Teaching Writing

Bringing Young Gamers Together: A Digital Writing Camp


Teacher consultant Kevin Hodgson describes the first Introductory Game Design Summer Camp hosted by the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. Note that the original media shared with this resource is no longer available. Originally published on July 22, 2011

Tina Browne and I looked out at the room of young gamers who signed up for the first-ever Introductory Game Design Summer Camp as a partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and a local vocational high school. All boys. Fourteen of them, eager to get going. There was a certain excitement in the air on that first day, and what I noticed immediately is how the boys were trying to get a sense of me, in particular, as a gamer. I dodged and weaved, and presented a suitable enough air of authority (constructed on some gaming experience and history) to satisfy most of them. And then we were off — making games.

Tina had joined me as a partner in this adventure, but also, as a teacher wondering if there is room for gaming in her high school curriculum. In the past, she has worked in digital storytelling and other technology as part of her creative writing and journalism classes. But like me, she was curious about what video games might or might not bring to the table for students. The summer camp became a sort of testing ground for us as teachers exploring this new terrain.

We were not disappointed. There was plenty of interesting work being done by our gaming boys. But we are still left with questions about how one might find room in a curriculum driven by state and national standards for gaming. (To get a better sense of my own thinking, you may want to check out my Digital Is resource More Than a Game: One Teacher’s Journey into Video Games).

Constructing Non-Technology Games

It was the first day, and we knew they were all itching to get onto the computers but we purposely held off for a few hours. Instead, we had them working on collaborative groups on designing an offline game, with rules and a story concept. We were happy to see how quickly and how easily they worked with each other on this project. There was laughter, compromise, changing of ideas and then construction of game boards and pieces going on throughout the room as the four groups of middle schoolers worked on an idea that could be transformed into a game.

Outside Gaming Experts: Hitpoint Studio

We were fortunate to have some visitors to the Game Design Camp from the local gaming industry. We thought that bringing in people who do gaming for a living might be a positive experience for the young gamers, and it was. Visitors from Hitpoint Studios not only talked about the design of a game from inception to publishing, but they focused in on the academic skills that one would need to be successful in the gaming world.

In particular, I loved this graphic from the Hitpoint folks showing how a game idea makes its way through the design process. There are many parallels to writing — from initial idea, to draft, to review, to revision, to publication.

Here are some notes from what they shared with the camp around the jobs that make up a game design company and the academic skills necessary for success:

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

Outside Gaming Experts: Bryant Paul Johnson

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 to our camp 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 group was more animated about these topics than anything else we have talked about.

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.)

Storyboarding the Video Games

Tina and I were constantly talking about “story frames” as a way to keep our young gamers focused on making a video game that had some cohesion and reason to it, and not just a random bit of jumping, shooting and dying. You had to die for a reason! One way we encouraged this is through the development of a storyboard for their final, multi-level video game project. They had to at least conceptualize the layout of their game as if looking down from above. We reinforced the idea that the storyboard was not set in stone, but was a “map” to guide the development of their game, which was to built along some narrative arc.

Scenes from the Summer Camp

This video collage captures some of the work and play that we did during the week, from the creation of no-tech games to playing old style video games to listening to visitors to storyboarding to publishing original video games on Gamestar Mechanic. Over the course of just a few days, our gamers published more than 50 games and had almost 100 games in a rough draft development stage. We set up accounts for them to use over the rest of the summer, with hopes that the techniques they learned about in our short time would translate into something bigger.

Who knows … in a few years, one of these young gamers might emerge with an idea as nutty and as popular as Angry Birds. You just never know when a seed planted is going to bloom, do you?

Four Days of Gaming

The Game Design Camp ran for four days, four hours a day. We tried to design activities to engage them in a variety of ways, with both offline gaming and online gaming. They were players and developers. Here is a brief overview of how we structured our activities for these young gamers:

Day One

Day Two

Day Three

  • Gaming Visitor: Bryant Paul Johnson
  • The history of video games DVD
  • Paper Design a Video Game Concept (Activity Challenge 4)
  • Work on your game

Day Four

  • Work on your own game
  • Get your game published on Gamestar Mechanic (Activity Challenge 5)
  • Activity Awards Ceremony and celebration of gaming