This is the time of year when I buckle down and spend time playing the original video game projects that my students have created for our Hero’s Quest project.
Their projects are built around story narrative that integrates a story frame in the design, building and publishing of a video game. Or, you could think of it as how a video game is really telling a story.
I have about 50 video game projects to wander through in Gamestar Mechanic, as I think about how well they did with game design, story development, writing mechanics and more.
We’re nearing the end of our Video Game Design unit, with most students now finished with designing, building and publishing their Hero’s Journey Video Game project in Gamestar Mechanic. I’ll be spending time in the next few weeks, playing their games to assess their storytelling prowess and design skills. (I’ll share some as I go along, too)
Another element of the game design project is to explore how advertising campaigns are used to sell products (this is one of part of many elements of writing assignments I weave into game design). We deconstruct advertising posters, and then, their task is to design and make their own posters for their own video game projects.
It’s a nice art diversion connected to critical literacies, to learn how to use loaded language, visuals to connect to audience, and informational text about a product. Hopefully, these activities will make them be more informed when they are targeted by companies for products.
(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)
This year, Minecraft players in my classroom suddenly became a ‘thing’ again after a few quiet years. I have clusters of sixth graders talking about building, playing, exploring, and as we are in our Video Game Design unit, there’s plenty of chatter about how Minecraft is different from other games they play.
There’s also been a lot of conversation about Minecraft shutting down. A lot of worry and concern. Questions. Some heard it here. Some heard it there.
This news of Minecraft closing up by the end of the year is false, just so you know, but the fact that so many of my students have heard it and passed it along to each other in our classroom space — never mind across whatever apps they are using — gives me a chance to revisit with them a Digital Life lesson from earlier this year about false information and the viral nature of social media sharing.
And how to debunk fake news.
Last night, I did a little investigative work. I was already wary of the reports because of the “this doesn’t make sense” common sense test — Minecraft, owned by Microsoft, has more than 100 million users who pay a pretty hefty fee for the game. If Microsoft were truly closing it up, it would be more than a ripple. It would be an uproar.
I searched “Minecraft Closing” and saw a slew of articles, including the one I was really looking for at Snopes (don’t know Snopes? It’s a site dedicated to researching news items for veracity).
We’re in the starting phases of our Hero’s Journey Video Game Design Project right now, and as students hash out the story they are going to tell in the form of a video game, they have to brainstorm the “story-frame” and sketch out the levels of their games. The storyboards will become maps for the design, done in Gamestar Mechanic.
I love this part of the project because their thinking becomes most visible to me, and allows us to have conversations about story and game play, and how those might intersect.
Two main activities are taking place in my classroom right now — we’re in the midst of a unit of independent reading (choice books with plenty of quiet reading time) and the start of our Game Design Unit. Merging those two ideas together (along with a much larger Video Game Design project), students are in the midst of designing a board game based on the book they are reading.
They won’t be building the actual game (I’ve framed it as they have been hired as game designer and someone else would be building the game itself) but are working on how a story might unfold as a game (this is how their video game project is situated — story as game/game as story). The requirements are the visuals of a game board, directions on how to play and instructions on how the game is either won or completed.
Already, some interesting projects are trickling with, with some neat ideas about how characters or plot or setting might become the central focus of a game that honors the story and maybe riffs off it in another direction. In the collage, the upper left is my mentor text — using a story I am nearly finishing, titled A Drop of Hope, which I have been thoroughly enjoying.
While every game is different, the mechanics of game design — strategy, game play, visual design — all will be central to our larger game project based off the Hero’s Journey template.
My sons really loved this My Life As A … (Book, Cartoonist, Ninja, etc.) series by Janet and Jake Tashjian when they came out, but I sort of ignored them as yet another knock off of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series. Finally, I had a student recommend the series to me, and who am I to ignore a suggestion by a student?
I chose My Life As A Gamer, which I believe is the fifth book in the series of nine books (so far), and I have to say, I really enjoyed the story and the cartoon artwork that went along in the margins of the story. (I believe Janet writes the stories and Jake, her son, illustrates them). The story of Derek Fallon and his friends enlisted to test out a new video game really struck a chord with me as I begin to bring my sixth graders into our own video game design unit.
There are adolescent escapades and funny moments, but also some deeper looks at family (dad is out of a job, etc.) and Derek’s own struggles with a reading disability — the cartoons in the margins of the book are representative of the ways that Derek learns by doodling vocabulary words — and the sketch-noting-vocabulary aspect of the book’s illustrations caught my attention, for sure, as I often have my students do the same.
