The UpDown Disaster: A Game of Buoyancy

opening to game

I’ve been working on a mentor game to share with my students as they begin work on their own science-based video game design project. We’re using the theme of “buoyancy” this year. I am still working to improve the second level, which is a bit difficult to play and is a stretch to represent the science concept.

Here’s what I came up with (note- Gamestar does not play well on mobile devices):

Peace (in the play),

Collaboration Conundrum: The Science-based Game Design Project

updown disaster buoyancy game collage

I admit: I have had a bit of a struggle this year meshing my video game project with our science curriculum. My science colleague is fully moving into the Next Generation Science Standards and that re-alignment on her end (which I support, of course) has made it difficult for me to coordinate an overall topic and science connection for our video game design unit now underway.

In the past, she has often been either at Layers of the Earth, Plate Tectonics or Cells at this time of the school year. Those topics provided more logical metaphorical connections to game design. She’s at Buoyancy now. Hmmm. A bit trickier.

So, after much consulting with her and agreeing that what I am doing with ELA class should still connect and support what she is doing in Science class, I decided to move ahead and see what will happen when we use the concept of “buoyancy” as a theme for a video game design project. I don’t expect this to be easy, necessarily. I do expect to be surprised by what students come up with. I’m working hard to find ways to frame the concept within the confines of the tools available inside Gamestar Mechanic.

I think it will come down to gravity. You can tinker with gravity when making games — setting it high or low — and I am going to help students use gravity as the metaphor for buoyancy, and see where that goes.

I am working on a mentor video game right now to share with my students, to talk through my own design choices. I’ll share that game out tomorrow, and invite you to play it.

Peace (in the game),


Slice of Life: A Little Bit Of Frizzle

(This is a post for Slice of Life, a weekly writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Come write.)

You should have seen the excitement on my sixth graders’ faces when I pulled out my large stack of Magic School Bus books yesterday during a lesson around integrating science themes into narrative stories. They will be doing a version of same task soon, as they launch into a science-based video game design project that will take us right up to holiday break, and what better model and mentor text than the Magic School Bus?

I had a series of guiding questions they had to answer in writing as they read their books — on earthquakes, the solar systems, electricity and many more topics — and there was silence as they read, punctuated every now and then by a chuckle, or a “I remember this one.” There’s such power in picture books.

Our follow-up discussions about science themes and conflict/resolution were rich and productive, too. Ms. Frizzle did not let me down.

And for those students who finished early, I had a second stack of Max Axiom graphic novels, which also have a scientific theme as scientist Max Axiom explains more complicated science than Ms. Frizzle. I like the Max Axiom graphic novels, but they are more straightforward non-fiction text (with some magical elements involved … Max can shrink, go through time, etc … he is sort of his own magic school bus …).

And now, we get ready to make our own science-based games …

Peace (in the share),

Writing Out Instructions: Game Hacking

Game hack instructions

My students are hacking the card game, UNO, as a way for me to talk about game design and game mechanics and creative thinking, as well as to weave in expository writing, speaking and listening skills, and scientific engineering principles (shhh .. don’t tell them that part … they just think they are playing games).

Yesterday, on our second 20 minute design challenge, they had to revisit the rules of their hacked games they worked on earlier this week and as a group, they were tasked with collectively writing out an instruction “manual” in clear, concise language so that, next week, another group of students can play their games.

Game hack instructions

Lots of discussions and revising and clarifying and making visible what was inferred took place, as they tried to play the game through a visitor’s eyes. I’m not sure all of the instructions are as clear as they could be, but we will have “home station hosts” at each game area to help others understand how to play the games.

Game hack instructions

Peace (in the game),

The 20 Minute Game Design Challenge

20 min game design challenge

Here’s what my sixth graders had to work with:

  • Card deck of UNO
  • Chess/Checker board
  • A Pair of Dice
  • 12 Fake Coins
  • 20 Minutes

Their task: Redesign the game of UNO into something new (or, hack the game of UNO, as I pitched it) by collectively agreeing in small groups to new rules of the new game and then writing out a draft set of expository instructions. Oh, and prototype the game, if time.





