Video Game Design: Storyframes as Narrative Architecture

Moving into a unit about video game design also means talking about how to tell a story in ways different than a short story or traditional narrative. I talk to my students about how they should see their science-based video game as a story that the reader will play. They should be entertained, and challenged, and also educated about cells (the science topic that is the centerpiece of the video game design project)

I’ve come to call this the “storyframe” of the video game (rhyming is helpful technique). The story is the narrative wrapper in which the game play itself is situated.

Of all the elements of our game design, this is one of the trickiest for my students. First of all, there are the confines of Gamestar Mechanic, which allows text in the title of the start of the game and at every level, but not a whole lot of room. Students can earn message blocks, which are handy, and they can earn some sprites that “talk” (via text messages).

What must occur is the use of metaphor (this represents that), focused narrative text that moves the player/reader along on their journey through the game system, and a sense of flow. That’s a lot to ask for from a sixth grader, but they can do it. It does require me to be conferencing a lot, reminding them of what good games do (and how to make a game better), and feedback from peers during the initial stages of design.

You know what the best resource is for this discussion around storyframes? The Magic School Bus series. No one did it better, particularly when we talk about science and storytelling. And, what franchise effectively jumped across mediums so well? From picture books to television show to video games, The Magic School Bus showed how transmedia can work.

Building that kind of story? Well, that’s what my students are in the midst in right now.

Peace (in the construction of story),

Slice of Life: Learning Minecraft

(This is part of Slice of Life, a weekly writing feature hosted via Two Writing Teachers. Narrow your lens. Write. Share.)


You’d think with all the video game design work I do with my students that I would have already been kneedeep into Minecraft. My students certainly are. Me? Not much. No real reason except time to dive in always slips away from me, but now that my youngest son is using and loving Minecraft (and even joined a Minecraft club at our public library), I figured it was time to dip my toes into the blocks, so to speak.

So, I asked my son, teach me Minecraft.

Doghouse construction

And we proceeded to spend about 45 minutes with the Minecraft App (we also have the fuller version on the laptop), and together, he helped me build a doghouse for the dog/wolf that we spawned in the world that I began to create when we started to play in Creative — not Survival — mode. (Getting the vocabulary down …) I had to remind him to talk me through the learning, not do it himself. (such a teacher)

OK, so now I get a bit of the appeal of Minecraft. I was never quite oblivious to it but I can see how the building and wandering in the world is a pretty fascinating experience. I spent some time “flying” high above the world, watching the contours being drawn out in each direction. That was pretty nifty, to think we were in the map as it was being made.

And the dogs seemed pretty happy.

Peace (in the craft),

Video Game Design: Off-Screen Hacking Uno

hacking uno

We don’t spend every teaching/learning moment doing game design, but I suspect that might be the impression some folks get if they read my blog. We do a lot of other kinds of writing and reading activities. And we are not always on the computer either.

One of the ways I introduce and reinforce game design elements is through hacking of other games. Some years, we hack chess. This year, I pulled out my decks of UNO cards, and over a series of days (which sometimes are far and few between as we do other things), my students have been redesigning the game of UNO.

The supplies are simple: a deck of UNO cards. But I did introduce the game variable of dice one day, which led to interesting discussions in the groups about whether dice would improve their concept or not. Most have not used the dice, even though they were all excited about it.

They have been working on finalizing the Rules of Play for their hacked card games, and one of these days, I will separate each group and reform them in a Jigsaw Activity, so that every new group has three to four new games to play, with an “expert” from the original groups to teach their classmates.

Hacking Uno Wordcloud
(Names of New UNO Games)

We then use the UNO game development as points of discussion when we shift into our Science-based Video Game Project, now underway. Hacking UNO provides for collaborative discussions on game design, and creativity, and collaborative writing, while also connecting nicely to the larger project now underway.

Peace (in the cards),

Made with Code: A Holiday Tree

I was so focused on the Hour of Code activities last week with my students that I forgot that Google has put out some nifty coding activities, too. It’s “Projects with Code” seems aimed at girls, but that’s fine.

Yesterday, my son and I worked on the Holiday Tree activity, which allows you to work with the lights on the state trees in Washington DC using Blockly code. When you are done, it gives you a time when your “lights” will flash on the tree of the state you choose. Is that true? Neat.

