Leveling up: Best beginner tools for taking game design to the next level in the classroom?

This is not a guide. This is a conversation. Hopefully the comments on this post will be more useful than my ramblings. With that said, let me hit you with the premise.

The Premise

Game design is a great jumping off point for introducing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning through the lens of systems-thinking and user-centered design while stopping short of providing any real foundation in coding, programming, or engineering, areas covered in the realm of game development. I would like to find a way to begin the transition from game design to game development in my classroom, in order to move from STEM theory (ideas and concepts) to STEM skills (concrete practice).
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  • Game Design is concerned with studying the concepts behind the basic elements of a game, and how the balance of fun and challenge in games creates flow. It is also concerned with the iteration feedback loop and how games are a complex system designed around creating a satisfying user experience.
  • Game development deals with concepts like sequences, loops, parallelism, events, conditionals, operators, and data storing... You know, computer programming.

Moving from one to the other, particularly at the introductory level (I teach 7th and 8th grade computer science) can be frustrating due to a decided lack of good tools at the right price for education (In today's climate the right price is "free").

My starting point...

I introduce my students to game design, as defined above, with the popular web tool, Gamestar Mechanic, "a game and community designed to teach kids the principles of game design and systems thinking in a highly engaging environment" (Gamestar Mechanic). My students complete a pretty comprehensive study in the five elements of game design, as defined by Gamestar Mechanic. After that, I would like to provide students with an opportunity to go deeper. Currently, all I have is an "À la carte combination" of a number of projects that take the five elements of game design, as defined by Gamestar Mechanic, and build upon them in different ways. None of these seem to be a complete solution, and all of them seem to present their own unique hurdles that makes them less than perfectly suited for the classroom.

Tools I use

Public education is a no-budget to low-budget operation. If I had my druthers, I would be using everything from Minecraft to Lego Mindstorms in my classroom. I would be 3d printing and developing apps. In reality, though, If I can't download it for free or build it myself, we don't use it. Fortunately, there are a lot of tools out there that are free and available. The thing about free, though, is that sometimes you get what you pay for. Often, you get more, but about the time a tool gets really good, it stops being free. 



ARIS has a ton of flexibility and a lot of promise. It is my favorite of the tools here, and my students' least favorite. You have to really think outside of the box to use it. There are very few tutorials out there for building a game in ARIS, and the ones that do exist are not very complete. I'd like to use this more in class, but I don't have the time to make my own tutorial videos for it.

ARIS is a user-friendly, open-source platform for creating and playing mobile games, tours and interactive stories. Using GPS and QR Codes, ARIS players experience a hybrid world of virtual interactive characters, items, and media placed in physical space. (ARIS)
There are a lot of types of games students could design with ARIS. Some examples I share with students are, a game that teaches something about a specific geographic region or provides local historical context, a game that lays down a fantasy world that works in parallel to this one (think Neverwhere), or a game that sets up a realistic situation in a local environment, such as a murder-mystery etc.

The ARIS editor is entirely web-based. There's nothing to download but the app to play the games you've made. There's some basic coding required to create dialog, and beyond that the editor is menu driven, giving students the chance to apply the five elements of game design in an open environment.



I really really really want to love Stencyl. I keep trying to squeeze its potential awesomeness out. Stencyl is "a drag-and-drop gameplay designer" (Stencyl), modeled after the MIT Scratch project. Basically, it's blocks-based programming made specifically for game design. The sweet part for teachers is that it is free. I've been using this for a couple of years now, and I even reviewed an excellent book about it this summer. This definitely gives students more freedom and challenge than Gamestar. It seems, though, to be very buggy. Stencylforge, Stencyl's marketplace for user-created resources is heavily promoted within the application as the main source for graphics, sounds, behaviors etc. Unfortunately, this fall, Stencylforge was down more than it was up, rendering the whole program a bit clunky and useless and leaving students frustrated and stranded. Stencyl is awesome for making Platformer Games, but when it comes to something more robust, like an RPG, Stencyl has more glitches and frustration than success. Most of it's kits were designed on a previous version and break once imported into the new version. Most of my students do not have the level of experience with the program necessary to troubleshoot what's broken. 


Portal 2

Teach with Portals is an initiative of Steam for Schools. I was able to register my class for a free educational version of Portal 2 and the Puzzle Creator (sometimes referred to as Puzzle Maker). In terms of approaching Game design from the perspective of game mechanics, particularly the five elements discussed in Gamestar Mechanic, Portal 2 with the Puzzle Maker is a natural extension of the activities begun in Gamestar. It does not allow for a transition from game design to game development. Perhaps one could include Hammer, but that is not a part of the original package. 

This game is amazing and the puzzle creator is really easy to use. I am disappointed that Steam for Schools does not allow students to publish their test chambers to a community. I have them play each others while recording with Screencast-o-matic. Then they can post the video on their blog. Other than that, there is not a good way to publish their work, something that can be done easily with ARIS and Stencyl.



Students aren't exactly turned on my these examples.
The Scratch project, initiated in 2003, should need no introduction. If you're savvy enough to be doing game design in your classroom, you've probably used Scratch. Scratch allows students to program their own interactive stories, games, and animations, using programming logic instead of code. Games have always been one of the most popular types of projects on the Scratch Website, but making a game with any depth or complexity requires a heavy investment in learning deep programming concepts.

My friend John often notes that Scratch is far superior to Stencyl for the freedom it allows. I'm tempted to agree. Unfortunately, with the curve being so steep and the Scratch community being such a disorganized crap-shoot, my students struggle to get beyond creating the most basic of games and have little in the way of functional examples to look at. Pac Man and Pong are cool and all, but that's not what I or my students have in mind when it comes to game design. Most of them turn back to Stencyl or pine for Gamestar Mechanic.


Tools I plan to use

I would definitely love to add a few tools to my arsenal of awesomeness. There are two I am definitely considering, if I can get my IT staff to install them for me. 



Kodu looks really promising, and apparently I do not need an Xbox to use it, which is what I thought until recently. Kodu provides creative sandbox environment for designing, building, and playing your own new games. It is focused on object-oriented programming like Scratch. It apparently runs on an Xbox 360, using the game console’s controller rather than a keyboard, but the folks at the Kodu Gamelab assured me that I would not need the Xbox or controller. I hope they're right because I didn't budget for them.



I used to consider Alice to be Scratch on steroids, but apparently it's capable of some pretty serious stuff.  I'm definitely giving it a second look. I have Blender installed on my workstations this year, and some of my students are creating things they say they could use in their 3d environments in Alice. The fact that I'm having these conversations with students is mind-blowing. Mind you, these are some of the same students who are frustrated with Scratch and Stencyl. Apparently, I'm missing something by not including Alice.


Tools you use, love, or want to suggest...

What am I missing? As I said earlier, this is not a guide. This is a conversation. Hopefully the comments on this post will be more useful than my ramblings.

Please please please provide some feedback in the comments below. I would love to know what tools you are using and what you would suggest. I'm sure I've missed something. If you use any of these tools, what have you found to be successful for scaffolding students' learning and design endeavors? 


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