The timer is ticking! Have fun!

They did, and as I watched each small group of students work collaboratively together yesterday, I noticed:

  • Speaking and listening skills on full display
  • Shared/common language on game design mechanics (Variables, Prototype, Play-testing, etc.)
  • Negotiation of ideas through rules of discussion
  • Agreement and dissent, ending in resolution
  • Expository writing practice

Later, they will formalize the rules of their hacked UNO game and use an instruction manual from Monopoly as a “mentor text” to put it into a common format. Then they will “teach” their game to other students in other groups.

This activity is all part of the introduction to our unit on Game Design, which we have just started in our ELA class, and which will move into designing a science-based video game project. We have a long way to go, but this is always a good start ….

Peace (off the board),


Feeding the Dawg: A Contraption Maker Contraption

Dang. This is fun. I learned about Contraption Maker from a friend, Melvina, in the Making Learning Connected MOOC when I was sharing out a Rube Goldberg contraption the other day as part of systems thinking (the train of ideas just keeps on rolling), and decided to give Contraption Maker a try.

Am I ever glad I did!

making the dawg

First of all, it solves my own puzzle around teaching Rube Goldberg contraptions: how to move from the visual literacy component of systems thinking and design to having students construct a contraption without spending weeks on a project? And how to move even more science, and Next Generation Standards, into our writing class in an engaging way?

Second of all, Contraption Maker folks reached out immediately to an email I sent them via the educator section of their website. Seriously, Deborah, their helpful educational outreach person, was responding not long after I sent a query with helpful advice on how to get started. And they gave me a free license. Listen: I’m not that special. They apparently are giving free licenses to teachers … and licenses for all classroom computers for students!

Say that again? Free for schools? Yes. I guess they make money when kids get hooked and want it at home, which is where a family would have to purchase a license. I’m fine with that model.

Third, I was pleasantly surprised that you can record a video of your contraption in real time and export it to YouTube for sharing out (see above). It was a great motivator for me as I was tinkering. There is also multiplayer mode.

Now, the Contraption Maker program is a software download, so keep that mind, but there is a teacher dashboard for keeping track of student progress and work, and plenty of video tutorials, and it has play modes and design modes (my focus) as well ways to go even deeper into the code design (I think … still going over it all).

Overall, thumbs up for Contraption Maker.  I found it to be a perfect way to play with systems thinking in the CLMOOC this week, too, and can’t wait to show it to students. Go ahead. Give it a try.

Go, Dawg, Go.

Peace (in the engine room),

Pitching Game Design as Learning Practice

Writing and Game Design Compared

We’re near the end of this Make Cycle on gaming for the Making Learning Connected MOOC. There have been some interesting games made and played in the CLMOOC community, as well as some confusion about where to even begin and how gaming might have implications for the classroom.

I’ve long tried to make the pitch to other teachers that engaging students in game design is both a valuable learning experience and a motivating activity.  In the first year that my co-teachers and I implemented a game design unit between science and ELA, we set up a website to capture our own learning process and to share resources.

Check out Video Game Design

And you don’t need computers, either, to engage in the merits of gaming. Hack a game or invent a game to be played with cards or on the playground.

hacking uno
Or hack the game of chess.

Or have students engage in persuasive writing about the merits of gaming, or have them write a review about a game they play.

Use storyboarding a game as an analogy for drafting a piece of writing.

Gaming Storyboards 2013

Consider game design as a means to teach students about peer review and iterative process.

Playtesting Peer Review 2014

Connect game design to other curricular areas and then use a site like Gamestar Mechanic to build and publish authentic video games.

Yes, it might be a little uncomfortable for a teacher who is not a “gamer.” I am not a gamer. But I am intrigued by games, and when we do our science-based game design project each year, the hum of learning and activity and engagement is something to behold.

