Book Review: Reality is Broken

(This book is going to be part of an online discussion at the National Writing Project Book Group, so I will hold off on a lot of details about the book here. — Kevin)

I guess the title says it all for the underling premise of Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. She’s certainly someone with a lot of credibility in a lot of circles — as an academic and as a gamer, and game designer, too. This book delves into the many ways in which reality for many people is boring, unfocused, and unmotivating, and how gaming can bring new possibilities for increasing our satisfaction with reality by inserting challenges, rewards and connections into life.

“If you are a gamer, it’s time to get over any regret you might feel about spending so much time playing games. You have not been wasting your time. You’ve been building up a wealth of virtual experience that …can teach you about your true self: what your core strengths are, what really motivates you, and what makes you happiest.” (p. 12)

McGonigal has a lot of good points about the benefits of gaming to engage us, particularly when she delves into the global social game movements that connect people across the world for information building, cooperative challenges and problem solving that could have an impact on the real world (which is the concluding premise — to solve world problems we need to create a gaming mentality). She also notes that the sheer number of hours that young people are playing, and the complexity of games that people are playing, is changing the way people interact with the world. And if you buy into the 10,000 hours argument of expertise (see Malcolm Gladwells’ Outliers), we are now seeing a generational wave of gaming experts emerging in our ranks. (Although, I wish those hours were creating more than just playing).

But I did find much of the middle of the book veering off a bit too much into happiness quotients and other topics that I had trouble buying into, and I found myself muttering at McGonigal more than once. Some of it felt wish-washy. I understand that she was trying to lay her groundwork for why gaming can positively impact reality, but I didn’t buy all of it. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Still, the book does a nice job of taking a step back from an individual gaming experience and argue on behalf of the gaming experience itself. And as a teacher who is still grappling with the possibilities of how to work gaming into my curriculum in a meaningful way, McGonigal is an experienced voice to turn to (watch some of her video presentations — she’s a great speaker). She really does know her games, and her gaming experiences as a designer were interesting to read about.

I’ll be interested to know how my NWP friends felt about the book when the discussion goes live sometime in early October. I have a ton of pages in Reality is Broken with note tabs, ready to be reviewed again in a few weeks.

Peace (in the game),


Supporting Teachers at Gamestar Mechanic

This summer, I used Gamestar Mechanic as a main portal into gaming with a summer camp program that I co-taught with another Western Massachusetts Writing Project colleague. We really liked the site as a teaching tool, and the kids (for the most part) thought it was a fun way to learn about game design. Basically, you play video games to learn about how to make video games, and then you make games that you publish to the Gamestar community. Not long after the camp ended, the folks at Gamestar emailed me to say they were starting a project to support teachers, and they were looking for lesson plans that used the site.

Would I contribute?

I was interested, but I told them that I was frankly a little tired of sites asking me to give my writing up for free. They countered with an offer to give me some membership perks if I submitted a lesson plan. I agreed. My lesson plan revolves around the connections between game design and the writing process, particularly around storyboarding or idea mapping. There are just three gaming lesson plans up on the site right now, but I can see it being valuable for teachers, whether they use Gamestar or not.

The Teacher Resources at Gamestar Mechanic

At the site, there are various resources for teachers — including informational handouts, videos and also a few sample games that you can play without a site membership, just to give you a taste of what the experience is about as a player. Really, though, it is the experience of the game creator that I have been most interested in these days. Gamestar is one way in to that idea.
Peace (in the gaming),
PS — I wrote about my resources at NWP’s Digital Is, but here they are again:
Anyway, if you are interested in looking at the resources that I created and posted:


Anyway, if you are interested in looking at the resources that I created and posted:

Game Design Ideas: Resources at NWP’s Digital Is

I kept meaning to share these links earlier this summer but then … eh … forgot. I created two new resources for the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site around gaming and learning and design. The two resources stem from a summer camp program that I ran with a co-teacher for middle school students, and as I was planning the camp, I was videoblogging my experiences. The second resource is about running a game design camp.

These are on my mind right now because I am considering one of two options: I might bring the idea of gaming into the sixth grade writing curriculum OR I might offer an after-school game development club for fourth, fifth and sixth graders. Or, I suppose, I could do both, right? I’m not sure yet.

