Book Review: My Life As A Gamer

My sons really loved this My Life As A … (Book, Cartoonist, Ninja, etc.) series by Janet and Jake Tashjian when they came out, but I sort of ignored them as yet another knock off of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series. Finally, I had a student recommend the series to me, and who am I to ignore a suggestion by a student?

I chose My Life As A Gamer, which I believe is the fifth book in the series of nine books (so far), and I have to say, I really enjoyed the story and the cartoon artwork that went along in the margins of the story. (I believe Janet writes the stories and Jake, her son, illustrates them). The story of Derek Fallon and his friends enlisted to test out a new video game really struck a chord with me as I begin to bring my sixth graders into our own video game design unit.

There are adolescent escapades and funny moments, but also some deeper looks at family (dad is out of a job, etc.) and Derek’s own struggles with a reading disability — the cartoons in the margins of the book are representative of the ways that Derek learns by doodling vocabulary words — and the sketch-noting-vocabulary aspect of the book’s illustrations caught my attention, for sure, as I often have my students do the same.

This story also gives some insight into the development of a video game, as Derek and his friends spend weekends at a video game design company, play-testing an upcoming game — Arctic Ninja — and elements of storyboarding and narrative design and intuitive design are all woven into the story.

Looking at the next few books in the series, I see the next two have interesting themes as well: My Life As a YouTuber and My Life As a Meme. My interest is piqued!

Peace (doodled),
Kevin

ReWriting the Script: GBL, POS and a Game of Tomes

Last Saturday, at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project annual fall conference, which had the theme of “Rewriting the Script,” I sat in on some interesting workshop sessions. I’ll be doing some sharing out from the conference in the days ahead.

I appreciated that the presenter in this workshop entitled, with pun fun, A Game of Tomes admitted that he was still tweaking the lesson/unit plan and that he wanted us to experiment with the ideas, and give him feedback.

He explained how his inquiry project, which he started in our WMWP Summer Leadership Institute, has been looking at game-based learning, and how he hopes to liven up his classroom work around the always-tricky Parts of Speech by adopting and adapting elements of Role-Playing Games into review activities for his middle schoolers.

What he has done is created the idea of a Fantasy World, in which students first explore character attributes to determine a character for play, and then they shift into a series of activities (all connected to Parts of Speech review) that provide “experience points” which, ideally, move the player through a story of adventure. Some of the activities include a mystery story (where removing different Parts of Speech should reveal a clue to something else); map-making and direct giving; story, journal and sentence writing; and more.

I was intrigued by the plan but it still felt as if it weren’t cohesive enough in my mind. For example, it wasn’t clear even as we were playing in the conference workshop in a pilot version how we would leverage experience points for advancement in the game.

There was a fuzzy clear story arc set into motion (a narrative frame that we as a tribe lived underground and an untrustworthy character was about to lead an expedition above ground for resources, and would we join them in that journey) that we, as characters we invented, were part of. And some of the activities — like the mystery story — didn’t reveal anything; it just gave us Parts of Speech practice. You’d lose my students quickly if they did that work, only to find there was no reward to it.

Still, I can see elements that might work for my students, too, for engaging them in an adventure that embeds curriculum design for play. Of course, the dilemma is always the balance — how to make it fun without ruining the game with too much focus on “learning in school.”

The presenter was appreciative of our feedback and is continuing to work on elements of his game. I’m looking forward to seeing where his game idea ends up (and how I can steal and remix it for my own classroom).

Peace (roll the dice),
Kevin

Pieces in Play: The Great Outdoors as Game Board

Park Site as Game BoardWhat happens when the outdoors becomes a board game?

Yesterday, in our last full week of the school year (still a few days to go, though), our sixth graders took part in an activity called The Ultimate Game, organized by an outside group. The Ultimate Game turned local recreational parks in town into a huge game board, for collaborative and cooperative activities. This was our first time using this group and I was impressed.

There were riddles, and challenges, and a GPS scavenger hunt component. Teams of students had to work together to find clues, solve mysteries and earn tokens, roll huge fuzzy dice, move pieces on a massive game board, draw on their various strengths, and it all came together so nicely — the weather, the kids, the game — that it has me wondering how to do even more of using the outdoors — field, forests, park sites — as settings for cooperative game design.

We have explored game design throughout the year, from different angles, so this field trip made sense as a way to tie things together.

Along with a six week video game design unit earlier in the year, we ended the year in our ELA class with a short story project in which students wrote a fictional piece of a narrator going into a board game to rescue a person from history. The game becomes the setting. Sort of like Jumanji and Zathura, picture books by Chris Van Allsberg (and both became movies, of course).

