The Games They Play

Have you ever asked your students what kind of games they play outside of school? I did, mainly because we are moving into a game design unit next week and I was curious about what games they like to do in their own time. I told them it could be video games, board games, playground games, whatever. The list I got from my students included a lot of games I know but also, a lot I don’t know.

The one that kept popping up on some lists was Minecraft, and I have one student who is constantly talking to me about it. I don’t know much about it, other than what I have read in magazines and what my student has talked to me about. But I think I might need to delve into the world-building game a bit more, and my navigator might be my student. I was thinking of how I could have my student be the teacher in the classroom, showing me (and then, showing his peers) what Minecraft is all about.

I liked that Chess was on the list. There was a time when I taught my students how to play Chess, but I haven’t done that in some time. I’d like to do that again. (I am now teaching my seven year old son the game. It brings back memories of teaching my older sons, too, but now the oldest one kicks my butt every time. I may need to keep some tricks up my sleeve. At my younger son’s school, the principal sets aside time in his day to play Chess with students. I think that’s a great idea.)

What games do your students play? And why do they keep playing them? (which is really what I am after here, as we begin to think about how to engage a player in a game)

Peace (in the games),


The Good, the Bad, the Ugly of Video Game Design

We’re about to launch into an intensive two-week Game Design unit around science (more on that this weekend) and along with slowly getting my students gaming, I am trying to get them thinking about game design. Yesterday, I asked them to take a short assignment of their thoughts on what makes a game good and what makes a game bad. I tried to steer them to thinking of the elements of game design.

One student wrote this on their paper:

“It makes my brain do interesting things.”

I love that quote because it captures why I am even bothering to think about video game design and development in the classroom. It’s all about pushing my students to think different (Thanks, Steve Jobs), create something interesting, and step into the spotlight as a published game developer. Along the way, we’re going to tackling many skills: writing, the engineering process, visual literacy, authentic publishing, peer feedback, etc.

Here are the collection of answers from the assignment, as Wordles. There was plenty of repetitions in their answers, but these capture the main ideas I saw in their writing. Notice how graphics, and sound, and playability are all in the mix. That awareness is a good start for our conversations.
Good Game Design Elements
Bad Game Design Elements

Peace (in the game),


Symbolism, Critical Thinking Skills and Video Game Design

I know I have been writing a lot about gaming lately, but that is because I am on one of those journeys — trying to figure it out while sensing the possibilities for learning. I was thinking the other day about various educational conferences and how there is such a lack of sessions on gaming, even though I will bet that most of our students spend a lot of their time outside of school with games. (maybe too much?). I was perusing the K12 Online Conference and thankfully, I did find one session on gaming (Gaming to Learn by Learning to Game by Leigh Zeitz). Luckily, last year, I attended a session around video game at the National Writing Project meeting. But without that,  I would have been in the dark about the possibilities.

Anyway, the other day, I was designing a new game that sought to celebrate Women in Science. This is sort of an experimental prototype of what I am going to be having my students doing very soon (and I can’t tell you how many students are coming up to me, asking when when when are we going to get back to our gaming site — Gamestar Mechanic). My science teacher and I are starting our discussions around merging video game design, literacy and science (in this case, a geography unit that includes layers of the Earth, tectonic plates, etc.) into a project next month with connections to the new Massachusetts Curriculum Standards (ie, Common Core).

As I was working on my video game, I realized how much symbolism plays a role in game design. Unless you are going deep into the programming (I am not) and developing every little item yourself (definitely not), then you use the tools that are provided for you and imagine how one thing might represent another. For example, I needed a player avatar to represent the scientists. Well, no scientists were on my list of characters in the gaming system, so I chose a simple player (no shooting abilities) that best captured the idea of an intrepid explorer (which is what women scientist are, right?)

Since there were three women scientists in my game (Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, and Barbara McClintock), I created three “levels” to the game to represent each of their discoveries. I mulled over the idea of enemies. I know I wanted challenges, but did I want enemies? I decided that the enemy avatars would be “doubters,” those who didn’t believe that a women could make the same level of discoveries as men. The “doubters” are throughout the three levels — a shared experience of these pioneers. Each has to escape, elude or defeat the doubters who would stop them. That seemed appropriate.

I struggled with the symbolic layout of the levels of the game, however. How do you represent discovering radioactive material? Or splitting atoms? Or understanding genetics in a new way? Mostly, I used treasure/jewels to represent the “discovery” phase of the games, with some dangerous roadblocks along the way (for example, Marie Curie is in danger with radioactive materials, so she loses energy and lives as she works with the materials). For Lise Meitner’s level, I decided to “split” the maze into three sections, representing how she “split” the atom, and each section has a challenge area for the player to overcome.