Anyway, if you are interested in looking at the resources that I created and posted:

Feedback at the site or here is welcome. How have you used gaming? And I am most interested in the idea of how we can get our students to create games (active users), not just play games (passive users). This is the crucial shift that we need to make if we want to frame gaming as a learning possibility. I’m not convinced that all of the “gamification” of content area now flooding the Internet makes a lot of difference in how students learn. Oh, I am sure there are great games out there, and I am sure some of them are very engaging. But I want my kids to make things.


Peace (in the games),


Book Review: Rules of Play

One of the visitors to our recent Game Design Camp — Bryant Paul Johnson — lent me his copy of Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, and while I won’t say it is an “easy summer read,” I can say that it is a book worth skimming and reading the summary sections if you have any interest in the ideas of play and gaming and design. Rules of Play is more a textbook than anything, but I found it pretty fascinating to jump into the theories of how we play, and how game design can tap into those elements of our personality.

It begins with the sentence: “This book is about games; all kinds of games.” And then it digs pretty deep. I really enjoyed the handful of narratives from folks who have designed games, as they “talked us” through their iterative process that begins with an idea, is developed slowly through trial and error and game playing, and then shifting into publishing. One section around the development of a Lord of the Rings board games was pretty fascinating.

The book delves into such topics as games as systems, the mechanics of how we play, games as cultural rhetoric and more. While the cost of Rules of Play may be somewhat prohibitive (about $30), Google Books has a version of it online as an ebook that provides enough of the text to make it worth a read. I found it useful in my own exploration of game design for learning.

Peace (in the play),

What I Like about … Gamestar Mechanic

I want to give a shout-out to the designers of Gamestar Mechanic, which is the web-based application we used for our Game Design Camp last week. I am not sure what I would have done without the site, to be honest, since so many other game creation applications that I tried came across as clunky, difficult to use and didn’t have the learning mechanisms built in as nicely as Gamestar Mechanic does. I’ll admit that those difficulties are more with me than the sites, given my fair level of inexperience. But Gamestar’s emphasis on the learning made all the difference in the world,
While we paid a little for our premium service at Gamestar, the site has free accounts for students and for teachers. The premium service opens up different possibilities and extends the abilities of users, but the free service would be a fine starting place for any teacher thinking about bringing gaming into the classroom. It’s important to note that Gamestar is about Game Design, and not about programming. I had some students in the camp who wished we had plunged into more programming of games. But we were all about game design.

What I like about Gamestar Mechanic:

  • Simple to set up a “classroom” account by teachers and easy to share the link with students for joining in. It literally took just a few minutes;
  • No email necessary for student accounts, although you would be better off linking the student accounts to a classroom/teacher email (in case passwords get lost);
  • Quests are designed for students to play games and learn gaming skills. I particularly liked that users have to “repair” broken games and learn about the elements of building games. Also, as you move through the Quests and other challenges, you “earn” more tools, such as sprites, backgrounds, music, etc. That reward system for playing the Quests was pretty powerful;
  • Graphic novel stories introduce the characters and the overall narrative of the Quests. Not every student read the graphic stories, but it appealed to certain kids, for sure;
  • As the teacher administrator of my gaming classroom, the site gave me data about my players. I could “see” how far my students were in their Quests, how many comments they had posted on other games and how many games they had designed — both in draft stage and in publishing stage. This would be valuable in a classroom learning setting;
  • I loved that the site kicks out some basic statistics for a student game creator, too — allowing you to see how many people started the game, how many finished, and what level was most difficult for users. I used this tool with a few students to revise their games;
  • It’s good to have a place in the site where users can play and experience top-rated games, see the various contest winners (we were playing some STEM games), and also view classmates’ games in our own classroom area. Known as Game Alley, this area became a regular destination for our gamers;
  • You can embed games and links to games created by students in other websites. The downside is that you have to be logged in as a user at a Gamestar to play the games. Or at least, that’s what it seemed to me. It may be that there is a time limit on how long a link is open to the public.
  • Tech support for Gamestar Mechanic was fantastic. Whenever I had a question, the tech people were back to me within a few hours, with answers. One student found a glitch in a Quest and when we emailed it to tech support, they were grateful for the discovery and gave kudos to the students (and also, a special little award badge that you collect in Gamestar).

