classroom.  While many of the activities we usually incorporate into game design workshops (learning about the elements of game design, and building our own games) stayed the same, this workshop focused on what do games mean in an art context.  Are games really art?

We talked about Roger Ebert’s now infamous statement that “video games can never be art,” and Kellee Santiago’s TED talk rebuttal.  We looked at instances where game designers use very traditional fine arts to create their games, and at museum exhibits at the MoMA and Smithsonian on video games and the fine art found inside them.  Throughout these discussions it became increasingly clear that these art teachers want to embrace new forms of art and new media.  They want to connect with the art that their students enjoy.  They see so many artistic pathways for their students in games, including fine art, graphic design, and animation, but also game design itself.  These teachers talked about how creating an experience that draws an emotional response is art.  They said, “We accept film. We accept performance art.  Of course we accept games!”

It was refreshing and exciting to work with a group of educators who are so willing to be flexible and tie their artistic curriculum to what policy is focusing on (STEM learning) and what kids really enjoy.

Also, one group of art teachers created a sim out of Post-it notes and paperclips called Art School where players had to make art and critique each other’s work in order to “graduate” and win the game.  Art School was super fun, and surprisingly challenging!

Awesome Teacher Blog

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Posted Mar. 04, 2013

CategoryGaming Community, Gaming Education

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Sometimes I stumble upon an awesome teacher blog that I can’t resist sharing.  From the Desk of Mr. Walters is the blog of a teacher/designer/gamer who shares many insights about his work with gaming, gamification, and game-based learning in the classroom.  In this particular post, Mr. Walters shares a lesson plan on designing story games in Gamestar Mechanic.  My favorite quote from this post is:

“To develop even a simple game, a student must act as sociotechnical engineer, thinking about how people will interact with a system and how said systems shape both competitive and collaborative social interaction. This is the 21st Century Story Tellers Art. This is where Liberal Arts meets STEM.”

Mr. Walters totally gets it! Enjoy his blog.

Kids Teaching Kids (and Parents)

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Posted Feb. 12, 2013

CategoryGaming Community, Gaming Education

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Sometimes the hardest part about teaching game design workshops is simply getting the participants to focus.  When kids (or adults!) get started designing games, it’s often tricky to pull their attention back to the group for a discussion, reflection session, or to move on to the next activity.  Sometimes it’s also hard to get participants motivated to work with people they don’t know, or on a project that doesn’t immediately seem intriguing.  Well, I think we found the solution to those issues: have kids teach kids.

We are in the middle of a workshop series around the National STEM Video Game Challenge.  This past weekend I attended a workshop at the American Museum of Natural History here in NYC.  While I’m usually the one leading these workshops, this time the workshop series is being lead by a group of awesome high schoolers from Global Kids.  I worked with the Global Kids before, so I knew they were great, but I hadn’t seen them in the role of teacher.  Our participants this past weekend were mostly middle and elementary school kids and a few parents.  Watching the kids respond to their high school-aged teachers was really inspiring; they were curious, engaged and ready to participate.  There’s something about kids learning from other kids who are just a few years older that makes the participants feel connected to the content – they actually see in front of them the opportunity for themselves to grow into game design experts.  They know it’s possible for kids to be awesome game designers and digital leaders because there is proof right there in their teachers.

Another key piece of the puzzle were the few scattered parents in the workshop.  These parents were not pro gamers and so had to defer to the Global Kids for expert advice.  Watching adults be the students, and the students be the teachers was empowering for all parties.  Kids saw they could teach their parents, parents saw potential for their kids to be youth leaders, and youth leaders validated their expertise by successfully engaging and teaching both parents and kids.

Did I mention this was a six hour workshop?  Global Kids kept the energy high, the kids learning, and the atmosphere controlled the entire time.  Hats off to kids teaching kids!