Book Review: Gaming the System (Designing with Gamestar Mechanic)

This book — Gaming the System: Designing with Gamestar Mechanic — could not have arrived at a better time. I am knee-deep in our science-based video game design project right now, and while I have done gaming for a few years now and have a pretty solid handle on it, this look at game design through the lens of systems provides me with a fresh insight into the learning that is going on each day in my classroom.

The book is part of a series put out by MIT Press called INTERCONNECTIONS: Understanding Systems Through Digital Design.  There was a NWP Blogtalk radio show with the writers/editors that is worth checking out. I should note that I was an early reader of another book in this series, and received a free version of that book for my time and effort. But I did not read this one on gaming and bought for it myself. Also, the National Writing Project is one of the partners in the putting together the series, so I do know some of the folks involved.

This book, while somewhat pricey for a cash-strapped teacher, gives a powerful look at the potential of game design, connections to literacy and science standards, and plays out like a how-to guide for getting started and how to push kids further into complex thinking. It references Gamestar Mechanic as its base of game design (a site which I also use) and includes numerous screenshots, handouts, reference sheets and lesson plan ideas for implementing gaming in a constructivist approach.

And all of this is done through the lens of “systems,” which is a conceptual frame of thinking of the whole being a sum of its parts, and how changes in one part of the system change the whole. Think of weather patterns. Or political maps. Or airports. Or manufacturing. While those are pretty advanced systems to consider for young people, game design makes it real by bringing them into a system they understand, and showing how a designer’s intentional approach changes the system of the game. It’s a brilliant approach, really, and I realize now that I have been teaching Systems withou quite realizing it, and without using some of the domain specific vocabulary that I now have in my pocket for our work in the classroom.

Here is a quote that helps frame this concept:

A game can be considered a system because how the game is played and how the game play unfolds are the results of multiple interactions among different components … It’s important to be able to reflect not only on how a system might be functioning currently, but also on how a designer might have intended it to operate (or intended to change it). — page 200-201

I’ve bookmarked a fair number of pages in my copy of Gaming the System, and I intend to share it with my science colleague (whom is my partner in our game design project) and if my new principal walks in for an observation and wonders why everyone is playing video games in ELA class, I have some materials to help me make my case about the value of our science-based video game design project.

Peace (in the system),

Book Review: Bad Unicorn


Bad Unicorn

I am not sure what to write about this one. I received Bad Unicorn as a donation from a parent at our annual book sale at our school and the title and the cover got my attention. As is usually the case, I took it home to read aloud with my youngest son.

Apparently, this is the first in a trilogy by Platte F. Clark. It tells the story of Max, who has found a magical book that can give him incredible powers. Meanwhile, the world itself has been “sundered” into three zones, with our Earth as we know it just one of those zones. Bad Unicorn, aka The Princess, comes from another zone, and she has been sent on a mission to kidnap Max and the book, and bring them back to a bad wizard.

Needless to say, the unicorn in question is not nice. She is a destroyer, full of powerful magic and a nasty attitude. Oh, and she likes how humans taste, so she is motivated on her mission because she is promised the state of Texas for lunch. Meanwhile, there are these dragons, disguised as humans … and the story gets way too convoluted to explain here. There are echoes of every adventure story you have read in Bad Unicorn. I can’t decide if that is good or bad, however.

What I can say is that the pace is quick, the humor flies fast and furious, and it was a rather enjoyable read-aloud. I just put the second book (Fluff Dragon) in my “to read” bin, as my son was wondering where the story continues. And we are all about keeping him reading …

Peace (in the magic),

Where Arts and Science Intersect

I reviewed Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators, the other day. But his last few lines still resonate with me, particularly as I participate in the Digital Writing Month activities.


THIS is what I think about all the time as I write with technology. It is not the technology or the tool, or the subject area in which I am writing in or writing about, it is the ways in which the digital tools allow me to dance across all of those lines and make art.


