Book Review: Gaming the System (Designing with Gamestar Mechanic)

This book — Gaming the System: Designing with Gamestar Mechanic — could not have arrived at a better time. I am knee-deep in our science-based video game design project right now, and while I have done gaming for a few years now and have a pretty solid handle on it, this look at game design through the lens of systems provides me with a fresh insight into the learning that is going on each day in my classroom.

The book is part of a series put out by MIT Press called INTERCONNECTIONS: Understanding Systems Through Digital Design.  There was a NWP Blogtalk radio show with the writers/editors that is worth checking out. I should note that I was an early reader of another book in this series, and received a free version of that book for my time and effort. But I did not read this one on gaming and bought for it myself. Also, the National Writing Project is one of the partners in the putting together the series, so I do know some of the folks involved.

This book, while somewhat pricey for a cash-strapped teacher, gives a powerful look at the potential of game design, connections to literacy and science standards, and plays out like a how-to guide for getting started and how to push kids further into complex thinking. It references Gamestar Mechanic as its base of game design (a site which I also use) and includes numerous screenshots, handouts, reference sheets and lesson plan ideas for implementing gaming in a constructivist approach.

And all of this is done through the lens of “systems,” which is a conceptual frame of thinking of the whole being a sum of its parts, and how changes in one part of the system change the whole. Think of weather patterns. Or political maps. Or airports. Or manufacturing. While those are pretty advanced systems to consider for young people, game design makes it real by bringing them into a system they understand, and showing how a designer’s intentional approach changes the system of the game. It’s a brilliant approach, really, and I realize now that I have been teaching Systems withou quite realizing it, and without using some of the domain specific vocabulary that I now have in my pocket for our work in the classroom.

Here is a quote that helps frame this concept:

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

I’ve bookmarked a fair number of pages in my copy of Gaming the System, and I intend to share it with my science colleague (whom is my partner in our game design project) and if my new principal walks in for an observation and wonders why everyone is playing video games in ELA class, I have some materials to help me make my case about the value of our science-based video game design project.

Peace (in the system),

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