Gamestar Mechanic Teacher Blog

All posts tagged “video games”

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


Posted Apr. 17, 2014

CategoryGaming Education



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.

Healthivores is back!


Posted Jan. 14, 2013

CategoryChallenges and Contests


Remember last year’s awesome competition from our friends at Healthivores? They’re back!

If you missed it last year and want to participate, you’re in luck. Here’s a note from the Healthivores team: This year’s Healthivores Video Game Contest has begun and its easier than you think. Check out the included Lesson Plan that will take teachers, even those with zero game design experience, step-by-step through the process of teaching your students to design games. You will have your students completing their video games in less than 4 weeks. This year Healthivores has added Technology, Science and Math focused Lesson Plan options to the already popular Nutrition and Fitness Lesson Plan. Each winning team will receive one laptop for the teacher, one for the school and one for each student on the team (See 2012 Winners here). Deadline for entry is March 31, 2013 (allow 4 weeks for completion of Lesson Plan). Get started now at the Healthivores Video Game Contest homepage!

STEM Challenge Opens Today


Posted Nov. 16, 2011

CategoryChallenges and Contests


The National STEM Video Game Challenge opens TODAY!!! This challenge is inspired by President Obama’s Educate to Innovate Campaign, with a goal to motivate kids to take an interest in STEM learning by doing something they’re already passionate about – playing and making video games.

This year’s competition opens today, Nov 16, 2011, and closes March 12, 2012.  It features four challenge entry categories: middle school, high school, collegiate, and EDUCATORS.  That means that all you teachers have the opportunity not only to help your students design games for the challenge, but to enter your own designs as well! Make sure to check out the STEM challenge site for information on each challenge category, the game design platforms available, and prizes.

Want some inspiration? Watch the video of last year’s middle school winners:

I helped in the judging of the last year’s middle school level entries, and I was blown away by the creativity and skill shown in many of the hundreds of entries submitted.  This year, I’m sure, the competition will be even bigger and the games even more inspiring.  Can’t wait!