Connected Learning Teacher Inquiry

More Than a Game: One Teacher’s Journey into Video Games


Kevin Hodgson explores the use of games and game design in his classroom. Note that some of the original media published here is no longer available.

Originally published on July 22, 2011

For the past year, I have been thinking about gaming, and what possibilities gaming might bring to my sixth grade classroom. A session at the NWP Annual Meeting piqued my interest, but I wasn’t quite ready to take the plunge. Partly, this reticence was because I am not a Gamer. Sure, I played video games when I was a kid — I remember Atari and Sega and other console games and I certainly lost enough quarters in arcades to start a college fund. But the world of gaming has mostly passed me by in recent years.

But not my students. They game all the time. Particularly the boys.

So, the question I had was, how can I find a way to bringing gaming into a learning environment without completely ruining the experience for students? Part of my inquiry was inspired by Chad Sansing’s work around gaming as an educational opportunity. His resource here at Digital is entitled Imagining the Games-based Classroom was inspiring to me and Chad’s sharing of his work gave me that nudge I was looking for.

I decided that the best way to begin was for me to offer a summer camp program around Game Design. Luckily, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project has had a long-standing partnership with a local vocational high school for summer camp programs, and they were open to a gaming session.

The camp quickly filled up and was a success.

I found a teaching partner from our WMWP site — Tina Browne, herself a gaming novice who was interested in the world of gaming — and we began planning some activities. I realized rather quickly that I had better immerse myself in gaming if we were to engage these campers in the work and activities that we have planned. As part of my reflection practice, I decided I would try to document my own journey through video reflections.

This is a resource that will no doubt continue to expand as I move forward with working with students around game design and narrative structure. While we are mostly using Gamestar Mechanic for the construction of games, I realize that immersive gaming, massive multiplayer online games, and mobile gaming are all areas that I barely touch upon here in this resource.

I still have a few lives left …

Why Gaming?

In this video, I try to explore the question: Why Gaming? What is it about game design that connects well with 21st Century skills? As a writing teacher, I am also curious about the intersections of designing a game and the writing of a story. And of course, most important: is there room in my curriculum for gaming?

Gaming Resources

As I dug deeper into gaming, I began to search out resources that would help me but also which might be valuable for students. My aim is to get them to see gaming from beyond the level of players and to notice the various elements that go into gaming — such as storytelling, design elements and collaboration.

Curriculum Ideas for Gaming

This “gaming as learning” concept is new terrain for me, but I filed away many ideas I gathered from gaming workshops and other gaming sites for teachers as well as a mix of my own possibilties around engaging students, and then I began to build a week-long gaming curriculum that moved from traditional gaming towards video gaming.

Here are the basic components of the game camp:

  • Reflecting on what makes a game worth playing and worth re-playing;
  • A brief history of video gaming (pre-Pong through LA Noir);
  • Collaborative No-Tech gaming project (the design process);
  • Scratch as a programming tool;
  • Gamestar Mechanic as a site for play and design;
  • Storyboarding an original game idea;
  • Building out a video game;
  • Publishing a game at Gamestar Mechanic.

Game Design with Gamestar Mechanic

Although there are more and more sites that give users the tools to create video games, I decided that Gamestar Mechanic was a good choice for a summer camp. It is a closed community and it is built on the concept of users learn how to build video games by first playing games, and gaining experience through activities. I didn’t want to just talk about how to make games; I wanted to have that experience myself.

Conceptualizing and Building a Multi-layered Game

One morning, I woke with an idea for a multi-level game about dreaming, and trying to escape a dream, and began to storyboard it out. Then, I went into Gamestar Mechanic and began tinkering with the concept which i eventually called “Deep Down Dream.” I was surprised by how much tinkering I had to do to find a balance between making a game playable yet challenging. The narrative structure of a dream helped keep me focused in the development stage, too.

Inside Scratch

The goal of bringing gaming into a learning environment is not just to play games. it is to push our students’ thinking in new directions. While Gamestar Mechanic was the main site for our summer camp program, I also wanted our young gamers to have some understanding of the architectural of video games — peeling back the layer of the screen to see what’s under the hood, so to speak.

Scratch, a free programming platform from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a great way to begin. The coding is fairly simple and intuitive — sort of like snapping together Legos — and you can make some basic animation and games with just some basic tinkering with programming code.

A resource here at Digital Is by Laura Beth Fay (Remixing Work, Deconstructing Learning, Abstracting Thought: How Computational Thinking Altered a Language Arts Classroom) was also helpful to me as I considered the possibilities of Scratch for learning, particularly as it relates to student engagement and our own conceptions of composition.

Interpret Gaming Data

One of many things I am liking about Gamestar Mechanic is that it gives you various pieces of data around the games that you create and publish within its community. The other day, I created my first multi-level game — Deep Drop Dream – and over the last three days, a few players have given it a try. As a Premium member, I have access to various stats (see above) which indicate to me not only how many people have played it, but also, whether they were able to finish the game or if there was a level that was abandoned consistently.

Why is this important?

If a game is too hard, then the player gets frustrated. If it is too easy, they get bored. The key to game development is to find that middle ground where there is challenge for the player but no insurmountable challenge. They have to be able to succeed, although it may mean they have to work at it. This data chart shows where those kinks in the game might be, and for the developer, you don’t always get that sense. It’s like writing a novel — sure, it reads great to me, the writer, but an impartial reader can give valuable critical advice for places where the story doesn’t work.

Here, I notice that 15 players started the game but only four finished. A few dropped out at different levels, and according to the guidelines, the funnel’s data shape is fine. It’s OK to lose some players. But if everyone is gone — if the funnel has a sharp tip at the end because no one made it there — then you know you have trouble and need to revamp the game. If the funnel is a vertical rectangle, meaning every player won every time, then the game is too easy.

