The Iterative Process of Game Design: Funnel Charts

game funnel chart
There are many things I like about Gamestar Mechanic as a site to teach game design. It’s easy to use, easy to publish and easy to connect young gamers into a gaming community. What I like best is how the games you play teach you about how to make your own games. One example is an activity that allows you to earn backgrounds and the games in the activity are all about colors that match and colors that clash, and how different tools might work with different backgrounds, and how others might not. It’s a really interesting activity, complete with a graphic novel story that underpins the work with a narrative.

When you get into the real design of your games, the site also provides you with an incredibly valuable tool known as the Funnel Chart. As people play your game, the chart shows you how players have progressed through the levels of your game idea. The visual will give the game designer clues as to levels that might have been too easy or too difficult, and how many players who started the game actually stayed with it until the end. Game designers use this knowledge, usually in beta mode, to engage in the iterative process of evaluation and improvement, making incremental tweaks to improve the gaming experience.

The Funnel Chart above is for a new game I created over the weekend as I was thinking of how we can bring a science theme into our game design. I went with a look at women in science. I’ll go into more depth around that game design another day, but I  notice on the funnel chart that 10 people started my game but no one finished it. And only one person made it to the last level. I might need to make the first level a little easier so that players don’t get frustrated and give up. I want them to be challenged, but also, successful.

Without this kind of game play data, I would be sort of in the dark about what I created and about the experience of players. I know the game — I know how to play it in and out because I spent a lot of time designing and playing it myself. Understanding what others experience is an important element to make my game better. This is what I will be teaching my students as they develop their own games around a scientific theme in the coming month or two.

Peace (in the funnel),

PS — I am going to try to share out the game. It seems like you can share outside of Gamestar for a short period of time, so the link may or may not be active when you view this.

Go to Women in Science game


The Guilt of Gaming

(Want to give the game a try? Click here to play my video game)

You know there is that the famous axiom about writing: Write what you know.

And I have the Charlie Parker quote here in my blog as my tagline: If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.

So why am I feeling a bit guilty about playing video games in my spare moments? Isn’t a corollary of those sayings: You need to play the game to teach the game?

I have been introducing game design to my sixth grade students (moving towards a STEM-centered game design project later next month) and while I am open to their insights and inputs (most of them have way more gaming experience than I do), I know I need to keep up my skills on video games, too. I need to speak their language and I need to at least convince them that I sort of know what I am talking about (even if I have to fake it once in a while). Still, every time I pop into a gaming site that we use, I feel this little twinge of guilt.

Is this really what I should be doing with my time?

The other day at school, we had our parent conferences. The meetings went fine, but a few parents wanted to know more about the spelling and mechanics strategies that we are using in sixth grade. They reminisced about “the old days” of ELA, when students used pages of worksheets to drill a skill into their heads. I don’t do that.  I laid out what we do to help them, by revisiting spelling strategies and making a difference between published work and draft work, and editing. I talked of using technology as a tool (we have a number of Spelling Ace devices in the room, and a load of dictionaries, and they are encouraged to ask an outside reader to help find errors).

Somewhere, though, I heard this inner voice saying that maybe I should just drop game design as a part of a writing curriculum, and focus on writing mechanics and spelling lessons. Maybe my classroom should return to the days of ELA as I remember it — the drills on skills. I even found myself shaking my head in agreement when one parent bemoaned how electronic devices are turning kids off from reading books. It’s true. It is.

And yet here I am, teaching and encouraging gaming.

I try to shake off this inner voice reservation with the conviction that I work many of those basic writing skills into any project, including gaming. They will be keeping a game design journal, making storyboards, writing a narrative project that guides their game, etc, — all of which will require finished/finalized writing that meet high expectations around spelling and grammar. I remind myself about the need for more visual literacy skills (all data from our state testing shows this as a major weakness with our students). I remember the way all of my students — four classes worth of sixth graders — were incredibly engaged in constructing a simple video game the other day. I keep telling myself that this is a good path to be on.

But I still feel this twinge of guilt. It must be a parent-thing. Or a teacher-thing, Or an adult-thing. Gaming can’t be learning if its entertainment, right?

Peace (as I return to the game),


A Simple Maze Task Offers Complex Lessons about Game Design

gaming at the board
We’re still in the early stages of exploring Gamestar Mechanic as a place to learn about visual literacy and game design. Yesterday, I had my students “build” a simple maze game. Their task was to use bricks to create the walls, a single hero, a single villain, and one treasure chest somewhere in the maze. Gamestar makes it easy to build mazes. You choose your item and use your mouse to put it down. Hit “play” and test out your game.