Peace (in the play),


Surfacing Connected Learning Principles

We’ve been toying with games at the Making Learning Connected MOOC all week but I was curious about how to map out some of the game ideas from everyone onto the principles of Connected Learning, which is the underpinning of the CLMOOC.

This Thinglink project is my attempt at doing that. Hover over the principles to find some links to games that meet the various elements of Connected Learning.

Peace (in the curate),

More Tinkering with Twine

Twining Around

Over at CLMOOC, some folks are playing with Twine this week for Interactive Fiction as game design. That brought me back onto Twine to play around with it a bit, too. Twine is a bit of a learning curve, but not too difficult.

Check out my story

Peace (in the twisting and turning of the twine),

How Systems Thinking Impacts Game Design (and Play)

If you know me at all, you may know that my sons are HUGE fans of baseball. In fact, two of them are still playing summer baseball even after the spring baseball season ended. They play, and my wife and I watch, a lot of baseball. And we love it.

Baseball board game tourneyRecently, another parent of a little leaguer told me about a board game for baseball that is built on a complex system of stats of players. As my sons also collect baseball cards and invent their own games using the stats (still the best kind of game), I decided to get the APBA Baseball set. It was a bit costly (about 4o bucks) but I figured (or hoped) it would be worth it.

It is, for us. My kids love this game, and two of my sons and I have spent the last few days engaged in a modified baseball World Series of sorts, with a round robin series of play. I oversaw the LA Dodgers. Another son managed the Red Sox. The third, the Cardinals. My youngest son won the tournament yesterday. I took a series of images of our days of play:   Baseball board game tourney

I bring this up because the Making Learning Connected MOOC is engaged in considering games and systems for this week’s Make Cycle, and while most of us are engaged in the “game” part of things, it is actually the “systems” part of things that is most interesting, particularly from a learning perspective.

Systems thinking is concerned with the overall design of an experience (a game, or a business, or a production line, etc.) and how every single part in the system has a role in determining the various possible outcomes. So, if one element of the system gets tweaked or changed, it has a ripple effect down the line (sort of like that famous candy scene in I Love Lucy).

In game design, systems thinking is a core philosophy. Either the game designer changes elements as part of the iterative (or revision) process, to improve the game (think of all of those updates you get for your apps on your mobile devices) or they build potential changes into the gameplay itself, allowing the player to make choices and thus, affect the outcome of the game. If you think of that idea for a second, you quickly realize how complex the job of a game designer is.

Here is how the Make Cycle leaders put it in their newsletter announcement:

The systems within which we operate can be difficult to understand – and even more so, difficult to discuss. Games – in all their forms – are engaging tools for experimentation. As dynamic and interactive works of art, games can inspire us to tackle and engage with complexity. Plus, games, and the ways in which they are designed, enable us to experiment and have fun with failure: the ability to try, fail, and try again is a powerful tool.

I also wrote a bit about this systems thinking when reviewing the book Gaming the System, which is part of a series of excellent teaching resources around system thinking for the classroom. This quote still resonates with me:

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, Gaming the System

When my sons and I first opened up the APBA Baseball game, we were dumbfounded by how complex the game was. Page after page of how each “at bat” is impacted by stats, the roll of dice, the strength of the opposing pitcher …. all meant fairly replicate the actual play of a baseball game. After taking a breath, we dove into the rules, taking it step by step and then we did what you need to do when faced with a complex gaming system: we played the game, and learned as we went along. We made adjustments to our play.

There are still some elements we know we need to learn about: base running options, injuries to players, when best to pull and replace pitchers, etc. The system is complex and that complexity keeps drawing us in. If the system were simple, we’d be bored and I would be mad at spending $40 on the game. But we are still figuring out this system of board game baseball, and we’re almost ready for another world series of play.

Batter up.

Peace (in the system of thinking),