This is a great analysis tool for kids, don’t you think?

Gaming without the Technology

While I think that when we say “gaming” these days, our mind moves right to some technology — either a mobile device or a console or a computer — we wanted to start off our Gaming Camp next week away from the computers. So, using an idea from a workshop I attended, we divided the students up into small groups, gave them a bag of “supplies” and let them design their own game. It could be a board game. It could be whatever they want.

I had fun going through the arts and crafts store, thinking of odds and ends that might be interesting for students to use in this activity. We ended up with pom-poms, a bag of small letters (for braiding), stickers, wooden blocks and circles, and plastic animals — plus some oversized stiff paper, if they decided they do want to do a board game. I also had some paper for them to write out the rules for playing their games. That expository writing is part of the activity.

I gave extra materials to my six year old son, who immediately began using them for his own “game” that somehow involved animals surfing from one spot to another, avoiding creatures (such as the pom-poms). So, at least, I knew this activity could be done, with a little imagination.

And really, this activity was merely to set the stage for when we moved over to the computer. The reflective practice of what makes a good game and what (if any) limits there should be for the player came in handy when they started designing their own games at our online site. The offline activity also got them working with each as a collaborative group, and we wanted that bonding to happen so that they could then help each other with constructive feedback later on.

The Game Design Camp Experience

Tina Browne and I looked out at the room of young gamers who had signed up for our Game Design Camp. 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 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) to satisfy most of them. And then we were off — making games.

For more detailed information on the camp experience, please venture over to the other resource here on Digital Is called Bringing Young Gamers Together: A Digital Writing Summer Camp.

My own journey, as documented here with a collection of video journals, laid the foundation for my work with our young gamers, and certainly lived to my own personal mantra (attributed to Charlie Parker) that “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

I guess I’m a gamer now.

Final Thoughts on Gaming and Learning

I wrap up my journey into gaming with some final thoughts, including what students shared at the end and where I may go from here with game design as a learning experience. A textbook resource that Bryant Paul Johnson lent me — Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman — has been giving me some great ideas and theoretical insight around gaming and play, and how those elements have significant learning possibilities. At the end of our camp, a few kids asked if we would do a more advanced session next summer. I have a few more levels ahead of me, apparently …..

On Using Gamestar Mechanic

I want to give a shout-out to the designers of Gamestar Mechanic, which is the web-based application we used for our Game Design Camp. I am not sure what I would have done without the site, to be honest, since so many other game creation applications that I tried came across as clunky, difficult to use and didn’t have the learning mechanisms built in as nicely as Gamestar Mechanic does. I’ll admit that those difficulties are more with me than the sites, given my fair level of inexperience. But Gamestar’s emphasis on the learning made all the difference in the world.

While we paid a little for our premium service at Gamestar, the site has free accounts for students and for teachers. The premium service opens up different possibilities and extends the abilities of users, but the free service would be a fine starting place for any teacher thinking about bringing gaming into the classroom. It’s important to note that Gamestar is about Game Design, and not about programming. I had some students in the camp who wished we had plunged into more programming of games. But we were all about game design.

What I like about Gamestar Mechanic:

  • Simple to set up a “classroom” account by teachers and easy to share the link with students for joining in. It literally took just a few minutes;
  • No email necessary for student accounts, although you would be better off linking the student accounts to a classroom/teacher email (in case passwords get lost);
  • Quests are designed for students to play games and learn gaming skills.
    I particularly liked that users have to “repair” broken games and learn
    about the elements of building games. Also, as you move through the
    Quests and other challenges, you “earn” more tools, such as sprites,
    backgrounds, music, etc. That reward system for playing the Quests was
    pretty powerful;
  • Graphic novel stories introduce the characters and
    the overall narrative of the Quests. Not every student read the graphic
    stories, but it appealed to certain kids, for sure;
  • As the teacher administrator of my gaming classroom, the site gave me data about my players.
    I could “see” how far my students were in their Quests, how many
    comments they had posted on other games and how many games they had
    designed — both in draft stage and in publishing stage. This would be
    valuable in a classroom learning setting;
  • I loved that the site kicks out some basic statistics for a student game creator,
    too — allowing you to see how many people started the game, how many
    finished, and what level was most difficult for users. I used this tool
    with a few students to revise their games;
  • It’s good to have a place in the site where users can play and experience top-rated games,
    see the various contest winners (we were playing some STEM games), and
    also view classmates’ games in our own classroom area. Known as Game
    Alley, this area became a regular destination for our gamers;
  • You can embed games and links to games created by students in other websites.
    The downside is that you have to be logged in as a user at a Gamestar
    to play the games. Or at least, that’s what it seemed to me. It may be
    that there is a time limit on how long a link is open to the public.
  • Tech support for Gamestar Mechanic was fantastic.
    Whenever I had a question, the tech people were back to me within a few
    hours, with answers. One student found a glitch in a Quest and when we
    emailed it to tech support, they were grateful for the discovery and
    gave kudos to the students (and also, a special little award badge that
    you collect in Gamestar).

Thoughts from students about Gamestar Mechanic:

  • They wished they could do more player vs. player game design. The site is only set up for player vs. computer.
  • They wanted to manipulate more of the controls of sprites and design elements.
  • They wanted to upload their own backgrounds and music and create their own sprites from scratch.
  • They wanted more game immersion possibilities (first person)

Overall, it was a very positive experience to use Gamestar Mechanic for the camp, and I would highly recommend it as a starting point for game design in the classroom.

More from Kevin on this topic can be found here: