To Game or not to Game, that is my question

For the past few summers, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project has made a concerted push to offer youth writing programs in the summer. I have been involved with a partnership with a local vocational high school that offers summer enrichment programs for middle school students. I’ve been part of teams that have offered programs in stop-motion movie making, webcomics, digital storytelling and more.

Here’s what I am mulling over, and I need to do it fairly soon (like, in the next few days, when advertising for the summer already gets underway): Do I offer a course around Game Development and Design? Before I say “yes,” I am trying to figure out, “Can you pull this off, mister?”

The text to a speech about gaming that I found online is something I keep coming back to as a sort of guide in my thinking around using gaming for education. The Ten Commandments of Game Development Education by Ernest Adams is wonderfully frank and helpful, and even though it is aimed for the university level, I see a lot of advice here that I should follow, including allowing for failure, keep “play” at the center of the work, show the history of the field of work, and encourage collaborative teamwork.

I have a feeling such a class would be of interest to a lot of kids (don’t you?) and so I am brainstorming here a bit about what I would do with them over the course of the 12 hours spread out over four days. My aim would be to make the program fun and interesting (it is summer, after all) while still engaging them as learners around concepts of design, play, creation and technology. And I want them to “create,” not just play.

Here’s an outline of my thinking:

  • Some of the first day would be centered around non-tech gaming and development of a game as a collaborative process. I would use what we did at the National Writing Project session around gaming, where we worked in small groups with some unknown materials to develop a game, with rules, that we could teach others.
  • We’d look at some familiar board games, and then use this book that I found that comes up with different ways to play familiar games (such as, a new way to play Monopoly, etc.) This would lead into a discussion around design: how does a game invite a player and what elements work for play? I might toss some card games into the mix, too.
  • I’d love to do something about the history of Video Games (there must be a good resource somewhere) and bring them to one of those sites that allow you to play the old 8-bit games like Pacman, Pong, Astroids, etc.,. so they can experience where video games came from and how far they have come in a few decades.
  • We’d then move into looking at and playing some online games, as we mull over, once again, design elements. What animation, choices for the player, artwork, etc., makes a game effective? I bet we could compile a pretty good list of recommended games from the kids.
  • I’d show them Scratch, with an emphasis first on animation and programming, and then, shift gears into using Scratch to develop a simple game. (I know this can be done with the MIT freeware, but I haven’t yet done it.)
  • At this point, I would work on the concept of “story” — of the underpinnings of a good game, and how character and plot can guide the game developer along (and also, note that this is a point of argument in the gaming world — that not all games need “story” to be successful and sometimes “story” ruins a good game, right?).
  • Here’s where I might have them use Gamemaker8 (which I have been experimenting with) to develop a Maze Game, and for those advanced students, turn them loose for something larger. I imagine this will be the point where the differentiated instruction will come into play, and where students with background knowledge can become leaders with me of the session. (And to be honest, I am looking for platform that is a bit easier to use. Any ideas?)
  • I want to look more for other game development software that we could use. I know there are some for developing games for mobile devices and for the Xbox. And I seem to recall a gaming platform that students can use to learn about making games. I’d have to dig around my notes for that one (does it cost money?)
  • I might as well have a time when kids can bring in their Xbox or Wii and let them play, right? I’d have to structure what we are looking at while they play.
  • I’d develop a website for their games to be published and shared. They would not be creating in a vacuum. And they would be testers and sources of feedback for each other, too. This could be interesting — how do we adapt the Peer Writing Response for Peer Gaming Response?
  • I’d even dig up a video documentary or two about game design. There was a good one about Donkey Kong, if I remember correctly. (note to self: appropriate for kids?)
  • I know at least one person who had a career on working in the video game industry that I bet I could bring in to talk about his work. There must be others out there, too. I always try to bring in guests who have experience who can talk to the kids and answer questions that fall outside my own field of expertise.

So, what do you think? Is it viable? Do you have resources that could help me along the way?

Peace (in the brainstorming),

Making a Video Game, part five

(This is part of a continuing series to dive into gamemaking and see what I can learn, and reflect on the possibilities for the classroom. You can read the other posts in this series here.)

I know I came off as a sort of complainer yesterday about my efforts to construct a simple maze game with Gamemaker software (which is free and not worth complaining about, really). To give you a glimpse under the hood of Gamemaker, I thought I would show you two screenshots of the programming that goes on just to make a character move through a maze via keyboard arrow commands.

In the first screenshot, you can see the overview of the editing, where “sprites” have been designated as “objects” in a “room,” where objects are characters and building blocks (such as the walls of the maze) and the room is the game board itself (you can add multiple rooms, too).
Inside look at Gamemaker
In the second screenshot, I went a layer deeper into a single movement of my player, showing how you would designate the player to move “left” with the left keyboard arrow.
Insider look at Gamemaker 2

What I notice is that I need to adapt to a whole new lexicon of language here, from sprites to objects to rooms, not to mention an array of programming options that are available to use, such as collisions, key presses, key releases, alarm, step, set variables, etc. It’s like wandering into a world of strange words where the meaning I think a command might have is not always what the command does in the game. I really have to come at it with a different mindset.

