What I Like about … Gamestar Mechanic

I want to give a shout-out to the designers of Gamestar Mechanic, which is the web-based application we used for our Game Design Camp last week. I am not sure what I would have done without the site, to be honest, since so many other game creation applications that I tried came across as clunky, difficult to use and didn’t have the learning mechanisms built in as nicely as Gamestar Mechanic does. I’ll admit that those difficulties are more with me than the sites, given my fair level of inexperience. But Gamestar’s emphasis on the learning made all the difference in the world,
While we paid a little for our premium service at Gamestar, the site has free accounts for students and for teachers. The premium service opens up different possibilities and extends the abilities of users, but the free service would be a fine starting place for any teacher thinking about bringing gaming into the classroom. It’s important to note that Gamestar is about Game Design, and not about programming. I had some students in the camp who wished we had plunged into more programming of games. But we were all about game design.

What I like about Gamestar Mechanic:

  • Simple to set up a “classroom” account by teachers and easy to share the link with students for joining in. It literally took just a few minutes;
  • No email necessary for student accounts, although you would be better off linking the student accounts to a classroom/teacher email (in case passwords get lost);
  • Quests are designed for students to play games and learn gaming skills. I particularly liked that users have to “repair” broken games and learn about the elements of building games. Also, as you move through the Quests and other challenges, you “earn” more tools, such as sprites, backgrounds, music, etc. That reward system for playing the Quests was pretty powerful;
  • Graphic novel stories introduce the characters and the overall narrative of the Quests. Not every student read the graphic stories, but it appealed to certain kids, for sure;
  • As the teacher administrator of my gaming classroom, the site gave me data about my players. I could “see” how far my students were in their Quests, how many comments they had posted on other games and how many games they had designed — both in draft stage and in publishing stage. This would be valuable in a classroom learning setting;
  • I loved that the site kicks out some basic statistics for a student game creator, too — allowing you to see how many people started the game, how many finished, and what level was most difficult for users. I used this tool with a few students to revise their games;
  • It’s good to have a place in the site where users can play and experience top-rated games, see the various contest winners (we were playing some STEM games), and also view classmates’ games in our own classroom area. Known as Game Alley, this area became a regular destination for our gamers;
  • You can embed games and links to games created by students in other websites. The downside is that you have to be logged in as a user at a Gamestar to play the games. Or at least, that’s what it seemed to me. It may be that there is a time limit on how long a link is open to the public.
  • Tech support for Gamestar Mechanic was fantastic. Whenever I had a question, the tech people were back to me within a few hours, with answers. One student found a glitch in a Quest and when we emailed it to tech support, they were grateful for the discovery and gave kudos to the students (and also, a special little award badge that you collect in Gamestar).

Thoughts from students about Gamestar Mechanic:

  • They wished they could do more player vs. player game design. The site is only set up for player vs. computer.
  • They wanted to manipulate more of the controls of sprites and design elements.
  • They wanted to upload their own backgrounds and music and create their own sprites from scratch.
  • They wanted more game immersion possibilities (first person)

Overall, it was a very positive experience to use Gamestar Mechanic for the camp, and I would highly recommend it as a starting point for game design in the classroom.
Peace (in the mechanic),

Musing Afterwards: Gaming Reflections 8

I know I shared the video collage yesterday from our game design camp but I wanted to do one final video reflection to wrap up some thoughts around the camp and the possibilities for the classroom. These videos are becoming part of a collection I am developing over at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site around game design and learning, and how a teacher dips their toes into the water.

Peace (in the reflections),

Scenes from the Game Design Camp

Our camp ended yesterday and it was a resounding success. The kids published more than 50 games and learned much about game design and collaboration. Here are some scenes from the week.

Peace (in the games),

Expert Advice: The Design of a Video Game

We had another visitor into our Game Design Camp yesterday. Bryant Paul Johnson is an amazing artist, webcomic creator and graphic novelist, and he has also done work in the video game industry. He came in yesterday to talk to our young gamers about the process of game design, although the conversation at one point turned to “modding” games, the role of the player in the modern age of gaming, and the use of cheat codes. It was pretty fascinating to hear the kids talk about things they have discovered — either by chance or by design of the programmers — and Bryant did a wonderful job of guiding the discussion.

The various elements of the design process that Bryant discussed included:

  • Design: Coming up a concept or idea, and establishing logical rules for game play. Bryant actually went into the idea of rules for quite a bit, pointing that games with no rules or with rules that don’t have any logical underpinning are not fun for the player. Rules — such as how you get rewards or how you lose a life — allow the player to have expectations from the game.
  • Programming: The coding work that is the architectural underneath the game. Bryant explained that programming is the most important work you almost never see. And this is the part that takes the longest to do, too. He noted that some programmers leave various surprises embedded in the work, such as Easter Eggs, or little images or doorways or other items as a way to break up the monotony of months of programming work.
  • Art: The graphic elements, including style and movement and flow. Bryant is an artist, so he explained to the camp how the art is the interface that users see the most (even though the code is what they play) so the artwork has to be designed to be user-friendly, but also interesting. The style of a game often comes from the art, he noted.
  • Sound: The use of music and sound effects to engage the player and shape the mood of the game. This is interesting because the computers in our lab don’t have speakers, so we’ve been playing silently. But Bryant noted that sound effects can shape the gaming experience — adding foreshadowing elements or setting the emotional response at certain levels for the user.
  • Play-testing: Playing games in order to find out where they don’t work, and then fix the bugs. In fact, one of our campers found a bug in Gamestar Mechanic, which we reported, and the company responded rather quickly, saying they were now working on it. And the player who noticed the bug gets a special “badge” from Gamestar. I’ve pointed out to the camp that developers need players to test games, and that clear communication of where the bugs are is crucial (what level, what action, etc.)