Peace (in the think),

Book Review: The Innovators

Walter Isaacson covers familiar turf, for me anyway, on the history of the world of computing and technology, stretching back to the ground-breaking ideas of Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Byron Lovelace, to the present in his newest book, The Innovators. Knowing the stories here did not distract me from enjoying Isaacson’s book, however. His strong writing style and ability to put events and people into a perspective made for enlightening reading.

I particularly liked how Isaacson tried to draw out trends of the origins of innovation, building on recent ideas about how ideas often surface through collaboration, the “right cultural moment” and other factors more than individual genius and insights. Some innovations do get lost to the annals of time. Some get reborn. Some ideas are seeds to be planted and suddenly, bloom like crazy and change everything.

The thread of research and development investments by companies and the government run through the success stories here, as Isaacson notes it is often from these cauldrons of ideas that technology which transforms society emerge, although he does rightly point out that the modern start-up culture — with low overhead and quick adaptation to a changing market — is changing that paradigm of innovation, to some degree.

The Innovators is solid fast-moving tour guide of how we got to this moment, and Isaacson’s threads back to Lady Ada and her ideas on how machines might work in conjunction with people (and not to replace people)  is a masterful way of locating ideas on the timeline of history, even if ideas are not always ready for their own time.

Peace (compute),

Comic Book Review: xkcd volume 0

Talk about context. There were many comics in this xkcd collection by Randall Munroe that were so over my head with the math and physics and programming ideas that my brain was spinning just to see if I could find a reference point. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes (often), no.

But that never stopped me from enjoying Monroe’s comedic flare for poking fun at things, and even when the scientific/mathematical concept was beyond my grasp, I still had fun reading his comics (which, he notes, are still freely available online if you don’t want to pony up for his book). His quirky takes on technology amuse me, and I like the simplicity of his drawings (although he can do more with a stick figure head to show emotion than anyone I know).

For example, all the notes and codes in the margins of the book? It’s beyond me, but I suspect some readers are having a blast deciphering the numbers and programming codes. I kept looking at them thinking, this is a whole other world that I know nothing about. It’s very humbling. Then I’d start laughing at a joke that I did get, and that was satisfying.

(One note for teachers: this ain’t a classroom-friendly book, although pieces of it would be fine to share with older students. There are plenty of funny sex and profanity references.)

Peace (in the frame),

Book Review: The Penderwicks

You would think we would have read this book by now. The author is local, my wife knows the husband of the writer, and the book got pretty good publicity and reviews (and some awards) when it came out. But … a tale of four sisters in a summer cottage … not a big draw for my son. But his book club chose The Penderwicks and so, into the story we went … and ver glad for it, we are.

In fact, the book is a nice reprieve from so many of the action-orientated novels that we have been reading together lately. A tale that reminds one of the English manners books (whose genre my wife adores), The Penderwicks is centered on characters as much as plot, with the sisters coming to life on the page as they help a neighboring boy deal with his overbearing mother’s plans to send him to military school.

I won’t give the story away, but you will come to know the sisters well. The gentle adventures that take up these pages are lovingly told, with strong writing. You’ll care about the Penderwick sisters — Rosalind, the oldest with the burden of being the oldest on her shoulders; Skye, the quick-to-anger and quick-to-defend-the-family sister; Jane, the young writer with an imagination as large as the sky; and young Batty, whose friendship with the family dog, Hound, had my son and I giggling at times because her dog reminded us of our dog (Duke, also a hound).

I’m glad we found The Penderwicks and may seek the sisters out again in the sequels.

Peace (in the story),

Envisioning a Transmedia Story

The Mouse Problem

The first week’s prompt at Digital Writing Month — to create a transmedia project of sorts — has me revisiting an old story. I started this back when I began teaching the book, Regarding the Fountain (by Kate Klise), as a way to talk about inference and different media to tell a story. Her book is told entirely in artifacts. It’s a hoot, too.

