Planning to Write: Video Game Reviews

Video Game Review Planners

One of our writing components in our Video Game Design unit, now underway and nearing competition, is a persuasive piece of writing, in which my students analyze through a design lens and then review a video game. This kind of writing will also set the stage for our shift into Argumentative Writing down the road.

Video Game Review Planners

I love how invested so many of my students, particularly my struggling writers, feel with this particular assignment because they are writing an opinionated piece about something they know very well. They are sharing their gaming knowledge. Of course, like all of our writing assignments, it begins with planning out their ideas, and these graphic organizers show some of the thinking behind the writing of the reviews.

Video Game Review Planners

We also read and watched a few mentor texts (printed reviews and a video review), talked about how to express a strong opinion with a critical lens, and how to identify the design components — graphics, sound, playability, controls, etc. — that are the “language” of video game reviewers. I am hoping to get a podcasting station set up this week, and allow them to podcast their reviews, too. We’ll see if time runs out on us …

Video Game Review Planners

Peace (in the plan),
Kevin

Before The Video Games …. There Are Storyboards

Game Design 2016

We’re in the early days of our Video Game Design Project, in which my sixth graders are learning how to use a narrative “story frame” to design and publish a video game via Gamestar Mechanic. As a writing teacher, my aim is to show how story can become the backbone of a video game, and how the reader “plays” the story that the game designer has written. It’s all about expanding the notions of Digital Writing, and how games are emerging as the place for inventive storytelling.

Game Design 2016

This week, students have been brainstorming their “story frames” and that work is done before they can start designing their games. I want them to have a “map” of where they are going before they starting designing with blocks and avatars and rewards and more. I am always pleasantly surprise by the detail of their brainstorming and their imagination.

Game Design 2016

Our theme this year is “the Hero’s Journey/Quest” — a topic we have been building off since September (in the past, these games were all science-themed, but this year’s shift to Next Gen Standards for our science teacher created a bit of a problem for us, so we’ll try again next year).

Writing and Game Design Compared

We connect game design to writing process and we do a lot of writing in this unit, from Game Developer Reflections to writing persuasive Game Reviews (as podcasts) to using their “game worlds” as setting for short stories, and more. I aim to use their engagement in game design to spark their interest in writing across genres.

Writing in Game Design Classroom

As a mentor text, I dissect my own game for them. My game – called The Odyssey of Tara — is a riff off The Odyssey, where our hero — Tara — has to make her way home, fighting monsters and battling obstacles along the way.

Odyssey of Tara video game

I’m looking forward to playing my students’ stories.

Peace (jump dodge run),
Kevin

 

 

Middleweb Review: The World Peace Game

The most innovative idea that I came across this summer? How about John Hunter’s World Peace Game concept? The game is incredible and complicated and pushes all sorts of learning in all sorts of directions.

Hunter’s story of how he developed this intensive game that upped the ante for his fourth graders (and other assorted age groups as he brings the game elsewhere … including the Pentagon, where military leaders played it, too) as he asks players to help solve problems facing the world. His story is certainly worth a look, if only for discovering another way to re-examine our classroom spaces as something beyond testing and mandates.

Read my review at Middleweb of World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements by John Hunter.

Peace (not just a game),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Tetris (The Games People Play)

The other day, I found myself with a few dull minutes to spare while waiting for my son. What did I do to kill the time? Tetris on my Android phone. It’s amazing that this simple game still holds appeal in this modern age,  but it does. A new graphic novel Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown not only explains the appeal of the puzzle challenge on the brain and psyche, but also explores the fascinating history of the game itself – from origin to launch to pop culture icon.

The appeal of Tetris has to with the psychology of games, and Tetris hits it on all cylinders. There’s the frontal cortex, trying to flip and slide the shapes while they drop. There’s the rush of finishing a line. There’s the quickening pace of action. The player hits a “flow.” It’s all part of the psychology of game design.

Then there’s the rich history of the game itself. Developed by Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov as a side project during the Cold War, in the early days of PCs and video game programming, his Tetris concept of interlocking blocks first took root in the old USSR. Then the game was smuggled out of Russia on floppy discs, and then the game became the object of a global bidding war between companies in Japan, Europe and the United States, even as the political structure of the USSR made negotiations nearly impossible.

You may remember Tetris as the anchor game on many early gaming systems — including Game Boy — but how it got there is an amazing tale of politics and copyright and deceit, and lots and lots of money. Box Brown weaves the tale wonderfully in this graphic novel, which could find a home in a high school classroom where gamers and historians collide.

Peace (block by block),
Kevin

PS — I received an early copy from First Second Publishing to review. The book is out in October.

