Technology Tips for Teachers  

February 20, 2012

Game On!

I admit it; I play video games. In the fifth grade I got an Atari. I placed second at my school's Pac-Man tournament that same year. I played the Mattel handheld football game for hours. Always waiting for that small opening to send my little red dash running back down the field. I've grown up as the systems have changed, from Atari, to Nintendo, to Xbox and the PlayStation. But can gaming be an educational adventure? I think it can.

Gaming gives student a way to work on narrative creation and storytelling, fosters critical thinking, breaking a complex goal into manageable steps, and introduces conditions and sequences, which teaches cause and effect. With some of the game sites it demonstrates that programming is a creative medium. Let's look at a few of the gaming options.

The first site is Scratch, which is a programming language. The website is used to post projects, discuss codes, and explore other peoples' projects. To use Scratch, you download the software to your computer. The purpose of Scratch is to learn programming; you can design games, animation, and even artistic programs. The language is designed like Legos. You connect commands together by drag and dropping blocks in the script area. Each category of commands is color-coded (see picture for example) as a visual clue to help you build
your project.

The biggest benefit of Scratch is learning to program. It is a great way to introduce programming, but is also fun for students that know how to program. Plus, a student can design a project that matches their interest; be it a game or a small animated story.

For pure game design there are a couple of cool options to look into. The first is Microsoft's game program Kodu. Kodu is a visual game programming language that allows students to create Xbox games. The software is free to download on PCs and cost five dollars on Xbox's Marketplace. Kodu is like Scratch in the fact that basic commands are visual, and a student builds the game with blocks that connect to the controller. The goal with Kodu is not programming, but pure game design.

Atmosphir is a web based game design site that allows a user to build 3D games like the Super Mario games. The strength of Atmosphir is the artistic expectation of the game. A student literally builds their game world one block at a time. The screen shot shows a level based off the book Lord of the Flies that a student created two years ago in one of my English classes.

At the moment Gamestar Mechanic is popular with my sons and me. Gamestar Mechanic is also web based, and allows you to create top-down or platform games; like the first Zelda or first Mario Bros. game. One of the reasons I like this site is that you play a quest that
teaches you about game design. The quest teaches you about game play, visuals, and other factors that make a game fun before you even make a game. As a member you are also expected to play and review other people's games.

Game design can be a way to teach programing, story telling, art, and other critical thinking lessons. Are you game? (Click on "game" to play one of the games I designed on Gamestar Mechanic... warning, it is has a 4.5 /5 difficulty rating voted by Gamestar Mechanic users.)

-by Jamey Boelhower, Remote Learning Speciialist