The Mouse Problem is my attempt to do the same, in hopes I might get my students to create their own artifact story, too. So, here I am, back with The Mouse Problem, trying to move it along by adding more media to it. (I have two classes reading Regarding the Fountain right now, so this is good timing for me). The story is a mystery story, with a play on words.

There is a page (it is written in Powerpoint) in which an anonymous caller rings up the newspaper reporter. This morning, I used Soundcloud to record the conversation. I’ll weave it into the book at some other time, in some way. (Although I feel as if I should add sound effects to the audio, too).  

I am thinking of other media that can be integrated to tell the story, too. For example, could I design a simple video game, for some sort of chase? How about a Vine video for a television reporter?

And how will I embed all this media in a meaningful way? Working on it …

Peace (in the think),

Book Review: The Blood of Olympus

The Blood Of Olympus

The other day, a former student who is now in high school visited my classroom. I immediately asked, “What are you reading?” Just like old times, when he and I would chat about books in my sixth grade classroom.

Blood of Olympus. You?” he asked.

“Same,” and we both laughed. Years have passed, and somehow, writer Rick Riordan still has us reading his books of mythological demigods in the midst of crisis, saving the world. My 10 year old son and I just finished The Blood of Olympus, which it the last book in this particular series that is an offshoot of The Lightning Thief series, with hero Percy Jackson.

Listen, no one will ever put these books up on the same literary level as Shakespeare but Riordan has done something magical — he has hooked an entire generation of adolescent boys (and girls .. plenty of my girls read these books, too, but my boys are more likely to be disengaged with reading and so I often think of them here) with stories of mythological action and adventure. I appreciate that he has developed some interesting female and male characters, weaving their stories in and out of the course of the books. And add in a gay demigod character, too, and Riordan is reaching out into a wide terrain in his series.

My son and I both agreed, after finishing the book the other day, that Riordan in The Blood of Olympus, did an admirable job of tying up many loose ends and bringing the entire series to a close, with the defeat of the Earth goddess who was intent on waking and destroying the world with vengeance and revenge.

And as we flipped through the glossary of Roman and Greek terms at the end, we could not help noticing a little teaser text. Riordan is at it again. The next series is set in Asgard, and so it looks like we’ll be moving into Nordic territory soon. Odin, here we come!

Peace (in the book),

Book Review: Frank Einstein and the Anti-Matter Motor

“What? Another science fair story! Ahh….”

That was my son’s initial response as we started to read aloud Jon Scieszka’s new Frank Einstein and the Anti-Matter Motor. We had just finished reading aloud Science Fair, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (thumbs up) and had watched a viewing of the movie, Frankenweenie, in the neighborhood (thumbs up but an odd thumbs up).

It was just by chance that all three stories had a science fair competition at the center of the plot, but it does feel like the push for fiction for middle readers into STEM areas is falling on some common narrative tropes. The “science fair” is one of those I am seeing a lot (as is my son).

He got over his initial response, though, as we dove into Scieszka’s story of a young inventor (Frank), and his pal (Watson), creating robots who can sort of think for themselves and then a scientific energy-creating breakthrough called the Anti-Matter Motor (combine water with anti-water). A nemesis in the form of Edison wreaks havoc. The illustrations by Brian Biggs were a big hit, as they complemented the text and provides some scientific drawings of ideas in the head of Frank Einstein (My son later noted, “Did you notice that Frank and Einstein makes …. Frankenstein?”).

I hate to say it, but I wasn’t all that fond of the writing here and I found the plot development too predictable. Written in the present tense, the story never went deep enough for me. Maybe I am more critical than I need to be, even reading through the eyes of my fourth grader. Sorry, Jon Scieszka — I love the work you do to instill reading habits in young readers, particularly boys, and I notice this book sits on top of the New York Times list for young readers. My son, though, liked it well enough, and wondered when the second volume was coming out. (next year, it seems).

Maybe that’s all that matters … (or anti-matters)


Peace (in the science),