Slice of Life: Well, That Was Chaotic

(This is for Slice of Life, a weekly writing invitation by Two Writing Teachers to capture moments in our lives. Come write with us.)

Buoyancy Games Collage

Well, that was chaotic.

My goal in class yesterday was pretty straightforward. We are working on nearing the end of our Science-based Video Game Design unit, and peer-review/play-testing is an important element for young game designers to gather an outside perspective. When you build a video game, you know all the ins and outs of it — all the tricks of the game —  and at some point, that is not a good thing. You lose perspective.

What you need is an outside voice. A player to play your game.

So, our activity had students working the room, playing each other’s games in a rather logical sequential order, and writing out “warm” and “cool” feedback on the games. We’ve used this same strategy with writing this year, so it is not new. I even had sentence starters for both feedback points on the interactive board and situated around the room as paper copies.

But clearly, giving feedback on writing (while not easy) is much more focused than giving feedback on student-created video games. I don’t know what I expected but the craziness that ensued was not quite it.

First of all, every game took a different amount of time to complete, so we were never quite in sync with the rotations. Some were still playing while others were done and ready to move on.

Second, the designers of the video games kept their eyes and ears open for players talking about their games, and they would leave the game they were play-testing to talk to the players of their game. That messed up the whole rotation idea. (It also made me think, next time I am going to more of a partner/feedback activity to allow for this to happen in a more controlled fashion.)

Third, I had to keep emphasizing that “cool” feedback did not mean merely writing “this is hard.” Some of the games are indeed hard to beat and play. That’s why we were getting a peer reviewer, to give that perspective. Instead, I said over and over and over (and over and over and over) that good advice would follow that with “and here is my recommendation …” and be specific.

Fourth, the noise noise noise noise. Ok. So my room can get noisy at times, particularly with game design when work and sharing and socializing seem to mingle more than usual, but this was just a bit too noisy even for me. (Good thing my supervisor didn’t wander in). I suspect it is the combination of holidays – vacation – game design – adolescence. I needed ear plugs.

I would not call the peer review/play-testing activity a failure, but I was not sure I quite achieved what I hoped for — the learning objective centered on giving and receiving specific feedback on a project that will provide insights for revision and improvement.

And then .. and then … as they shifted back to our games, I noticed so many of them reading with attention the comments left on their games by peers, and then they were asking follow-up questions, and then some of them (thankfully) began the process of revising levels — adding more lives, fixing the narrative text, revisiting the science concepts, removing obstacles — and suddenly, the chaos was worth it.

Some days are just like that, aren’t they?

Peace (beyond the games),

PS — this chart that I put together one year guides my thinking here ..

Writing and Game Design Compared


A Growing Collection of Science Video Games

Buoyancy Games Collage

Look at this growing collection of science-based video games my students are creating and publishing in Gamestar Mechanic. It’s pretty cool to see them all in a collage box like this … and more of the games get published every day … now, I need to start playing the games so I can grade the projects … The science theme this year has been “buoyancy” and “gravity.”

I’ll start featuring some of you to play, if you want, as I start looking at them more closely.

One early game I would recommend for her use of story in creating her game is this one — Stolen, by Suzannah — notice how she used message blocks to create a strong narrative.

stolen game (by S) screenshot

I’ve been stressing until my voice hurts the three intersecting elements of our project: Game, Science, Story.

Game Story Science

Peace (in the game),

Now, this is a map … of the Gaming Worlds

I have a version of this map hanging up on the wall of my classroom right now. Groups of students stand there, reading it, for long stretches of time.

The map comes from the Boston Sunday Globe. We are deep into our game design unit right now, and so when I saw this map created by this 17-year-old (Martin Vargic), I saw it as a perfect complement to our discussions around the impact of gaming on the world at large.

You can read more about Vargic here at the Globe.

I see that Vargic also has a book of his maps out for sale. It’s worth a gander. I have it ordered for myself (a little holiday gift)

Peace (on and off the map),


Student Video Game Designers At Work

Student Game Designers at Work

It’s hard to resist gathering snapshots of the work going around my room during the science-based video game design project. I like how these students have their storyboards right next to them, using them as guides for the design.

Student Game Designers at Work

Peace (by design),

Game Design Mantra: Engage, Educate, Entertain

Three words I say every day to my game designers


My students are no doubt weary of me saying these three words every day as they work on their science-based video game project. But I find it helps to keep them focused on the three elements of our project.

I remind them that, as video game designers, they want to …

ENGAGE the player in a game that fun to play, hitting that “sweet spot” of not too hard, and not too easy, but just challenging enough (ie, the Goldilocks Principle).

EDUCATE the player about the science that should be baked into the game itself. Our focus is on Buoyancy and the science behind it is the underpinning of the games.

ENTERTAIN the player with an interesting story-frame — the narrative that the game is wrapped up in. I tell them to consider their audience as a player who is reading their story by playing their video game. Yes, it is a high concept, but it builds off our work last month with Interactive Fiction.

Every day, every class period, I am saying “Remember: Engage, educate, entertain.” And it does occur to me that this could be a mantra for any classroom, although some might quibble with the “entertain” element there as being as important as the “educate” one.

Peace (ummmmm),

Visualizing the Game: The Importance of Storyboarding

In the first stages of our science-based game design project, I have students do two steps of brainstorming. First, they have to write out some initial ideas for a story-frame (the narrative story around which the video game is built); the science and scientific vocabulary that they will bake into their game; and challenges or troubles they see on the horizon as they seek to bring their vision for a video game into reality.

Then, we shift into storyboarding. I emphasize a lot about the importance of this step, of putting onto paper a plan of design that will guide the development of the game. Even if they venture away from the paper design later, it will be an anchor point for them, a place to refer back to time and again.

Here are two storyboards from this year that I wanted to save as exemplars for next year:

From Ellie:

ellie storyboard game

From Will:

will storyboard game1

will storyboard game2

Peace (in the story on the board),

Student Game Developers’ Journals: Active Thinking

Game Developer Journal collage1

As part of our science-based video game design project now underway, my students have to keep a Game Designer Journal for reflective writing on their process of designing, building and publishing their video game projects. The collage above gathers some of the posts from the first day, as they were asked to reflect on what they like and don’t like (or find challenging) about using Gamestar Mechanic.

As always, I am right there with them, modeling what I am hoping they might do with their writing. We are using Google Docs, so that this reflective game journal becomes another piece of their writing portfolio this year.

Here are my first entries for my game project:

Mr H Game Developer Journal

Peace (reflect),

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),