This story also gives some insight into the development of a video game, as Derek and his friends spend weekends at a video game design company, play-testing an upcoming game — Arctic Ninja — and elements of storyboarding and narrative design and intuitive design are all woven into the story.
Looking at the next few books in the series, I see the next two have interesting themes as well: My Life As a YouTuber and My Life As a Meme. My interest is piqued!
Last Saturday, at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project annual fall conference, which had the theme of “Rewriting the Script,” I sat in on some interesting workshop sessions. I’ll be doing some sharing out from the conference in the days ahead.
I appreciated that the presenter in this workshop entitled, with pun fun, A Game of Tomes admitted that he was still tweaking the lesson/unit plan and that he wanted us to experiment with the ideas, and give him feedback.
He explained how his inquiry project, which he started in our WMWP Summer Leadership Institute, has been looking at game-based learning, and how he hopes to liven up his classroom work around the always-tricky Parts of Speech by adopting and adapting elements of Role-Playing Games into review activities for his middle schoolers.
What he has done is created the idea of a Fantasy World, in which students first explore character attributes to determine a character for play, and then they shift into a series of activities (all connected to Parts of Speech review) that provide “experience points” which, ideally, move the player through a story of adventure. Some of the activities include a mystery story (where removing different Parts of Speech should reveal a clue to something else); map-making and direct giving; story, journal and sentence writing; and more.
I was intrigued by the plan but it still felt as if it weren’t cohesive enough in my mind. For example, it wasn’t clear even as we were playing in the conference workshop in a pilot version how we would leverage experience points for advancement in the game.
There was a fuzzy clear story arc set into motion (a narrative frame that we as a tribe lived underground and an untrustworthy character was about to lead an expedition above ground for resources, and would we join them in that journey) that we, as characters we invented, were part of. And some of the activities — like the mystery story — didn’t reveal anything; it just gave us Parts of Speech practice. You’d lose my students quickly if they did that work, only to find there was no reward to it.
Still, I can see elements that might work for my students, too, for engaging them in an adventure that embeds curriculum design for play. Of course, the dilemma is always the balance — how to make it fun without ruining the game with too much focus on “learning in school.”
The presenter was appreciative of our feedback and is continuing to work on elements of his game. I’m looking forward to seeing where his game idea ends up (and how I can steal and remix it for my own classroom).
What happens when the outdoors becomes a board game?
Yesterday, in our last full week of the school year (still a few days to go, though), our sixth graders took part in an activity called The Ultimate Game, organized by an outside group. The Ultimate Game turned local recreational parks in town into a huge game board, for collaborative and cooperative activities. This was our first time using this group and I was impressed.
There were riddles, and challenges, and a GPS scavenger hunt component. Teams of students had to work together to find clues, solve mysteries and earn tokens, roll huge fuzzy dice, move pieces on a massive game board, draw on their various strengths, and it all came together so nicely — the weather, the kids, the game — that it has me wondering how to do even more of using the outdoors — field, forests, park sites — as settings for cooperative game design.
We have explored game design throughout the year, from different angles, so this field trip made sense as a way to tie things together.
Along with a six week video game design unit earlier in the year, we ended the year in our ELA class with a short story project in which students wrote a fictional piece of a narrator going into a board game to rescue a person from history. The game becomes the setting. Sort of like Jumanji and Zathura, picture books by Chris Van Allsberg (and both became movies, of course).
In the Write Out project from last summer, we explored and talked about more ways to better integrate the urban, suburban and rural outdoors into curriculum, and I admit, I did very little of it this year until the end of the year.
So I paid attention to the group that led yesterday’s events, watching how they so skillfully set up engaging experiences for success for all students, and used the contours of the landscape and woods and fields for the design of the huge game system they put into play.
(Oh, FYI: Write Out for 2019 will be this coming fall, in conjunction with the National Day on Writing. Keep an eye out for more details later in the summer).
Many times, my students surprise me. Take for example, this student, who decided to take the concept of informational design/expository writing with our work around Rube Goldberg Contraptions and make a video game project version in Gamestar Mechanic. He spent a long time in design mode, making sure that once a player hits “play,” all they have to do is watch the game unfold on its own.
As someone who has designed games in Gamestar Mechanic, I can tell you: this is very intricate and required lots of planning and troubleshooting, but it is pretty cool to play/watch as things unfold automatically.
My students created poster advertisements for their Hero’s J0urney video game projects. This allows us to think about visual elements of persuasion, deconstruct how we are targeted through advertising, and merge art and writing with game design.