In the Write Out project from last summer, we explored and talked about more ways to better integrate the urban, suburban and rural outdoors into curriculum, and I admit, I did very little of it this year until the end of the year.

So I paid attention to the group that led yesterday’s events, watching how they so skillfully set up engaging experiences for success for all students, and used the contours of the landscape and woods and fields for the design of the huge game system they put into play.

(Oh, FYI: Write Out for 2019 will be this coming fall, in conjunction with the National Day on Writing. Keep an eye out for more details later in the summer).

Peace (outside inside),
Kevin

 

How Rube Goldberg Design Spilled into Video Game Design

Don't Move: Game

Many times, my students surprise me. Take for example, this student, who decided to take the concept of informational design/expository writing with our work around Rube Goldberg Contraptions and make a video game project version in Gamestar Mechanic. He spent a long time in design mode, making sure that once a player hits “play,” all they have to do is watch the game unfold on its own.

As someone who has designed games in Gamestar Mechanic, I can tell you: this is very intricate and required lots of planning and troubleshooting, but it is pretty cool to play/watch as things unfold automatically.

Play Don’t Move

Peace (this leads to that),
Kevin

Writing for a Reason: Advice to a Gaming Platform

Advice for Gamestar 2019

I work quite a bit of writing into our video game design unit, and one of the final pieces of writing is a letter all students write to the folks at Gamestar Mechanic, explaining what they have enjoyed about the platform and some advice for features they would like to see incorporated. We did some class brainstorming of ideas first, as a way to guide their thinking.

Here are some of the responses:

In my ELA class we are using your website on a project to create games. We are working with the Hero’s Journey theme. My game is called Journey To Treasure. My game has 5 levels. The first level is the character finding a map of a ship wreck and buried treasure. The second level is the character on the journey to find the treasure. The third level is when the character found the treasure in an underwater cave and they have to fight enemies to get the treasure and go home. The fourth level is the journey home and the fifth level is when they are home and can take a relaxing vacation. What I like about Gamestar is that there are multiple quests and you can play other peoples games. There is also a wide variety of games within the quests. Some advice for making Gamestar Mechanics a better game is adding a multiplayer mode so that you can invite your friends to join so you can play together. You should also add more music so that the sound effects and music in the game helps you get into character in the game. Another thing I think you should add is an update so that enemies can drop rewards like more health or a key.  

— LG

 

During class we have been working with your platform me and my fellow peers (our whole grade) have been assigned to create a game and do your quests. My partner Gabby and I had so much fun and were always looking forward to class. My game is about a wolf Sky and her journey to help a queen. Sky needs to fight all the king’s evil minions (the evil wolves and polar bears) and then the dragons.

What I really like about Gamestar is that you have to earn lots of things you might need as an example earning the publishing rights. I absolutely love the variety and the creative freedom.

In like every game platform there is some flaws. Lots of people and I agree that it should have auto-save during the process of making a game and all the time. I know some groups lost their games because of this. Another thing that should be ABSOLUTELY changed is the limit of words\text throughout the game I wasn’t able to type all of the messages I needed to making my game I was very upset to learn about this and so was my partner, my friends, and lots of other who had this issue.

Otherwise I love the platform it is so fun and lots of people including me think the platform is great for kids and adults alike.

— RF

 

In my class, we have been doing a project with Gamestar Mechanic. We have been making games and seeing how literature is incorporated into it.We were using the platform “The Hero’s Journey.” My game is called the Iron Fortress. It is about Ronin, a warrior, who has to find a magical sword and defeat the evil wizard Shakhar. Ronin travels through the Iron Fortress in his Quest to defeat Shakhar.

I enjoyed many things about your gaming platform. One of the things I enjoyed was the simplicity. Nothing is too hard to understand and the controls are simple. I also enjoyed the Quests. I like the idea of playing to earn blocks, backgrounds, or sprites.

One thing I think would improve Gamestar Mechanic is the ability to customize sprites and blocks. Even though you can customize backgrounds, I think it will take the game to a whole new level if you could customize sprites and blocks. You could make challenges that give you material to build your own sprites and blocks. You could put a section in the workshop that is purely for customizing.

— TY

 

I am a student in Massachusetts learning about game design in ELA. We have been playing quest to learn about the Hero’s Journey concept of all video games. We have also been making a game of our own using the Hero’s Journey concept. There are many things I like about Gamestar Mechanic, here are a few. I like how you can play Quest to learn how to create a game of your own. (play to learn) It is also very easy to use, I can switch between workshop and quest very easily. Even though there are many things I like about Gamestar, there are a few things you could work on. I think first person would be a great concept of this game. I think there should be more sprites and avatars to choose from. Finally, I think there should be more music, and I should be able to customize it. Thank You for reading.