Imagine the Possibilities: Beyond Pokemon Go

Pokemon in kitchen

NOTE: I am writing this to try to understand this ….

Like many of you, I have been intrigued and bewildered by the sudden explosion of Augmented Reality with the release and wild popularity of the Pokemon Go app game. For me, my awareness of the game began when Joe Dillon (noted CLMOOC Pokemon Scholar) wrote a fascinating blog post in which he tried to examine the use of Pokemon Go through the lens of Connected Learning.

I’ll echo what I saw in a headline from Rolling Stone magazine later that same day: WTF is Pokemon Go?

Within hours of reading Joe’s post, I was bombarded in my news feeds about the game. I dropped my youngest son off at his camp, and his teenage counselors were playing it. I helped with summer baseball that night, and groups of kids were playing it. The game was featured in a front page story in our local newspaper (written by college intern journalists .. it takes young people to notice a pop culture phenomenon at times).  It was everywhere.

gazette

So, I downloaded the game, to check it out. I am pretty darn confident that most of my upcoming sixth grade students are either playing it or know about it this summer.  It doesn’t make sense to ignore a cultural moment. I wanted to know more.

You probably know as much as I do about the playing of the game itself (if not, and are interested, just Google Search it.) For starters, I found a Pokemon floating around in my kitchen. I tossed the red balls and captured it. I tried the game again when I was in a nearby city, visiting some writing project teachers, but felt strange in the parking garage, staring at my screen and walking in circles. In the meeting, a bunch of teachers were talking and joking about … Pokemon Go.

Pokemon in Springfield

The next day, the negative sides of the app began filtering out, with news reports about robberies and accidents, and all the usual stuff that sparks the adult anxiety that new technology always leaves in its wake when young people (and in this case, older ones, too) are consumed with something new. None of that changed my impression that, as a father of three boys who were somewhat into Pokemon when they were younger, the game probably was connecting people in an interesting way with technology and game play.

What concerned me more than all of that (as it should you) was the privacy issues, and the collecting of reams of data by the company from its users, and the way the game seemed to want access to my entire Google account. (I believe the app update fixed that with an update, but I had uninstalled it).

Here’s what interests me more about this particular moment than Pokemon Go itself — which may or may not turn out to be little more than a technology fad in the summer of 2016.

What if this sudden interest in Pokemon Go spurs young people to suddenly realize how the layering of visuals and information on the physical world could be another way into digital composition, and they begin to find ways to do this on their own? I shudder to think of a class with iPads doing Pokemon Go as a learning experience (that might be hard to justify on all sorts of levels), but I could celebrate a class with iPads making their own Augmented Reality apps or stories or scavenger hunts.

Some apps, such as Aurasma and others, do this on a smaller scale. The use of QR codes replicates the experience, somewhat. I don’t pretend to know the technical aspects to pull off what I am thinking. Combining GPS with media, accessible via mobile devices, in different places … sounds complicated to me. But intriguing, nonetheless. It’s that flip from media consumer to media creator that we should all be looking for.

Joe Dillon mentioned in a response on Twitter that National Parks and community open spaces would be a perfect fit for this kind of Augmented Reality creation, as people explore the natural surroundings in their own communities on another level — either as hunt for information, or maybe just an augmented way to view the space. Imagine if you could pull up the historical story (ideally, of all perspectives of the story) of a place or object. Imagine if you could redraw the park in new ways. Imagine the planning process, the tinkering, the trial/error, the beta-testing …

Imagine the possibilities … or it just might be another technology pipe-dream that always seems like there is something transformative coming (see Audrey Watters for her extended examinations of the Ed Tech World always promising revolutions in learning). Or, alas, it might just get co-opted by private ventures who make money off our data by tracking our GPS coordinates to target us with AR advertisements.

Peace (now … go),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The State of Play (Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture)

“… video games are a complex and rapidly evolving form, where different qualities intertwine and influence each other in subtle, often surprising ways. A progress, critical approach to games and their place in culture does not preclude the appreciation of them as the rich and wonderful pieces of entertainment they are. But if our understanding of them is to move beyond the simple escapism, games must be held up to the same standards and allowed the same scrutiny as any other form of creative expression. “ — Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson, editors, from introduction to The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture

This rather uneven collection of essays — The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture — is nonetheless an important look at how video game culture reflects both the good and the bad of this still-emerging form of popular culture entertainment. Tackling topics like Gamergate head on and exploring issue of gender and race, the writers here go deep with insights. And many of them are game developers themselves, as the subtitle suggests, and so, reading their insights from the other side of the console, so to speak, is an intriguing element of The State of Play.

