Let the Gaming Begin

This morning, we start the first day of our Game Design Camp for middle school students that is being co-sponsored by our Western Massachusetts Writing Project and a local vocational high school.

Yeah, I am a little nervous because this is something entirely new and my camp partner, Tina, and I are wading into relatively unknown terrain. We actually had a very funny email exchange yesterday in which Tina was working her way through some challenges at the Gamestar Mechanic site and she thought she needed some help through a particular level. So, here I am, trying to envision where she might be as she is trying to explain where she is in the game system, and we’re both feeling like teenagers caught up in video game fever.

‘Cept it was the Fourth of July and beautiful outside, and really … video games? But they are engaging games and you do get caught up in the idea of the challenge and of moving ahead. It’s no wonder we tag the label of “addictive” to gaming at time for some kids. There’s a real tangible thrill in overcoming a level, and in Gamestar Mechanic, every level you play earns you more tools to create your own games.

(Tina got through her difficult level, through no help from me. Just thought she needed some props here.)

This morning, our plan is to:

  • Introduce ourselves and slight history of gaming
  • Share out the top three best games that they love to play and three reasons why a game is “good” (on notecards)
  • Work in collaborative groups on a non-tech game and then play each other’s games
  • Watch a documentary DVD about the history of gaming
  • Snack
  • Play some ‘old style’ games, such as PacMan, Donkey Kong, etc.
  • If time, get signed in and fool around with Gamestar Mechanic

I am going to try to photo document as much as I can and intend to (if time) do more videotape reflections about the camp experience.

Peace (in the camp),

A Poem for the 4th: What We Found

We’re doing some writing over at our iAnthology space, and the topic was found poems, using a Shel Silverstein poem as a mentor text. I went in another direction, with a short memory about finding something on the Fourth of July after the explosions have died down.


After the last smash of gunpowder in the air –
after the screams and whistles died down –
after the crowds dispersed,

we went searching for the carcasses of the fireworks
and used our flashlights to find the tattered cardboard remains
on the pavement,
laying about like dead ants in clusters.

The cold night air smelled of sulfur
and the bodies were still warm to the touch,
as if the trajectory into the stars was just too much to bear
for such a little rocket.

You gently cupped the ones that didn’t work,
imagining the possibilities for failure,
even as I stuffed the tubes of others into my pockets,
remembering the explosions and all that expended energy.

Peace (in what remains),

Book Review: The Throne of Fire

I’ve written before about my wonder at how in the heck Rich Riordan can write and publish so many books. And I have worried that the pace of publishing might diminish his appeal. Well, not quite yet. I just finished up the second of the Kane Chronicles series — The Throne of Fire — as a read-aloud with my son, and we both enjoyed it quite a bit. This series is not on the same scale as The Lightning Thief series, but perhaps that is because I am used to Riordan as  a writer now.

This book follows brother and sister Sadie and Carter Kane as they try to save the world from Chaos. Steeped in rich and odd Egyptian mythology, the book follows the Kanes as they try to re-awaken the Sun God, Ra, from his self-imposed slumber in order to find balance in the world as the evil spirits of Chaos begin to rise. They somewhat succeed, but at some terrible costs that set the stage for more books in the series.

As we were reading the book, I kept imagining that in Riordan’s mind, there will be a slow convergence of the stories unfolding here in the Kane Chronicles and in his new Lightning Thief spin-off — The Lost Hero, which I liked immensely, and which I see will have a sequel on the stands in October (see!) — in which the protagonists of both storylines slowly come together. I kept imagining characters here as having shadow stories in the other book, and in The Lost Hero, there are characters — including Percy Jackson — who have gone missing. Maybe they are stuck inside another cultural mythology? If it comes true, remember that I wrote it here first.

Peace (in the book),

Bringing in the Gaming Experts

I am never going to claim to being a hard-core gamer. I’m not. But I want the students in our Game Design program to have some sense of what it might mean to work in the gaming industry, from the inside. So, I emailed a bunch of local game companies (it turns out there are quite a few in Western Massachusetts), and while a few turned me down because they had too much work going on right now (that’s a good sign, right? and they were kind enough to respond), I did manage to invite two teams of visitors.