I’m not going to say that some of the symbolic representation here doesn’t feel a bit forced at times. And I admit that teaching my students to do the same on some level for their gaming projects is going to be a challenge. (Although, layers of the Earth nicely coincides with a multi-level game, right?) This will be where the development of critical thinking skills will come into play. Or not. That will be part of the learning and the teaching around video game design. In some ways, THAT is the learning, not the game itself. The mental challenge of thinking through symbolism, and then creating a game that uses that representative ideas for information while still balancing creating a challenging game for an audience … that’s pretty heavy stuff, and it is also the very reason why game design should be part of how we can spark critical thinking skills in our students.

You want to play my Women in Science game? Go to the link or use the embedded game down below.


Peace (in the representations),


One Student’s Vision of A Video Game

We’ve been working our way into video gaming as a design lesson, slowly, and already, I can tell which students are getting hooked by the possibilities. Yesterday, one boy took me aside at the end of class. He’s one of those who is excited by the possibility that he is doing game design in school, and you can see his brain working overtime, trying to take advantage of the opportunity he now has to create video games with our Gamestar Mechanic site. He is one of the ones that I am diving into video game design for.

Here is our conversation:

“Mr. H, I started working on a new game this weekend.”

“I saw the games you posted. You did a nice job.”

“Not those. Another game. It’s going to be so big that the game will have multiple parts to it.”

“Levels? You mean, the game will have more than one ….”

“No,” he interrupted me, anxious to explain. “I have this whole story idea that involves animals escaping from captivity, and the game follows their journey as they run to freedom. They are going to have all these obstacles. I am going to design it so the story stretches over several games, like books in a series.”

I remembered now that he is reading The Warriors series.

“That sounds interesting.”

He nods. He looks to see if anyone else is listening in, for clearly, this is proprietary information that he doesn’t want to spill out yet.

“I am going to have all of these different challenges in it, and I am thinking of how I can use Gamestar to …” and then he launched into some various strategies, wondering what I thought, and so we chatted a bit about the way forward.

I have been struggling to get this particular student to expand his writing this year, to go deeper into his stories and in his reflections. I don’t think he has seen the “meaning” of our work in the class as something tangibly useful. So, I was all ears as he not only mapped out an interesting narrative (inspired by his reading) but also verbally mapped out the “writing” of the story as a video game. I will be interested to see how his project unfolds.

I should note that this is not a class project. This is not something I am assigning him to do (we will be doing a video game project eventually, but not yet). So, the motivation to create something meaningful for himself and for a larger gaming audience that will play his game is one of those moments that I am going to hang on to as we move forward. It’s a moment of insight that I might have otherwise missed if I ignored gaming as a passion for him, and for all of the other students who did not pull me aside but feel the same way.

Peace (in the game),


The Iterative Process of Game Design: Funnel Charts

game funnel chart
There are many things I like about Gamestar Mechanic as a site to teach game design. It’s easy to use, easy to publish and easy to connect young gamers into a gaming community. What I like best is how the games you play teach you about how to make your own games. One example is an activity that allows you to earn backgrounds and the games in the activity are all about colors that match and colors that clash, and how different tools might work with different backgrounds, and how others might not. It’s a really interesting activity, complete with a graphic novel story that underpins the work with a narrative.

When you get into the real design of your games, the site also provides you with an incredibly valuable tool known as the Funnel Chart. As people play your game, the chart shows you how players have progressed through the levels of your game idea. The visual will give the game designer clues as to levels that might have been too easy or too difficult, and how many players who started the game actually stayed with it until the end. Game designers use this knowledge, usually in beta mode, to engage in the iterative process of evaluation and improvement, making incremental tweaks to improve the gaming experience.

The Funnel Chart above is for a new game I created over the weekend as I was thinking of how we can bring a science theme into our game design. I went with a look at women in science. I’ll go into more depth around that game design another day, but I  notice on the funnel chart that 10 people started my game but no one finished it. And only one person made it to the last level. I might need to make the first level a little easier so that players don’t get frustrated and give up. I want them to be challenged, but also, successful.

Without this kind of game play data, I would be sort of in the dark about what I created and about the experience of players. I know the game — I know how to play it in and out because I spent a lot of time designing and playing it myself. Understanding what others experience is an important element to make my game better. This is what I will be teaching my students as they develop their own games around a scientific theme in the coming month or two.

Peace (in the funnel),

PS — I am going to try to share out the game. It seems like you can share outside of Gamestar for a short period of time, so the link may or may not be active when you view this.

