Video Game Design and Reluctant Writers

I co-teach one of my four classes with an amazing Special Education teacher, Bob, who is also become a friend. Over the last three years of working together as co-teachers, I have learned a lot from him about strategies that reach all levels of our writers and readers in the classroom. I hope he has learned some things from me, too.

As part of the reflective elements of our ongoing Geological Video Game Design unit, Bob and I sat down to chat about what we are seeing, particularly when it comes to the reluctant writers in our group. He notes the sense of engagement we are noticing, the use of writing on a  topic of high interest, and the way the project is helping to solidify pretty tricky scientific concepts for them.

This video segment is part of a larger documentary I am working on as we move through our video game design unit that connects writing, technology and science with Gamestar Mechanic. Our aim is to help some of our students submit their game designs for the National STEM Video Challenge in March.

Peace (in the sharing),


More Video Game Storyboarding: The Student Perspective

The other day, I shared out my storyboarding process around game design. This week, my students have been working on their own storyboards for their own science-based video games. While this step may not help every single student, it does help many by focusing their attention on development of a game idea over a series of levels, and provides a road map forward. Here, one of my students explains her storyboarding, and her storyboard and two others are down below. (The video is part of a larger video project I am undertaking to document our work with video game design).
Nicole Storyboard
Wes Storyboard
Peace (on the board),


Student Voices: Video Game Design Project

This short video is part of a larger video I am creating about our video game design project. I have four students who have agreed to be talk about their efforts as we move along with the process. Here, I asked them why they like video games and whether they ever thought they might learn about game design. Surprisingly, one of them said they knew we were going to do it, although this is the first time I have ever brought it into the classroom (he may know someone who attended my video game camp).

Peace (in the gaming),

Video Reflection 2: Connecting Science and Writing with Gaming

I am fortunate to work with team members who are always open to my ideas around technology integration into our sixth grade curriculum. My science colleague, Lisa, in particular, has always been willing to join me on adventures with our kids as we seek ways to meaningful connect science to writing, and video game design is our latest project. (She has also carved out her own niche of expertise around effective use of Interactive Boards in science). Here, as part of a larger video I am doing about our game design project, Lisa and I chat about what we are up to.

Peace (in the connections),

Science-based Video Game Project: What They Are Planning

I had my sixth grade students work on some brainstorming activities for their Geological Video Game Design Project, which then led to them blogging about what their “big concepts” are going to be when they frame their games and the challenges they are thinking about as game designers. Here are some of their posts, which are part of our “reflective game designers’ logs” writing component to the project:

The scientific concept we will using is the layers of the earth.We have chosen that scientific concept because it will be a cool level with magma in the asthenosphere bursting out at random times.The scientific vocabulary are the asthenosphere,lithosphere,crust,mantle,and core.The challenges might be making the magma come out at random times. — Kaira and Kenze

My game is going to be about Layers of the Earth. I chose that because I think I will be cool to use the layers as certain levels! Some of the things you will encounter are boss battles! Also mazes which you will need to answer a question correctly to move on to the right path. That is what my game on GameStar Mechanic is going to be. — Michael

The scientific concept for my video game is mountains, volcanoes, and layers of the earth. I chose this concept because it is a simple, yet complex design that will be fun to make. It will also be informative, but still a fun way for all ages to understand the earth. — Nikki

I chose volcanoes and the layers of the earth, because we are learning about those in science class.There are going to be the crust mantle and the core.You will have to climb mountains and volcanoes.For a challenge there will be a limited amount of time and lives. — Jenna

I want to build a game on the layers of the earth. I chose this because I have been lately been watching a lot of mining shows like Gold Rush. I plan to use all the layers of the earth and the two kinds of crust. you will encounter rock monsters,tremors,and magma flows. — Jarrod

My game idea is revolving around the idea of Volcanoes in Hawaii. I will add the idea of how Volcanoes work and where the lava comes from. Also that is where most Volcanoes are located. To make this game challenging, I will add enemies and a time limit to beat before the volcano erupts. — Wes