First, my friend Bryant Paul Johnson will come in. While he is now mostly a graphic novelist, webcomic creator and illustrator for novels, he began his career working on video games. Bryant has visited our webcomic camp the last two years and really brought some interesting perspectives to the table. He is going to talk about how a game gets developed and the process that takes place from idea to production.
Bryant Paul Johnson Art

Second, a local company called HitPoint Studios is sending in small group of folks from their company. I’ve asked them to talk about the various jobs and roles that people play in a game design organization. I’m pretty excited that they agreed to come in and chat and answer questions from the kids, who may or may not have desire to consider gaming for a profession. (See local newspaper article on the company)
Here’s a video promo of what they do:

I’m grateful that there are people who can pull back the curtains and show the students a bit about what it takes to create a game. This an emerging field — given the influx of mobile device apps and Facebook collaborative games — and the more we can expose young people to what it is like, the more likely they might say “I have this great idea and I think I know how to develop it.”

Peace (in the game industry),

Rediscovering an Old Scratch Project

I was tinkering around with Scratch the other day and realized that I had a project that I made FOUR YEARS AGO still sitting there. I can’t even remember how I made it but my young son had fun this morning playing with it.
Scratch Project
Peace (in the animation),

Graphic Novel Review: Level Up

The Secret Origins of Level Up

(click on this image to go to the comic explaining the genesis of the story, shared with Wired Magazine.)

I know it seems odd to be reading a review of a graphic novel when all I have been talking about is gaming for the last week, but Level Up takes the idea of gaming and puts it at the heart of a intriguing story. Created by writer Gene Luen Yang  and illustrator Thien Pham (Yang also did the fantastic American Born Chinese), Level Up tells the story of young man — Dennis Ouyang — whose parents dream of a future that he doesn’t want. At least, at first. What he wants to be doing is gaming. All day. All the time. What his parents want him to be doing is learning to become a doctor. All day. All the time. The conflict is there in those set of dueling expectations and lost moments of connections between parents and son, and this story has some slightly odd twists that could only be pulled off in a graphic novel, including a quartet of strange sprites who appoint themselves his guardian angels.

The conflicts of obsession and family in Level Up calls attention to both the addictive aspects of gaming as well as the notions that outsiders have about gaming that it is “a waste of time.” If we watch someone spend hours playing games, is it a productive activity? One thing that I struggle with as a parent is that when my sons play video games,  I feel as if I want to lean into their heads and hear what is going on, just to validate my saying “yes” to their request to play games. This is a similar struggle that I have as a teacher thinking through the possibilities of my classroom. How do I know there is learning going on? So much of gaming is internalized, and to be honest, we don’t quite understand the processes of the mind when kids are immersed in gaming worlds. Or at least, I don’t. Even though I see the value of gaming, my first instinct to my sons is always “no, go outside and play.”

And yet … gaming brings something to the table. Something creative, and something inventive, and something different, too. That’s the exploration I am doing — trying to figure that out.


A similar struggle emerges in Level Up on a larger and more complex scale that also deals with the immigrant experience and Asian family dynamics. In the end, Dennis is able to use his fine-motor skills honed by years of gaming to make his own entry into the medical world, fulfilling both his parents’ dream for him and finding his own satisfaction. If only every gamer found that kind of calling in the world of adults ….

Peace (in the games),

Gaming, Without the Tech

Gaming Camp Supplies
While I think that when we say “gaming” these days, our mind moves right to some technology — either a mobile device or a console or a computer — we want to start off our Gaming Camp next week away from the computers. So, using an idea from a workshop I attended, we are going to divide the students up into small groups, give them a bag of “supplies” and let them design their own game. It could be a board game. It could be whatever they want.

I had fun going through the arts and crafts store, thinking of odds and ends that might be interesting for students to use in this activity. I ended up with pom-poms, a bag of small letters (for braiding), stickers, wooden blocks and circles, and plastic animals — plus some oversized stiff paper, if they decide they do want to do a board game. I also have some paper for them to write out the rules for playing their games. That expository writing is part of the activity.

I gave extra materials to my six year old son, who immediately began using them for his own “game” that somehow involved animals surfing from one spot to another, avoiding creatures (such as the pom-poms). So, at least, I know this activity can be done, with a little imagination.

And really, this is to set the stage for when we do move to the computer. The reflective practice of what makes a good game and what (if any) limits there should be for the player will come in handy when they do start designing their own games at our online site and possibly with Scratch. The offline activity will also get them working with each as a collaborative group, and we want that bonding to happen so that they can then help each other with feedback later on.