My next task: to figure out how to get other pieces (ie, objects) moving randomly in the game which my player will have to avoid, or risk losing points. That sounds simple enough, but here is some of what I will have to do to accomplish this:

  • Create a sprite
  • Turn the sprite into an object
  • Designate a movement action (random movements or specified movements)
  • Make sure the object stays inside the game (ie, bounces off walls)
  • Make sure the object can collide with players
  • Designate a negative point for each collision
  • Make sure that negative point tally is reflected in the player’s overall score (they will need to reach a certain score to win the game)

That is pretty complex and there are lots of steps that need to be done in those actions. I sure hope I can find a good tutorial to help me out. Youtube, here I come!

Peace (in the gaming),

Making a Video Game, part four

Yesterday, I just about threw up my hands and said, enough.

What had me in a huff was the tutorial that I was using to create a video game (I’ve been writing all week about my adventures in creating a video game using Gamemaker8 software). At first, the PDF tutorial on how to create a maze game seemed pretty straightforward. But it took a turn for the worse in a single section that I needed the most: how to program the game so that the player can move their character through the maze with the arrow functions on the keyboard.

The tutorial just jumped over about five steps and clearly, the writer thought I knew more than I knew, or that I had enough programming mojo to figure out what I should have already known. I didn’t, and I couldn’t, which is why I was using the tutorial in the first place.

So, I almost gave up, and came close to declaring that this kind of project would never work in the classroom. If I was frustrated, what would happen to my students?

So, I thought, what would my students do?

I turned to YouTube, and sure enough, I found a tutorial posted by umarshiekh2002 that walked me, silently, through the entire process of setting up a very simple maze game. (Thanks Dude!) I was pausing, playing, creating and going over it a few times in this strange silence (we expect sound from videos, don’t we?) except for me talking to myself and suddenly, I had my simple maze up and running.


It reminds me of how many resources there are out there and how powerful search engines can be. I was reminded of the recent NWP Makes! session that I took part of in Orlando, where we talked about an entire online culture of people sharing how they do things through videos and screenshots, and this video tutorial that unlocked the maze for me is certainly a prime example of that.

As to my thoughts of applicability in the classroom, I am still mixed on it. Now, I am thinking, this might be better for a summer camp for a smaller, more focused set of gamer kids. Much to mull over …

Meanwhile, I wanted to try to post my simple game to the YoYo Games site (home of Gamemaker8) and that was breeze. Wanna try my simple maze? You might need the Gamemaker plugin to launch the game.



Mazing It
Added: 02 December 2010
By: dogtrax

I still need to learn to add roaming elements to the maze, and award points for collecting items, before I can start in real development to my game idea I am calling Running Late. But I feel as if I am on the right track (notice I was able to use my own avatar icon in the game, which means I can draw my own game pieces for my Running Late maze. Another mystery solved ..)

Peace (in the game),

Making a Video Game, part 3

Video Game Running Late- Design Draft

I’ve been working on posts this week all around trying to develop a video game myself, using free software called GameMaker 8. (See my first post and my second post). I finally sat down, away from the computer, and began to draft out what my game might look like. I came up with a name – Running Late – and a story concept – a student is late for school – and a platform idea – a maze.

Here is what I have so far for my game design:

Name of the Game: Running Late

Object of the Game:

You are a student who has missed the morning bus and you are now running late for school. You must run your way through the neighborhood, collecting points along the way in order to earn a “Late Pass” for the principal. You must earn at least 100 points by collecting such items as pencils, a good report card and bus passes. But look out for the bad dog on the loose – he wants to take away points from you and he will chase you down. And avoid the temptation of the candy bar. That will cost you points, too.

How To Move Your Player:

  • Mouse Cursor: indicates direction.

  • Left Mouse Click: moves you forward one grid

  • Right Mouse Click: allows you to jump three grids, but randomly

Items on the Board

  • The Good Stuff

  • Pick up the Pencil: 10 points

  • Catch the Bus: 10 points

  • Get a good Report Card: 20 points

  • The Bad Stuff

  • Suffer a dog bite: lose 10 points

  • Eat a candy bar: lose 10 points

How You Win the Game:

Make your way to school with 100 points and get your butt to class. You’re late!

Now, I begin the journey to actually make the game. Stay tuned for future reflections! And hopefully, a chance to turn any game I make over to you as a player for feedback.

Peace (in the maze),


Making a Video Game, part 2

Maze sample

Yesterday, I wrote about my latest endeavor to create a video game that uses some free software and which incorporates some element of “story” as its backdrop. My aim is to have fun and also, to consider the possibilities for the classroom.

It turns out I lost my Internet access on Sunday, which gave me some space and time to sit down with paper and pencils and really think through what my game might look like and how it might be played. I can’t say enough about how valuable it was to be off the computer for some old fashioned “paper thinking,” and I already see some revisions and iterations of my game design beginning to formulate in my head. I’ll share more of the particulars of my game in tomorrow’s post.