Our idea is on volcanoes and mountains. We think they are interesting, and we are learning about them in science right now. Also we like explosions and how volcanoes act. Are science vocabulary is active, anticline, convergent plate boundaries, dome mountain, fault block mountain, fold mountain, hot spot, lava, dormant, and volcano. The effects on the game and making it on volcano’s and mountains. — Becca and Morgan

I chose an underwater theme and a volcano theme for the levels because, the two themes bring in a lot of different vocabulary words, in just two simple themes.
I think my only challenges in making this game would be, trying to get all the items in the perfect place, and just justifying the my game. — Molli

Peace (in the gaming),

Storyboarding and Video Game Design

I talked to my students about the “iterative design process” of making video games yesterday as we began our Geological Video Game Project and when we got to the part about the job of “game testers” at companies, they were intrigued to learn that people to get paid to play games. But, I reminded them, not just “play games,” but play games with a reflective eye, noting strengths and weaknesses so the developer can go back and revise, revise, revise.

I made connections between the game design process and the writing process, and I think I saw some lights going on.
Writing v Game Design

Today, they will begin the brainstorming phase of their project: coming up with an overarching scientific idea for the game they are going to create in Gamestar Mechanic. Then, they will launch into storyboarding out the levels of their game. This becomes their “map” for development of the game, although I was honest in saying that it won’t be surprising if the final game no longer resembles the storyboard because ideas change as games go under development. We storyboard to keep focus.

I am going to share out my own storyboard for my Women in Science game, which I am using as a model of a multi-level game that entertains (I hope) and educates. This is where I began:


This is where I ended up with my Women in Science video game (go ahead, please try the game, if you haven’t.  I need as many players as possible so that I can share out game stats with the kids later this week.)


Peace (on the board),

Video Reflection 1: We’re About to Start Gaming

Today, we launch into our science-based video game design unit. I figure it is a good time to do a video reflection, and I will try to add more reflections as we go along. The “talking through” ideas can be helpful to me, and hopefully, to you if you are considering game design as a possible activity for your classroom, too. I am also including the handouts that we are working with this week. Feel free to steal what you need for your own projects, if it is helpful.

Geological Game Design Project
Geological Game Design Project Brainstorm Sheet

Peace (in the sharing),


The Games They Play

Have you ever asked your students what kind of games they play outside of school? I did, mainly because we are moving into a game design unit next week and I was curious about what games they like to do in their own time. I told them it could be video games, board games, playground games, whatever. The list I got from my students included a lot of games I know but also, a lot I don’t know.

The one that kept popping up on some lists was Minecraft, and I have one student who is constantly talking to me about it. I don’t know much about it, other than what I have read in magazines and what my student has talked to me about. But I think I might need to delve into the world-building game a bit more, and my navigator might be my student. I was thinking of how I could have my student be the teacher in the classroom, showing me (and then, showing his peers) what Minecraft is all about.

I liked that Chess was on the list. There was a time when I taught my students how to play Chess, but I haven’t done that in some time. I’d like to do that again. (I am now teaching my seven year old son the game. It brings back memories of teaching my older sons, too, but now the oldest one kicks my butt every time. I may need to keep some tricks up my sleeve. At my younger son’s school, the principal sets aside time in his day to play Chess with students. I think that’s a great idea.)

What games do your students play? And why do they keep playing them? (which is really what I am after here, as we begin to think about how to engage a player in a game)

Peace (in the games),


The Good, the Bad, the Ugly of Video Game Design

We’re about to launch into an intensive two-week Game Design unit around science (more on that this weekend) and along with slowly getting my students gaming, I am trying to get them thinking about game design. Yesterday, I asked them to take a short assignment of their thoughts on what makes a game good and what makes a game bad. I tried to steer them to thinking of the elements of game design.