Go to Women in Science game


The Guilt of Gaming

(Want to give the game a try? Click here to play my video game)

You know there is that the famous axiom about writing: Write what you know.

And I have the Charlie Parker quote here in my blog as my tagline: If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.

So why am I feeling a bit guilty about playing video games in my spare moments? Isn’t a corollary of those sayings: You need to play the game to teach the game?

I have been introducing game design to my sixth grade students (moving towards a STEM-centered game design project later next month) and while I am open to their insights and inputs (most of them have way more gaming experience than I do), I know I need to keep up my skills on video games, too. I need to speak their language and I need to at least convince them that I sort of know what I am talking about (even if I have to fake it once in a while). Still, every time I pop into a gaming site that we use, I feel this little twinge of guilt.

Is this really what I should be doing with my time?

The other day at school, we had our parent conferences. The meetings went fine, but a few parents wanted to know more about the spelling and mechanics strategies that we are using in sixth grade. They reminisced about “the old days” of ELA, when students used pages of worksheets to drill a skill into their heads. I don’t do that.  I laid out what we do to help them, by revisiting spelling strategies and making a difference between published work and draft work, and editing. I talked of using technology as a tool (we have a number of Spelling Ace devices in the room, and a load of dictionaries, and they are encouraged to ask an outside reader to help find errors).

Somewhere, though, I heard this inner voice saying that maybe I should just drop game design as a part of a writing curriculum, and focus on writing mechanics and spelling lessons. Maybe my classroom should return to the days of ELA as I remember it — the drills on skills. I even found myself shaking my head in agreement when one parent bemoaned how electronic devices are turning kids off from reading books. It’s true. It is.

And yet here I am, teaching and encouraging gaming.

I try to shake off this inner voice reservation with the conviction that I work many of those basic writing skills into any project, including gaming. They will be keeping a game design journal, making storyboards, writing a narrative project that guides their game, etc, — all of which will require finished/finalized writing that meet high expectations around spelling and grammar. I remind myself about the need for more visual literacy skills (all data from our state testing shows this as a major weakness with our students). I remember the way all of my students — four classes worth of sixth graders — were incredibly engaged in constructing a simple video game the other day. I keep telling myself that this is a good path to be on.

But I still feel this twinge of guilt. It must be a parent-thing. Or a teacher-thing, Or an adult-thing. Gaming can’t be learning if its entertainment, right?

Peace (as I return to the game),


A Simple Maze Task Offers Complex Lessons about Game Design

gaming at the board
We’re still in the early stages of exploring Gamestar Mechanic as a place to learn about visual literacy and game design. Yesterday, I had my students “build” a simple maze game. Their task was to use bricks to create the walls, a single hero, a single villain, and one treasure chest somewhere in the maze. Gamestar makes it easy to build mazes. You choose your item and use your mouse to put it down. Hit “play” and test out your game.

But the lesson soon turned to one about the balance between making a game challenging and making a game too difficult to play. This is a crucial element of game design. If your game is too easy, the player gets bored. If it is too hard, the player gets frustrated. The key is to find that middle ground of being just challenging enough to inspire the player to try and try again, and eventually, succeed. The player has to have hope they can make it to the end of the game.

I brought this up a few times, particularly when one of my students took over my mac and began using the interactive board to build out her game. I let her, even though she didn’t ask, because the board is for them, not for me. And I found it interesting to watch her, as did many of the other students.

She was creating a very complex game, sweeping the pen (mouse) across the board to add many, many different things. She was working with the game designer in mind, it occurred to me. Across the room, a boy was deep in thought with his maze, carefully constructing the elements with the player in mind. His maze was carefully constructed. I liked his maze better because I was a player. I could see what I needed to do, and how I could win, even if there was a challenge to it. Her game had so many elements (she was experimenting and playing, which was fine) that I could not really focus on even where my player avatar was.
alex maze game

el maze game

What I might do different: I probably should have had them create a paper version of their maze game first, and then shift to the Gamestar Mechanic site. That would have provided a blueprint for them. But, as with some things when holidays roll around, we were limited to our time and I wanted to give them some experience before the Thanksgiving break.

On another note, many students were disappointed they could not yet publish their games to the Gamestar site. But they need to finish their first “Quest” in order to gain that privilege of being able to share their own games with others. I like that, as it not only provides incentive to get through the first part of the Gamestar system, but the system itself (a graphic novel story with games built in) is constructed to teach them all about game design (fixing broken games, learning about difficulty levels, adjusting characters and items, etc.)