Thoughts from students about Gamestar Mechanic:

  • They wished they could do more player vs. player game design. The site is only set up for player vs. computer.
  • They wanted to manipulate more of the controls of sprites and design elements.
  • They wanted to upload their own backgrounds and music and create their own sprites from scratch.
  • They wanted more game immersion possibilities (first person)

Overall, it was a very positive experience to use Gamestar Mechanic for the camp, and I would highly recommend it as a starting point for game design in the classroom.
Peace (in the mechanic),

Musing Afterwards: Gaming Reflections 8

I know I shared the video collage yesterday from our game design camp but I wanted to do one final video reflection to wrap up some thoughts around the camp and the possibilities for the classroom. These videos are becoming part of a collection I am developing over at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site around game design and learning, and how a teacher dips their toes into the water.

Peace (in the reflections),

Scenes from the Game Design Camp

Our camp ended yesterday and it was a resounding success. The kids published more than 50 games and learned much about game design and collaboration. Here are some scenes from the week.

Peace (in the games),

Expert Advice: The Design of a Video Game

We had another visitor into our Game Design Camp yesterday. Bryant Paul Johnson is an amazing artist, webcomic creator and graphic novelist, and he has also done work in the video game industry. He came in yesterday to talk to our young gamers about the process of game design, although the conversation at one point turned to “modding” games, the role of the player in the modern age of gaming, and the use of cheat codes. It was pretty fascinating to hear the kids talk about things they have discovered — either by chance or by design of the programmers — and Bryant did a wonderful job of guiding the discussion.

The various elements of the design process that Bryant discussed included:

  • Design: Coming up a concept or idea, and establishing logical rules for game play. Bryant actually went into the idea of rules for quite a bit, pointing that games with no rules or with rules that don’t have any logical underpinning are not fun for the player. Rules — such as how you get rewards or how you lose a life — allow the player to have expectations from the game.
  • Programming: The coding work that is the architectural underneath the game. Bryant explained that programming is the most important work you almost never see. And this is the part that takes the longest to do, too. He noted that some programmers leave various surprises embedded in the work, such as Easter Eggs, or little images or doorways or other items as a way to break up the monotony of months of programming work.
  • Art: The graphic elements, including style and movement and flow. Bryant is an artist, so he explained to the camp how the art is the interface that users see the most (even though the code is what they play) so the artwork has to be designed to be user-friendly, but also interesting. The style of a game often comes from the art, he noted.
  • Sound: The use of music and sound effects to engage the player and shape the mood of the game. This is interesting because the computers in our lab don’t have speakers, so we’ve been playing silently. But Bryant noted that sound effects can shape the gaming experience — adding foreshadowing elements or setting the emotional response at certain levels for the user.
  • Play-testing: Playing games in order to find out where they don’t work, and then fix the bugs. In fact, one of our campers found a bug in Gamestar Mechanic, which we reported, and the company responded rather quickly, saying they were now working on it. And the player who noticed the bug gets a special “badge” from Gamestar. I’ve pointed out to the camp that developers need players to test games, and that clear communication of where the bugs are is crucial (what level, what action, etc.)

I’ve been lucky to get visitors into the camp. They have been generous with their time and their expertise.

Peace (in the game),

An Inside Look at the Game Development World

Idea to Game Concept

(from Hitpoint Studio Presentation)

Our Game Design camp was fortunate to have two visitors yesterday from a local game development company called Hitpoint Studios, which makes a wide variety of games (We have another visitor coming in today). Dorinda and Jerry from Hitpoint gave a thoughtful presentation about what goes on in the development of a video game, and what my co-instructor Tina and I liked most of all was how they explained all of the skills that one would need to get a job as a game developer.

Here are some of my notes:

Jobs in the Game Industry

  • Programmer
  • Artists
  • Animators
  • Artist Techs
  • Tester/Quality Assurance
  • Game Writers
  • Designers
  • Project Managers

And here are some of the academic skills that they say are needed for the variety of jobs:

  • Math
  • Logic
  • Drawing
  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Physics
  • Composition/Writing
  • Acting
  • Communication
  • Attention Span
  • Organization

Dorinda and Jerry both encouraged our middle school campers to consider advanced classes in math, programming and writing in high school if they truly are interested in entering the game industry. I loved that message — that gaming is more than just playing a game. Writing and story development and collaboration are key components to developing and publishing a successful game. Remember that next time that gamer in your classroom asks: “Why is writing so important?” They also suggested getting into development with Flash software, since most mobile and web-based games are built in some version of Flash.

Peace (in the game),