One student wrote this on their paper:

“It makes my brain do interesting things.”

I love that quote because it captures why I am even bothering to think about video game design and development in the classroom. It’s all about pushing my students to think different (Thanks, Steve Jobs), create something interesting, and step into the spotlight as a published game developer. Along the way, we’re going to tackling many skills: writing, the engineering process, visual literacy, authentic publishing, peer feedback, etc.

Here are the collection of answers from the assignment, as Wordles. There was plenty of repetitions in their answers, but these capture the main ideas I saw in their writing. Notice how graphics, and sound, and playability are all in the mix. That awareness is a good start for our conversations.
Good Game Design Elements
Bad Game Design Elements

Peace (in the game),


Symbolism, Critical Thinking Skills and Video Game Design

I know I have been writing a lot about gaming lately, but that is because I am on one of those journeys — trying to figure it out while sensing the possibilities for learning. I was thinking the other day about various educational conferences and how there is such a lack of sessions on gaming, even though I will bet that most of our students spend a lot of their time outside of school with games. (maybe too much?). I was perusing the K12 Online Conference and thankfully, I did find one session on gaming (Gaming to Learn by Learning to Game by Leigh Zeitz). Luckily, last year, I attended a session around video game at the National Writing Project meeting. But without that,  I would have been in the dark about the possibilities.

Anyway, the other day, I was designing a new game that sought to celebrate Women in Science. This is sort of an experimental prototype of what I am going to be having my students doing very soon (and I can’t tell you how many students are coming up to me, asking when when when are we going to get back to our gaming site — Gamestar Mechanic). My science teacher and I are starting our discussions around merging video game design, literacy and science (in this case, a geography unit that includes layers of the Earth, tectonic plates, etc.) into a project next month with connections to the new Massachusetts Curriculum Standards (ie, Common Core).

As I was working on my video game, I realized how much symbolism plays a role in game design. Unless you are going deep into the programming (I am not) and developing every little item yourself (definitely not), then you use the tools that are provided for you and imagine how one thing might represent another. For example, I needed a player avatar to represent the scientists. Well, no scientists were on my list of characters in the gaming system, so I chose a simple player (no shooting abilities) that best captured the idea of an intrepid explorer (which is what women scientist are, right?)

Since there were three women scientists in my game (Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, and Barbara McClintock), I created three “levels” to the game to represent each of their discoveries. I mulled over the idea of enemies. I know I wanted challenges, but did I want enemies? I decided that the enemy avatars would be “doubters,” those who didn’t believe that a women could make the same level of discoveries as men. The “doubters” are throughout the three levels — a shared experience of these pioneers. Each has to escape, elude or defeat the doubters who would stop them. That seemed appropriate.

I struggled with the symbolic layout of the levels of the game, however. How do you represent discovering radioactive material? Or splitting atoms? Or understanding genetics in a new way? Mostly, I used treasure/jewels to represent the “discovery” phase of the games, with some dangerous roadblocks along the way (for example, Marie Curie is in danger with radioactive materials, so she loses energy and lives as she works with the materials). For Lise Meitner’s level, I decided to “split” the maze into three sections, representing how she “split” the atom, and each section has a challenge area for the player to overcome.

I’m not going to say that some of the symbolic representation here doesn’t feel a bit forced at times. And I admit that teaching my students to do the same on some level for their gaming projects is going to be a challenge. (Although, layers of the Earth nicely coincides with a multi-level game, right?) This will be where the development of critical thinking skills will come into play. Or not. That will be part of the learning and the teaching around video game design. In some ways, THAT is the learning, not the game itself. The mental challenge of thinking through symbolism, and then creating a game that uses that representative ideas for information while still balancing creating a challenging game for an audience … that’s pretty heavy stuff, and it is also the very reason why game design should be part of how we can spark critical thinking skills in our students.

You want to play my Women in Science game? Go to the link or use the embedded game down below.


Peace (in the representations),