At Middleweb: Nurturing Writing Skills with Video Game Design

My latest blog post for Middleweb is a reflection on the various kinds of writing activities we do in our video game design unit. I know this kind of sharing is important for teachers wondering about the potential for video game design but still juggling how to meet their curriculum goals.

Read Infusing Writing Standards into Video Game Design at Middleweb

These ideas were part of a presentation done this past week at a technology conference, and I am revamping the presentation a bit for the Web, so I will share that out another day.

Peace (in the learning),

Workshop: Video Game Design, Science and Writing

Game Design Workshop TIE

Today, my science teaching colleague, Lisa Rice, and I will head to a local technology in education conference to present our collaborative science-based video game design project. I’ve written a lot about what we do over the years in various spaces, and I have presented about it before, but this is her first time presenting, and so I am excited to give her an opportunity to share her knowledge as a teacher and collaborator. (Our principal, technology director and our school superintendent will be at the conference, too, and we hear they will be in our session.)

The keynote speaker will be my National Writing Project colleague, Antero Garcia, and the overall theme of the conference is all about Connected Learning. Antero will no doubt be talking about youth action projects, as he has done a lot of work and writing and research in that area of Connected Learning and Participatory Culture.

We only have an hour in our game workshop session, but I still hope I have time to pull out Uno cards and dice, and get the participants hacking a collaborative game, if only to experience the act of game design. I also see it as another venue to showcase work of students and to validate how video game design can find a place in the ELA classroom (particularly with a science connection).

Peace (in the share),

Video Game Design: Plenty O’ Reflecting

Video Game Journal Collage 2016

We’re at the tail end of our science-based video game design project that lasted through much of December, and I have been spending time this weekend reading through the online Game Designer’s Journals that students kept as the project unfolded. I wish I had budgeted even more time for reflective writing because the entries in the journals give such a good glimpse into what they were doing and learning and thinking about.

I’ve been going in to each student’s game designer journals and leaving comments and ideas about what I saw in their games (I have played nearly 65 video games since holiday break) and what I see in their reflective writing.

Peace (beyond the game),


Deconstructing Video Game Advertisements (and Making Their Own)

Game Advertising1

I have the good fortune of having a very talented paraprofessional in my classroom for one period each day. She is compassionate and firm and helpful. She also had a career in design and advertising before coming into education, so when I was thinking of a lesson plan around Video Game Advertising and the use of persuasive media and writing, I asked if she would lead part of the lesson.

She said yes, and yesterday, our students were engaged in deconstructing advertisements in order to create their own advertisements for their science-based video game projects (with central themes of Buoyancy and Gravity).

She brought her own experiences in designing brochures for the company she used to work for, explaining techniques for blocking out advertisements in draft form, how to consider audience for a product, using “loaded words” to sway the customer, the importance of catch-phrases/slogans, how fonts can be most effectively used, and ways to avoid “floating texts.”

I learned a lot just from listening to her, honing in on the power of art and words together to create persuasive text/media.

Game Advertisement Deconstruction

I created a slideshow of video game advertisements for the lesson, and after deconstructing the first one, we had students talking through what they saw in the other ones, noticing what seemed most effective.

Game Advertising2


Then, they got to work. And work, they did. It was an incredible contrast to what I described in my post yesterday — when we had some chaos in the room during a peer review activity of video games. They were intensely engaged in this advertisement activity. Most will be finishing up today, our last day before holiday break.

I can’t wait to see what they have created ..

Peace (free of charge, always),

Slice of Life: Well, That Was Chaotic

(This is for Slice of Life, a weekly writing invitation by Two Writing Teachers to capture moments in our lives. Come write with us.)

Buoyancy Games Collage

Well, that was chaotic.

My goal in class yesterday was pretty straightforward. We are working on nearing the end of our Science-based Video Game Design unit, and peer-review/play-testing is an important element for young game designers to gather an outside perspective. When you build a video game, you know all the ins and outs of it — all the tricks of the game —  and at some point, that is not a good thing. You lose perspective.

What you need is an outside voice. A player to play your game.

So, our activity had students working the room, playing each other’s games in a rather logical sequential order, and writing out “warm” and “cool” feedback on the games. We’ve used this same strategy with writing this year, so it is not new. I even had sentence starters for both feedback points on the interactive board and situated around the room as paper copies.

But clearly, giving feedback on writing (while not easy) is much more focused than giving feedback on student-created video games. I don’t know what I expected but the craziness that ensued was not quite it.

First of all, every game took a different amount of time to complete, so we were never quite in sync with the rotations. Some were still playing while others were done and ready to move on.