I’ve been lucky to get visitors into the camp. They have been generous with their time and their expertise.

Peace (in the game),

Moving into the WMWP Connect Space

WMWP Connect Homepage
This afternoon, I am heading off to our Summer Institute at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project in order to give our teachers a tour of our new online space, which is called Connect, and which is part of the National Writing Project’s new push to provide a networking space that encompasses both the entire NWP network and individual sites. I’m a little worried because, to be truthful, I don’t have a full handle on the Connect platform (built off Drupal, I believe) and find it a bit difficult to navigate and manage right now. I am hoping that with experience will come ease.

But I will pitch it to our SI folks as a way to dip their toes into something new, just my own Summer Institute did when we were introduced to Weblogs in a time when blogs were certainly not in fashion and had certainly not even begun to take hold much in classrooms. I remember thinking “OK,” and diving into something new. There were times when it was frustrating but I kept at it, and learned quite a bit. I am hoping our 2011 folks can do the same. I hope.

Peace (in the Connect-ions),

An Inside Look at the Game Development World

Idea to Game Concept

(from Hitpoint Studio Presentation)

Our Game Design camp was fortunate to have two visitors yesterday from a local game development company called Hitpoint Studios, which makes a wide variety of games (We have another visitor coming in today). Dorinda and Jerry from Hitpoint gave a thoughtful presentation about what goes on in the development of a video game, and what my co-instructor Tina and I liked most of all was how they explained all of the skills that one would need to get a job as a game developer.

Here are some of my notes:

Jobs in the Game Industry

  • Programmer
  • Artists
  • Animators
  • Artist Techs
  • Tester/Quality Assurance
  • Game Writers
  • Designers
  • Project Managers

And here are some of the academic skills that they say are needed for the variety of jobs:

  • Math
  • Logic
  • Drawing
  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Physics
  • Composition/Writing
  • Acting
  • Communication
  • Attention Span
  • Organization

Dorinda and Jerry both encouraged our middle school campers to consider advanced classes in math, programming and writing in high school if they truly are interested in entering the game industry. I loved that message — that gaming is more than just playing a game. Writing and story development and collaboration are key components to developing and publishing a successful game. Remember that next time that gamer in your classroom asks: “Why is writing so important?” They also suggested getting into development with Flash software, since most mobile and web-based games are built in some version of Flash.

Peace (in the game),

Word Cloud: What Makes a Good Game

We began our Game Design camp with some introductions and some talk about what makes a good game. This is an important focus because we are hoping that the video games they end up making in the four days they are with us have some coherence and playability to them, and are not just games tossed together. The phrase “story backbone” is something Tina and I emphasized with the kids on the first day of our camp, which was a great four hours of excitement and play and just pure teenage boy energy (The camp is all boys, 14 of them, which is somewhat unfortunate, I think. We were hoping for a few girls, although these boys are pretty cool.)

On a notecard, we had them write out their top three favorite games (most of which I had never heard of, but I didn’t tell that to them), and then on the other side of the card, they wrote out three or so qualities of a good game. I had them think about what makes them want to come back to play a game again and again.

This word cloud captures the main ideas and I have to say, I love that Story/Plot came up a few times. I think they realize that a narrative hook is necessary for a good game.
Game Elements

Peace (at the camp),

Let the Gaming Begin

This morning, we start the first day of our Game Design Camp for middle school students that is being co-sponsored by our Western Massachusetts Writing Project and a local vocational high school.

Yeah, I am a little nervous because this is something entirely new and my camp partner, Tina, and I are wading into relatively unknown terrain. We actually had a very funny email exchange yesterday in which Tina was working her way through some challenges at the Gamestar Mechanic site and she thought she needed some help through a particular level. So, here I am, trying to envision where she might be as she is trying to explain where she is in the game system, and we’re both feeling like teenagers caught up in video game fever.

‘Cept it was the Fourth of July and beautiful outside, and really … video games? But they are engaging games and you do get caught up in the idea of the challenge and of moving ahead. It’s no wonder we tag the label of “addictive” to gaming at time for some kids. There’s a real tangible thrill in overcoming a level, and in Gamestar Mechanic, every level you play earns you more tools to create your own games.

(Tina got through her difficult level, through no help from me. Just thought she needed some props here.)

This morning, our plan is to:

  • Introduce ourselves and slight history of gaming
  • Share out the top three best games that they love to play and three reasons why a game is “good” (on notecards)
  • Work in collaborative groups on a non-tech game and then play each other’s games
  • Watch a documentary DVD about the history of gaming
  • Snack
  • Play some ‘old style’ games, such as PacMan, Donkey Kong, etc.
  • If time, get signed in and fool around with Gamestar Mechanic

I am going to try to photo document as much as I can and intend to (if time) do more videotape reflections about the camp experience.

Peace (in the camp),

A Poem for the 4th: What We Found

We’re doing some writing over at our iAnthology space, and the topic was found poems, using a Shel Silverstein poem as a mentor text. I went in another direction, with a short memory about finding something on the Fourth of July after the explosions have died down.


After the last smash of gunpowder in the air –
after the screams and whistles died down –
after the crowds dispersed,

we went searching for the carcasses of the fireworks
and used our flashlights to find the tattered cardboard remains
on the pavement,
laying about like dead ants in clusters.

The cold night air smelled of sulfur
and the bodies were still warm to the touch,
as if the trajectory into the stars was just too much to bear
for such a little rocket.

You gently cupped the ones that didn’t work,
imagining the possibilities for failure,
even as I stuffed the tubes of others into my pockets,
remembering the explosions and all that expended energy.

Peace (in what remains),