Peace (in the lights, flickering),

#CCourses: Not Quite #Notover

#ccourses is #notover

As the last official phase of the Connected Courses comes to an end, there is ample discussion among participants on the question of: Why does a connected community end just because a course ends? (And why does an online course end when a traditional semester ends?) The #notover hashtag is being used, which I used for the comic above.

I’m reminded a bit of another comic I made for Alan Levine earlier in the Connected Courses, as he mulled over this same topic, and I reflected on an LMS I am in right now that I don’t care more than a whit about.  He put forth the idea of “keeping the lights on” and not using language about anything ending.

Keep the lights on #CCourses

And I agree.

So many folks are plotting ways to keep people connected. There was even talk of a task force. Made a comic. (Surprised? I doubt it). I was thinking of superheroes. Personally, I like the Mad Hacker.
For the Connected Course .... #ccourses

Just like anything of this nature, it will depend on the participants now, not the facilitators (although facilitators should now have permission to become participants) as to whether sharing, connecting and exploring continues under the #ccourses banner.

For my part, I will try to share out on a regular basis ideas from the collaborative Daily Connector site that (digi) Simon, Maha (B.) and Laura and I worked on. I’ve been doing random Daily Connects throughout December (after we originally posted them each day as new ideas back in October), and the ideas there have value beyond Connected Courses, for sure. The random generator is such a cool function of that site. (Thanks, Alan!)

Push for Fun-1

To be honest, the Connected Courses has been intriguing and I have enjoyed the discussions and hangouts and meeting people (I mean, I’ve been “hanging out” in spaces with Howard Rheingold and Mimi Ito and others … how cool is that? It’s a thrill). But as a K-12 teacher, much of the discussion about designing open education courses for the University level has been intriguing on a thinking level, but not all that practical on the day-to-day level.

But you know, I am still in the rather vibrant #rhizo14 network (coming towards #rhizo15), and I connect with DS106 via the Daily Creates (our model for the Daily Connects), and the #clmooc community is still sharing in various spaces. A different, more relaxed energy comes when the planned world falls away, and the unknown maps of what is ahead takes place. Sometimes, it sustains itself. Sometimes, not.

We’ll see where the #ccourses goes and time will tell if it is really #notover … but I do know that the people I have connected with there have greatly expanded my own online networks of friends I can turn to with questions and advice and projects, and ideas. And, of course, comics. I made a ton of comics for Connected Courses, in hopes of infecting a little fun into the conversations.

Check out my Connected Courses Comic Album

Peace (may it continue),


176 Collective Hours of Coding and Programming

Do the numbers matter? Not really, but it does energize my students when I work to calculate the combined and collective number of hours we spent this past week doing Hour of Code and related activities. This chart will be going up on our class blog this weekend.

Hour of Code 2014

This includes:

  • Collaborative problem solving on the Frozen game with our kindergarten buddies;
  • Angry Bird coding on the Interactive Board;
  • Flappy Bird coding collectively and individually;
  • Working on programming and designing our science-based video game projects.

Do the numbers accurately gauge the interest of my four classes of sixth graders in the coding and programming concept? Not even close. They were invested and engaged, and even yesterday, a fair number were still working on coding activities during breaks with their game design projects.

It’s all good …

Peace (in the chart),

Getting all Flappy with Hour of Code

My students had a blast yesterday with the Hour of Code project in which you can learn how to build and then publish your own style of “Flappy Bird” game. We began our Hour of Code in the morning, when I had the Angry Birds coding activity on the board and posted a sign: Play This Game!

They did.

hour of code angry birds

Then, during each of our ELA classes, students collaboratively, via the Interactive Board, went through the Flappy Bird programming lesson. There were lots of encouragements as kids used the pen to program the game, and cheers when it worked. I struggled with finding a way to collect all of the Flappy Bird style games, so that as classes and as individuals coded the games, they could share them out for others to play.

I decided upon using a Padlet, which makes the collection visible, but a quirk in it means that when you click on the game link in Padlet, you have to find the source button to get to the actual game. I find that extra step annoying. The students didn’t, so there’s that.

Class Flappy Games

A number of students went from the Flappy Bird game to the Angry Birds game, to the Frozen activity, but the “aha” moment came when a girl began watching the Javascript tutorial (via Kahn Academy). She was transfixed for a long stretch of time, and every now and then, she would say, quite loud, “This … is … so… interesting.” She eventually called some of her girlfriends over, and they all huddled around her computer, trying to wrap their heads around some more advanced programming language.

Who knows what seeds got planted during the Hour of Code … and where it might take them.

Peace (in the share),