Peace (in the games),

Interpreting My Video Game Data

Deep Down Dream Data
One of many things I am liking about Gamestar Mechanic is that it gives you various pieces of data around the games that you create and publish within its community. The other day, I created my first multi-level game — Deep Drop Dream – and over the last three days, a few players have given it a try. As a Premium member, I have access to various stats (see above) which indicate to me not only how many people have played it, but also, whether they were able to finish the game or if there was a level that was abandoned consistently.

Why is this important?

If a game is too hard, then the player gets frustrated. If it is too easy, they get bored. The key to game development is to find that middle ground where there is challenge for the player but no insurmountable challenge. They have to be able to succeed, although it may mean they have to work at it. This data chart shows where those kinks in the game might be, and for the developer, you don’t always get that sense. It’s like writing a novel — sure, it reads great to me, the writer, but an impartial reader can give valuable critical advice for places where the story doesn’t work.

Here, I notice that 15 players started the game but only four finished. A few dropped out at different levels, and according to the guidelines, the funnel’s data shape is fine. It’s OK to lose some players. But if everyone is gone — if the funnel has a sharp tip at the end because no one made it there — then you know you have trouble and need to revamp the game. If the funnel is a vertical rectangle, meaning every player won every time, then the game is too easy.

This is a great analysis tool for kids, don’t you think?

Peace (in the game),

Video Review: The King of Kong – A Fistful of Quarters

I had long heard about this documentary (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters) and its look nto the world of competitive video gaming (yes, there is a world of competitive video gaming). But it’s not something my wife would ever be interested in, so it lived just outside of my spectrum as a video that I might someday rent. The upcoming summer camp around gaming gave me the opportunity and the excuse to buy the documentary, which centers around a competition to get the highest score on the classic Donkey Kong arcade game, and I was able to watch it while my wife is out of town. My two older sons plunked down on the couch with me, too, and it was interesting to listen to their comments.

Their main reaction:  What kind of adult spend their time on a Donkey Kong machine in their garage, trying to earn a top score on an old arcade game? Dork!

I tried to explain that everyone has certain obsessions, and for these people, it is playing the game that catapulted video games into the public consciousness in the early days. Donkey Kong was a game changer, if you will excuse the corner turn of words, in that suddenly, a game was very challenging and also had a story (Mario has to rescue the princess, who has been taken captive each level by that maniacal gorilla). And it was the game where Mario got his start, which later led to the Mario Brothers franchise, and I reminded them we have a Super Mario Brothers game on our Wii.

I also gave them some stats about who plays video games, and how the demographics show that most gamers are in their upper 20s or 30s. Their reaction? That’s because games today are cool, and not lame. I told them that 20 years from now, our games will look lame, too, so it is all historic perspective. That quieted them down for a bit.

Still, the movie is a fascinating look at an insular world where passion and focus and even good-versus-bad is on full display as a nice guy from Washington (Steve) tries to dethrone the reining champion (Jimmy), a pompous jerk who may or may not have cheated when he realized his top score was under attack (the boys and I were pretty clear that the dude had cheated, and it was at that moment of realization that the three of us were fully invested in the documentary, which shows the power of protagonist/antagonist even in documentaries — we suddenly had someone to cheer for and someone to jeer at). And in the end, just like any movie worth its salt, the good guy finally wins. Eventually.

What I found fascinating was the pure passion for video games. Sure, my sons called them “nerds” and the movie both pokes fun at the crowds of people descending on video game arcades for championship weekends even as it celebrates the way they emerge as dedicated to their craft, as much as sports athletes do. I mean, just think of someone who spends hours each day putting a ball through a hoop. Again and again. That’s pretty idiotic on the surface, right? So how is that different than pushing a joystick around?

I recommend The King of Kong for an entertaining and probing look at players in the aging video game world, back when arcades were community gathering spaces for gamers (unlike today, when we are shut up in our homes or immersed in online gaming communities). It is a powerful documentary about people, and the lengths they will go to become recognized for a single achievement and then, the things they will do to remain in the spotlight for fear of fading glory.

Peace (in the Kong),

Inside Scratch: Gaming Reflections 7

At our upcoming gaming camp, we want to try to expose our kids to more than just Gamestar Mechanic, so we are going to dip our toes briefly into Scratch — the programming language from MIT that resembles a Lego set for animation. It’s not all that great for game design, per se, but it does show the backbone of how things are done on the screen by programmers.

Gaming Reflection 7: Inside Scratch from Mr. Hodgson on Vimeo.

Peace (in the games),