One of the more intriguing essays here is from Hussein Ibrahim, whose piece entitled “What It’s Like to Always Play the Bad Guy: On the Portrayal of Arabs in Online Shooters” does what it says — it gives Ibrahim a platform to explore the culture of video game design that always seems to pit denizens of the Middle East as the enemy terrorist with guns and bombs.

“The problem is, the ‘authenticity’ (of games like Medal of Honor) is only on one side. As an American, you get to relate to the hero defending his country from terrorists threatening your freedom. As an Arab, you get to relate to the guy who wants to blow up your city, and that’s all,” Ibrahim writes. “Often, it seem more time is spent making sure the guns in the game are authentic than on accurately representing the culture I belong to.”

Interestingly, Ibrahim plays those very games, and finds himself feeling “Indifferent (about the portrayal), which is unsettling.” He then notes an event in which someone noticed a map in Modern Warfare had a saying from Allah hanging in a virtual bathroom. An uproar ensued among Middle East gamers (Ibrahim says there are “several million” players of the franchise in the Middle East) and the map was later revised, the Allah engraving removed. He wonders why this event (the engraving) caused more uproar than how Arabs are used as villains.

“… I guess we have all grown a little numb,” he notes.

Another interesting essay — “A Game I Had to Make” by developer Zoe Quinn — explores a game designer’s quest to make a game for themselves, to understand a confusing world. In this case, the game in question — Depression Quest — is designed to help a player deal with depression. Writing in second person, Quinn tracks the development of the game and the release into the world. She never expected the kind of splash her game received.

“You have inadvertently become a beacon for the cause of depression,” Quinn writes. “A massive conversation has begun around the game, sometimes positive, sometimes negative … you’re happy that a lot of people feel like they can talk about this enormous, invisible thing (depression) they have always been unsure of in the public eye.”

In “The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird,” Ian Bogost explores how such a simple app game became so popular (before the developer, overwhelmed by the success, pulled the game from the Apple App store). Bogust’s exploration of game design, and the ways in which Flappy Bird both ignored and followed the “rules” is intriguing, particularly when he dips into how games reflect culture, and vice versa.

“In game design circles,” Bogost writes, “we sometimes wax poetic about the elegance and simplicity of a design, the way complex emergent behaviors arise from simple rules and structures … The best games are not for us (or for anyone), but instead strive to be what they are as much possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.”

The State of Play is a needed book, in that it steps back from video games and examines the ways in which culture and gaming are meshed together, warts and all. NOTE: there are some themes and language in here that might not be appropriate for classrooms, so you might want to read it first before bringing it in for students to read or use.

Peace (beyond the game),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Planetary Leap


flickr photo shared by Hubble Heritage under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

My youngest son’s elementary school hosts an annual Science Fair. It’s a voluntary thing, with showcases during the day for students and at night for parents. My son, who has done entries in the past but only half-heartedly, wasn’t all that interested this year, even though it is his last year at his elementary school.

“What about designing and showcasing a video game that other kids can play during the fair?”  I asked. “With a science element?”

That got his attention, and we chatted about getting him back into Gamestar Mechanic to design a game that he could put on display, for kids to play. I reminded him that it would have to connect with science, and he brainstormed the idea of the Solar System.

His game is called Planetary Leap, and involves the “story frame” of an explorer going to check out Pluto but who has crash-landed on Neptune, and now needs to find portals to come back home to Earth. He’s sprinkling researched information about some of the planets within the story itself.

So far, so good. I am acting as technical director only, and a bit of an editor on the writing. He’s in a bit of a crunch because Friday is the Science Fair, and we sort of waited until the last minute to get on board (due to hemming and hawing). Just like a game designer with deadlines looming, right?

Meanwhile, he is interesting in building his video game even further after the Science Fair for the National STEM Video Game Challenge, which runs through August. That sort of motivating factor is interesting to see and witness, and I am enjoying watching him as a fifth grade video game designer coming into his own.

Peace (in the game),
Kevin

PS — this is my site for video game design in the classroom. Steal and use whatever might be helpful.

Play the Kid out of the Video Game Vortex

InternetKid26

I wanted to add an element in which you can join The Internet Kid on his adventures against the Video Vortex. So, come play the game The Kid is stuck inside of.

Peace (in getting out),
Kevin

At Middleweb: Nurturing Writing Skills with Video Game Design

My latest blog post for Middleweb is a reflection on the various kinds of writing activities we do in our video game design unit. I know this kind of sharing is important for teachers wondering about the potential for video game design but still juggling how to meet their curriculum goals.

Read Infusing Writing Standards into Video Game Design at Middleweb

These ideas were part of a presentation done this past week at a technology conference, and I am revamping the presentation a bit for the Web, so I will share that out another day.

Peace (in the learning),
Kevin