Peace (in the maze),



What Gaming Looked Like in My Classroom

It was a mix of excitement (“We’re going to play video games?”) to chatter (“How did you do that?” – “Here, like this.” — “Cool. Thanks.”) to challenge (“Why is this sooooo hard … wait … I got it … yeah!”) to surprise (“Some of these games have shooters? In school?”) as I brought my four classes of sixth graders into Gamestar Mechanic yesterday in preparation for a future project around game design and visual literacy. When I mentioned they will be able to design and publish a game to a gaming community of other kids, and maybe take part in a national contest around game design, they were all ears and ready for action. (see yesterday’s post)

At one point, I had a student on my Mac with the Interactive Board up and running. I looked over and a crowd of kids were at the board, giving him advice. Apparently, he gotten to a level he could not master, and his classmates came over to help give him advice at the board. That was one of those “cool” moments for me, when they came together to solve a tricky game challenge.

I had one student who informed me that Minecraft has a teacher’s “shell” that might be perfect for the classroom and “you should really check that out, Mr. H” as I nodded, and made a mental note to do a little more research on Minecraft (which I did and found this wiki all about Minecraft and the classroom). When it comes to gaming, we teachers have to be open to the ideas of our students (but, we also need to be cautious that some of the games they play are not appropriate for school).

We had some odd technical difficulties that had me a bit more crazed than usual, but we found solutions and work-arounds, and the kids were more adaptive than I was at times, it seemed to me (don’t worry – I kept my cool .. no cursing ensued). I never got a real chance to have a full reflective conversation afterwards with them about their thoughts about Gamestar Mechanic. They were gaming right up until the end of class. I had to pry the laptops out of their fingers and kick them out of my room (slight exaggeration but still …)

We’ll be back. And I am certain a high number of kids were playing last night, too.
Peace (in the games),


Video Game Design, STEM Challenge and Visual Literacy


My plan for today is to bring all of my sixth graders up into Gamestar Mechanic to get situated with accounts, play around with the site and get a feel for what is possible. Sometime next month, we will move into a lesson and project around game design. I have to admit: I am curious to see which students latch onto the site and which don’t. I don’t expect every student to be highly wired into gaming but my kids have been open to just about anything I have thrown their way this year (and kids who don’t quite love comics enjoy our webcomic site at Bitstrips).

As I was putting my plans into place last night (and hoping I have access to our computer cart today), I came across this post about the 2011 STEM Video Game Challenge (and the video above, in which last year’s winner explains a bit about where his idea came from and how he went about his game design idea — incredibly insightful and valuable for my lesson! My students will definitely connect with this boy’s message.). As we move into various ways that literacy can extend into the content areas (including visual literacy, which gaming is), I am wondering if this is a kind of contest/challenge that I can take on with my students and what it would look like in the writing classroom. I have some ideas, but now I need to think it through a bit more.

I’m definitely intrigued by the possibilities …

Peace (in the game),
PS — check out this page of winners from last year’s competition.



When Life Imitates Video Games

Zombie Restaurant screenshot

We’re often talking in education circles about the ways that young people’s video gaming interests intersect with real world — either for good or for bad. This post is sort of a strange twist on that idea.
The other day, I had to stay home with my three boys (they had no school because of Election Day), and I took my older ones (ages 11 and 13) out to lunch at a new family diner that opened up. This was our first time in the joint. We wandered in and the two boys stopped dead in their tracks.
“This place …” one began, and the second picked it up,”This place is almost identical to the restaurant.”
“What restaurant?” I asked, as we made our way to a table. I thought they were thinking of some other place in town. A diner is often a diner, you know. But that is not what they were thinking about.
“The one in our game,” said one boy. “On the iPod.”
“Except,” the other one explained in a matter-of-fact tone, “without the Zombies.”
Apparently, one of their Zombie app games (what is it with Zombies anyway?) is structured around running a restaurant and the inside layout and color designs of that virtual business resembled the lay0ut this real business. And it was clear that was not the intent of the owners here. (Unless they really are Zombies).
My boys paid careful attention to the service we were given (which was slow and disorganized), and they played the “game” as if it were live in front of us, deducting points when the waitress gave us the wrong order and forgot to deduct a meal from our bill. And the quality of food led to a lowering of the waitress’ “score.”
“That’s another few points from her,” one would say, and the other would nod. “But if she changes the channel on the television, she can earn a few more back.” (That didn’t happen)
It was odd, watching them use the real place as a sort of gaming center as it if were some immersive experience.
But I suspect that more and more kids who are used to all sorts of gaming platforms will start to see the world through some of those same lens (minus the Zombies). It may not be as amusing as it was to my kids in that restaurant (which we won’t be going back to, thanks the huge reduction in points) but their activity is worth noticing and wondering about as we consider ways to engage learners.

Peace (in the game),