I spent a good chunk of time with GameMaker on my own (no tutorials, thanks to lack of Internet access) in an attempt to create a simple maze game and I floundered a bit, I must confess. I constructed a maze, but I had a lot of difficulty designating what I wanted things to do and I never did figure out how to make the click of the mouse designate a move on the board, which will be a central act for the user of my game. I am sure this is easy to do, but I could not figure it out, not for the life of me. And I am not sure if I can even create my own icons (sorry, sprites, but I have my own ideas for players and pieces in my game).

I ended up just diving into the program as far as I could go, just as I imagine that many students do when they encounter a new game or a new console or a new program. I would have liked some hand-holding directions (honest, I would have) but there is something to be said to full immersion into software without a life preserver. I suspect that when I make my way back to Gamemaker (with tutorials in hand — now downloaded onto my computer directly), I will be farther along with understanding its architecture than I think am.

Yesterday, Cindy left the suggestion that perhaps this exploration of developing a game could be done with my entire class, together as a collaborative activity, which is something I had not really considered: a whole-class exploration. But I wonder how that would look, given that so much of this is trial and error. I’d have to train myself to really “think aloud” and turn over the production to the class. It’s interesting, and carving out time for it would be difficult, but not impossible. More to think about …

Peace (in the maze),

Making a Video Game, part 1

gamemaker test

I will never to be accused to being a “gamer,” which is not to say that I don’t appreciate the world of video gaming. I spent many (perhaps too many) hours of my childhood and teen age years, playing Atari and Nintendo and other game systems that I was pretty decent at. I kicked butt at Pong, and was a master at Donkey Kong, and I could discover many hidden Easter Eggs in other platform games whose names have since escaped me (Legend of Zelda seems to be one that stays with me).

These days, though, I mostly watch from afar as my own boys play on the Wii or their iPod Touch or on the computer. We limit their time in the gaming world and put the brakes on some games that we deem inappropriate, but still, it is fascinating to see how far gaming has come and to wonder about where it is heading, and to consider what value gaming might have in the classroom.

I am in the midst of writing an article about gaming in the classroom, with the emphasis on how it might be used for learning. Critical thinking, collaboration, design principles and more are all at the heart of good gaming architecture. One of the focus points of the article is the emergence of tools for users of games to create their own, and it only seemed logical that I should go through the process myself. In other words, I need to come up with a concept and try to develop and publish a simple game as if I were a student.

This post is the first bit of reflection on how that project is slowly developing.

My criteria for finding a good game creation platform was not all that scientific. I wanted something free (that could potentially translate into a no-cost project for my classroom), easy to use (this being relative, of course); and the ability to publish my game at some time in the future, if I wanted. The platform I decided upon, after some research, is GameMaker 8. I downloaded the software on Saturday morning and opened it up, with my older sons looking over my shoulder. They’re interested, too, particularly with the possibility of creating a game for their iPod (I need my Mac and a program called GameSalad – that’s for another day).

GameMaker 8 begins with a handy tutorial on making a simple game, involving moving fruit and the user collecting points by mouse clicking on the fruit (harder than it sounds). The tutorial was easy enough to follow, although the software is bit more complex than I thought it would be. I realized quickly that this is a whole new world for me, so the various elements and vocabulary that might be common in gaming systems for regular users are somewhat foreign to me. Still, the tutorial, with screenshots, was made for beginners like me. I made my simple game with bouncing fruit (and wondered, why fruit? When does fruit ever run away from us? I remember fruit being elements of some of the original video games that I played as a kid, too. Odd.)

At one point, I added a sound to the apples when they are clicked by the player – nothing fancy, just a little zing to indicate success — and my older son asked, “Why did you do that?” to which I answered, “Because I could,” and realized that I was echoing an answer often made by one of my students when they come across something cool. I kept the sound on the apple but realized I would have to try to be more thoughtful. A game that is overloaded with media and options is not very playable.

Ok, so I made my fruit game. What’s next?

What I really want to do is create a game with some sort of narrative backdrop. Again, one of the elements of my article is how “story” has infused a lot of the innovative gaming (Think of Spore, with its story of evolution, for example). I can’t get too complex because my knowledge of GameMaker is limited, and the software has limits, too (although an upgrade for $25 suggests more possibilities for game design).

So, here is my “story” of my future game: a student has woken up late, missed the bus, and must rush to get to school. Along the way, the student encounters obstacles, including a dog chasing them, nipping at their heels. The student gains speed by gathering things (what? I don’t know. Pencils, computer mice, erasers, etc.) along the way. So, this is a Maze Game, I realized, and I think it is doable for someone of my skills. I’m not all that certain the “story” will be evident, but it will at least guide me along as the developer.

Looking at the GameMaker site, I realized there are tutorials on creating maze games, so that is my next step. I’m going to spend some time with the tutorials and begin the task of making a basic maze game, with my own story concept lurking in the background. And I would probably benefit from drafting a paper version of the game, too, to help keep my focus. I also had this vision of writing a story of this running-late student (Running Late – possible name of game), with the game yet another element of the storytelling (and maybe a Google Search Story, too?) so that the story itself becomes multi-modal and engaging for the reader, who also becomes a player in the story.

Now, how would you pull all that off in the classroom?

Peace (in the sharing),