But the lesson soon turned to one about the balance between making a game challenging and making a game too difficult to play. This is a crucial element of game design. If your game is too easy, the player gets bored. If it is too hard, the player gets frustrated. The key is to find that middle ground of being just challenging enough to inspire the player to try and try again, and eventually, succeed. The player has to have hope they can make it to the end of the game.

I brought this up a few times, particularly when one of my students took over my mac and began using the interactive board to build out her game. I let her, even though she didn’t ask, because the board is for them, not for me. And I found it interesting to watch her, as did many of the other students.

She was creating a very complex game, sweeping the pen (mouse) across the board to add many, many different things. She was working with the game designer in mind, it occurred to me. Across the room, a boy was deep in thought with his maze, carefully constructing the elements with the player in mind. His maze was carefully constructed. I liked his maze better because I was a player. I could see what I needed to do, and how I could win, even if there was a challenge to it. Her game had so many elements (she was experimenting and playing, which was fine) that I could not really focus on even where my player avatar was.
alex maze game

el maze game

What I might do different: I probably should have had them create a paper version of their maze game first, and then shift to the Gamestar Mechanic site. That would have provided a blueprint for them. But, as with some things when holidays roll around, we were limited to our time and I wanted to give them some experience before the Thanksgiving break.

On another note, many students were disappointed they could not yet publish their games to the Gamestar site. But they need to finish their first “Quest” in order to gain that privilege of being able to share their own games with others. I like that, as it not only provides incentive to get through the first part of the Gamestar system, but the system itself (a graphic novel story with games built in) is constructed to teach them all about game design (fixing broken games, learning about difficulty levels, adjusting characters and items, etc.)

Peace (in the maze),



What Gaming Looked Like in My Classroom

It was a mix of excitement (“We’re going to play video games?”) to chatter (“How did you do that?” – “Here, like this.” — “Cool. Thanks.”) to challenge (“Why is this sooooo hard … wait … I got it … yeah!”) to surprise (“Some of these games have shooters? In school?”) as I brought my four classes of sixth graders into Gamestar Mechanic yesterday in preparation for a future project around game design and visual literacy. When I mentioned they will be able to design and publish a game to a gaming community of other kids, and maybe take part in a national contest around game design, they were all ears and ready for action. (see yesterday’s post)

At one point, I had a student on my Mac with the Interactive Board up and running. I looked over and a crowd of kids were at the board, giving him advice. Apparently, he gotten to a level he could not master, and his classmates came over to help give him advice at the board. That was one of those “cool” moments for me, when they came together to solve a tricky game challenge.

I had one student who informed me that Minecraft has a teacher’s “shell” that might be perfect for the classroom and “you should really check that out, Mr. H” as I nodded, and made a mental note to do a little more research on Minecraft (which I did and found this wiki all about Minecraft and the classroom). When it comes to gaming, we teachers have to be open to the ideas of our students (but, we also need to be cautious that some of the games they play are not appropriate for school).

We had some odd technical difficulties that had me a bit more crazed than usual, but we found solutions and work-arounds, and the kids were more adaptive than I was at times, it seemed to me (don’t worry – I kept my cool .. no cursing ensued). I never got a real chance to have a full reflective conversation afterwards with them about their thoughts about Gamestar Mechanic. They were gaming right up until the end of class. I had to pry the laptops out of their fingers and kick them out of my room (slight exaggeration but still …)

We’ll be back. And I am certain a high number of kids were playing last night, too.
Peace (in the games),


Video Game Design, STEM Challenge and Visual Literacy


My plan for today is to bring all of my sixth graders up into Gamestar Mechanic to get situated with accounts, play around with the site and get a feel for what is possible. Sometime next month, we will move into a lesson and project around game design. I have to admit: I am curious to see which students latch onto the site and which don’t. I don’t expect every student to be highly wired into gaming but my kids have been open to just about anything I have thrown their way this year (and kids who don’t quite love comics enjoy our webcomic site at Bitstrips).

As I was putting my plans into place last night (and hoping I have access to our computer cart today), I came across this post about the 2011 STEM Video Game Challenge (and the video above, in which last year’s winner explains a bit about where his idea came from and how he went about his game design idea — incredibly insightful and valuable for my lesson! My students will definitely connect with this boy’s message.). As we move into various ways that literacy can extend into the content areas (including visual literacy, which gaming is), I am wondering if this is a kind of contest/challenge that I can take on with my students and what it would look like in the writing classroom. I have some ideas, but now I need to think it through a bit more.

I’m definitely intrigued by the possibilities …

Peace (in the game),
PS — check out this page of winners from last year’s competition.