— CC

I’ll be shipping these off to the Gamestar Mechanic office, in hopes some developer receives them and reads some of the insights.

Peace (in writing),
Kevin

An Invitation to Play: Hero’s Journey Video Game Project

We’re nearing the end of our video game design project and as I play the games created by my students (exploring the Hero’s Journey narrative arc), more than a few have surfaced as fine exemplars for next year (or just for sharing out).

I invite you (or your students, if you want) to play these video game projects, created through Gamestar Mechanic. (You don’t need an account to play the games linked here but you do need to be on a computer and enable flash.)

Peace (the journey),
Kevin

 

These Games They Play

GameReviews2018

One of the writing tasks for students with our video game design unit (still underway) is to write a persuasive video game review, using a design lens (controls, audio, visual, playability, etc) as the lens in which to examine a game. It’s also a helpful zeitgeist moment for me, the adult in the room, on the trends of video games that young people are playing.

The word cloud above is a gathering of the titles of games my young writers chose to review. Fortnite, for sure, has the highest number of reviewers, over all, and it is a mix of girls and boys. Minecraft, for years the most-reviewed game, has slipped in popularity while Roblox has gained traction, mostly with girls, it seems. Gamestar Mechanic, which we use to make and publish games, was the default choice for those who don’t regularly play video games but still needed to write a review.

I notice more kids writing about playing games on consoles (Xbox, etc.) than on mobile apps, which is another interesting shift I noticed this year. I’m not sure it is a trend or an indication of the increasing popularity of multi-player games, like Fortnite. Many students write about the lag time on big games like that, and how the lag makes for frustrating gaming.

There always some video games that get reviewed that I don’t know about — Tank Stars, Fishing Break and Avakin Life, for example — so at least having these titles on my radar screen is helpful as I weave in game design with writing this time of year. I’ll be sharing out some of the reviews another day.

The persuasive nature of video game reviews provides an opportunity for them to express their opinion about something, sometimes rather strongly (bad reviews of terrible games were as acceptable as good reviews), and to examine the genre of video game reviews. Many of students watch reviews on YouTube, which makes me wonder if I need to begin to adapt this assignment for video as well as text.

Peace (gaming it forward),
Kevin

Video Game Design: Mid-Point Reflections

GameReflectCollage

I love adding in all sorts of writing into our video game design unit — sort of a sneaky way to get them to think about writing in context of a media project. They are in the midst of building video games in Gamestar Mechanic on the theme of the Hero’s Journey. We are approaching our publishing date, but things always take longer than expected in this unit.

Last week, I had them write me a mid-way reflective letter on how things are going. I love how the writing gives me insights into their progress and provides some nice entry into conversations during our conferencing.

Here are a few samples:

Peace (game it),
Kevin

Video Game Design: Story-Framing and Storyboarding

Game Design: Storyboards

We’re in the midst of our Hero’s Journey video game design unit, in which my sixth graders are developing and then publishing a video game based on the concept of the Hero’s Journey. We use Gamestar Mechanic, which teaches students how to build games by playing games, and provides tools for publishing.

Game Design: Storyframes

The first phase is all about story-framing (what is the story that will be the backbone of the game) and storyboarding (what will your game look like) and this work provides some rich moments of questions and conversations and thinking through the game before it is under construction.

I love the variety of games under consideration. I have traditional “make your way home” and “rescue mission” stories, as well as ones that are inspired by novels they are reading, and even this year, one in which the character is inside a “book” as the setting of the game. I’m looking forward to watching that one get developed.

The story-framing is a way for young game designers to articulate the spine of the narrative, and they often require reminders during the building of games to refer back to the story-frame.

I tell them this as a sort of daily mantra:

The player is the reader, playing your story as a game

Meanwhile, the storyboarding gives rise to questions of design, of where things might be and how things might look, and often prompts questions about what they can and cannot do in Gamestar Mechanic as designers. I do a lot of huddling around work-arounds and alternative ideas once they are deep into design. But this early work gives me a glimpse of what they are thinking, and provides them with a map from which to begin work.

Peace (designed, played, won),
Kevin

PS — if you want to learn more about how we move game design into the ELA classroom (and some years, with connection to science), check out the resource site we created the first year. We tried to include materials that you are free to use: Video Game Design