Second, the designers of the video games kept their eyes and ears open for players talking about their games, and they would leave the game they were play-testing to talk to the players of their game. That messed up the whole rotation idea. (It also made me think, next time I am going to more of a partner/feedback activity to allow for this to happen in a more controlled fashion.)

Third, I had to keep emphasizing that “cool” feedback did not mean merely writing “this is hard.” Some of the games are indeed hard to beat and play. That’s why we were getting a peer reviewer, to give that perspective. Instead, I said over and over and over (and over and over and over) that good advice would follow that with “and here is my recommendation …” and be specific.

Fourth, the noise noise noise noise. Ok. So my room can get noisy at times, particularly with game design when work and sharing and socializing seem to mingle more than usual, but this was just a bit too noisy even for me. (Good thing my supervisor didn’t wander in). I suspect it is the combination of holidays – vacation – game design – adolescence. I needed ear plugs.

I would not call the peer review/play-testing activity a failure, but I was not sure I quite achieved what I hoped for — the learning objective centered on giving and receiving specific feedback on a project that will provide insights for revision and improvement.

And then .. and then … as they shifted back to our games, I noticed so many of them reading with attention the comments left on their games by peers, and then they were asking follow-up questions, and then some of them (thankfully) began the process of revising levels — adding more lives, fixing the narrative text, revisiting the science concepts, removing obstacles — and suddenly, the chaos was worth it.

Some days are just like that, aren’t they?

Peace (beyond the games),

PS — this chart that I put together one year guides my thinking here ..

Writing and Game Design Compared


A Growing Collection of Science Video Games

Buoyancy Games Collage

Look at this growing collection of science-based video games my students are creating and publishing in Gamestar Mechanic. It’s pretty cool to see them all in a collage box like this … and more of the games get published every day … now, I need to start playing the games so I can grade the projects … The science theme this year has been “buoyancy” and “gravity.”

I’ll start featuring some of you to play, if you want, as I start looking at them more closely.

One early game I would recommend for her use of story in creating her game is this one — Stolen, by Suzannah — notice how she used message blocks to create a strong narrative.

stolen game (by S) screenshot

I’ve been stressing until my voice hurts the three intersecting elements of our project: Game, Science, Story.

Game Story Science

Peace (in the game),

Now, this is a map … of the Gaming Worlds

I have a version of this map hanging up on the wall of my classroom right now. Groups of students stand there, reading it, for long stretches of time.

The map comes from the Boston Sunday Globe. We are deep into our game design unit right now, and so when I saw this map created by this 17-year-old (Martin Vargic), I saw it as a perfect complement to our discussions around the impact of gaming on the world at large.

You can read more about Vargic here at the Globe.

I see that Vargic also has a book of his maps out for sale. It’s worth a gander. I have it ordered for myself (a little holiday gift)

Peace (on and off the map),


Student Video Game Designers At Work

Student Game Designers at Work

It’s hard to resist gathering snapshots of the work going around my room during the science-based video game design project. I like how these students have their storyboards right next to them, using them as guides for the design.

Student Game Designers at Work

Peace (by design),

Game Design Mantra: Engage, Educate, Entertain

Three words I say every day to my game designers


My students are no doubt weary of me saying these three words every day as they work on their science-based video game project. But I find it helps to keep them focused on the three elements of our project.

I remind them that, as video game designers, they want to …

ENGAGE the player in a game that fun to play, hitting that “sweet spot” of not too hard, and not too easy, but just challenging enough (ie, the Goldilocks Principle).

EDUCATE the player about the science that should be baked into the game itself. Our focus is on Buoyancy and the science behind it is the underpinning of the games.

ENTERTAIN the player with an interesting story-frame — the narrative that the game is wrapped up in. I tell them to consider their audience as a player who is reading their story by playing their video game. Yes, it is a high concept, but it builds off our work last month with Interactive Fiction.

Every day, every class period, I am saying “Remember: Engage, educate, entertain.” And it does occur to me that this could be a mantra for any classroom, although some might quibble with the “entertain” element there as being as important as the “educate” one.

Peace (ummmmm),

Visualizing the Game: The Importance of Storyboarding

In the first stages of our science-based game design project, I have students do two steps of brainstorming. First, they have to write out some initial ideas for a story-frame (the narrative story around which the video game is built); the science and scientific vocabulary that they will bake into their game; and challenges or troubles they see on the horizon as they seek to bring their vision for a video game into reality.

Then, we shift into storyboarding. I emphasize a lot about the importance of this step, of putting onto paper a plan of design that will guide the development of the game. Even if they venture away from the paper design later, it will be an anchor point for them, a place to refer back to time and again.

Here are two storyboards from this year that I wanted to save as exemplars for next year:

From Ellie:

ellie storyboard game

From Will:

will storyboard game1

will storyboard game2

Peace (in the story on the board),