When Life Imitates Video Games

Zombie Restaurant screenshot

We’re often talking in education circles about the ways that young people’s video gaming interests intersect with real world — either for good or for bad. This post is sort of a strange twist on that idea.
The other day, I had to stay home with my three boys (they had no school because of Election Day), and I took my older ones (ages 11 and 13) out to lunch at a new family diner that opened up. This was our first time in the joint. We wandered in and the two boys stopped dead in their tracks.
“This place …” one began, and the second picked it up,”This place is almost identical to the restaurant.”
“What restaurant?” I asked, as we made our way to a table. I thought they were thinking of some other place in town. A diner is often a diner, you know. But that is not what they were thinking about.
“The one in our game,” said one boy. “On the iPod.”
“Except,” the other one explained in a matter-of-fact tone, “without the Zombies.”
Apparently, one of their Zombie app games (what is it with Zombies anyway?) is structured around running a restaurant and the inside layout and color designs of that virtual business resembled the lay0ut this real business. And it was clear that was not the intent of the owners here. (Unless they really are Zombies).
My boys paid careful attention to the service we were given (which was slow and disorganized), and they played the “game” as if it were live in front of us, deducting points when the waitress gave us the wrong order and forgot to deduct a meal from our bill. And the quality of food led to a lowering of the waitress’ “score.”
“That’s another few points from her,” one would say, and the other would nod. “But if she changes the channel on the television, she can earn a few more back.” (That didn’t happen)
It was odd, watching them use the real place as a sort of gaming center as it if were some immersive experience.
But I suspect that more and more kids who are used to all sorts of gaming platforms will start to see the world through some of those same lens (minus the Zombies). It may not be as amusing as it was to my kids in that restaurant (which we won’t be going back to, thanks the huge reduction in points) but their activity is worth noticing and wondering about as we consider ways to engage learners.

Peace (in the game),

Another NWP Teacher on a Similar Gaming Journey

Sometimes, the journey into new terrain can be awfully lonely.

So it was with great surprise that I recently found that another National Writing Project teacher who was in the same exact session as I was on the topic of gaming at last year’s NWP Annual Conference writing has published an article in the Wisconsin English Journal about taking what he learned from the session (led by Alan Gershenfield, of eLine Media) and how he had brought gaming  into his own writing curriculum. I have been on the same path, using the information and elements of Gershenfield’s talk for my jump into video gaming as another path into learning with students.

(See all of my recent posts about gaming in the classroom.)

Fifth Grade teacher Greg Kehring, in his article “Tech Tools for Teachers, by Teachers: Video Game Design in the Classroom,” does an excellent job of explaining not only the rationale of why he moved gaming elements into his writing classroom. He also outlines the many ways that video game design and writing process are connected (this is the same avenue that I have been exploring). He also has his kids using Gamestar Mechanic, which is the site that I use.

Greg writes:

“When I started this unit. I wanted to offer all students a chance to become truly engaged in the writing process, and all students were immersed in this writing experience (of creating games and keeping a reflection journal). Although it may have been masked in a digital disguise, the traditional writing process was at the core of this project, and all students were able to use it successfully.” – p.30

Check out Greg Kehring’s entire piece at the Wisconsin English Journal.

And Greg’s article helped me sort out something else, too. My ventures into gaming with students so far was with a summer camp project with a certain audience (OK, middle school gaming geeks). I’ve been toying with whether to bring video game design into my school as an after-school activity, or to bring it right into all of my sixth grade classes as an integrated curriculum. Thanks to Greg’s piece, I realize now that I need to bring the concept to all of my students, as part of my regular writing curriculum. There — decision made. And I will have my students do written reflections of their experiences, too, just as Greg’s students did.

Greg and I don’t know each other, but I’m happy to have stumbled onto his work. Thanks, Greg.

Peace (in the games),


Podcast: My Column on Gaming and Education

Gaming Article Screenshot
I had a column published this morning in our local newspaper about some ideas on why teachers should consider video gaming as a learning opportunity. I decided to create a podcast of the column on Cinch, but the full piece is available at the Daily Hampshire Gazette website, too.

If you want to know more about my journey into gaming, you can check out my resource at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site: More Than a Game: One Teacher’s Journey into Gaming by Kevin Hodgson
Peace (in the games),

Presentation: Video Games and Digital Writing

On Saturday, I co-presented on the topic of video games and digital writing at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. My co-presenter did a fantastic job of showing how an immersive game experience can spark various kinds of writing in the classroom while I focused on the links between game design and the writing process, and how kids can create (not just play) games.
Here is my presentation:

Gaming Presentation PDF
Here is the resource list:
More Than a Game Resource PDF
Peace (in the sharing),

Comparing Writing Process and Game Design

Writing v Game Design
I was thinking again about the many overlaps between the cyclical process of writing and the iterative process of designing a game, and where they so often overlap, even if we use different terms. Neither process is linear, so my chart is not quite accurate as a flow chart. I created this as part of a presentation around gaming and writing that I am co-presenting this weekend for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

Peace (in the game),