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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Game Design and Ecosystems - Getting Started

I posted a few days ago about the project I am doing with an all girls science class at the middle school. The teacher named it G.E.M.S., after a similar course she found online. It stands for Girls Engaged in Math and Science. In the project, the girls will use Gamestar Mechanic to create computer games about energy flow in an ecosystem. The fifth grade students in the district will play the games and be assessed to see how well the games teach the concepts.

I have worked with the class for five days now and the project is going very well. Generally I have thought of the game design projects as appealing to the disengaged male students, but the girls have really been enjoying it.

Here is the flow of the project:

1) First the teacher provided a quick review of the concept of energy flow in ecosystems. Students were required to choose an ecosystem and fill out a flow chart that included producers and consumers in that ecosystem.

2) To introduce what Gamestar Mechanic games look like, I had the girls play some sample games from Kevin Hodgson's project. They had to answer a few questions about the games after trying them. The assignment is here: Sample Games Assignment

3) Next, the students had to sign up at Gamestar Mechanic in my classroom and they began the Quest. The site uses the Quest to teach the students the aspects of good game design and also how to use the tools there. I was very curious to see how the girls would take to playing through so many levels. In case they got bored or frustrated with the gaming, I tried to break up the class periods with at least one other assignment so they were not playing continually during any single hour.

It has worked very well so far. No group has completed all the levels yet, but they are not tiring of the process. Many are anxious to get started on their own games, but they need to at least complete the first Quest to be able to publish their games for others to play. (I have a Premium account at Gamestar which provides a second Quest, but most will not need to proceed into that one to get the resources they need.)

4) One assignment that I used during this time is a Game Flow Chart. It expands upon what they did with the ecosystem flow chart, but it also incorporates more facts and the game elements that they discovered in the sample games and in the Quest. That assignment is here: Game Flow Chart Assignment

The plan is to continue some planning and storyboard assignments while they work through the Quest and some necessary Challenges. (The Challenges provide optional levels that allow students to earn additional sprites. Some of those will be necessary for an engaging, educational game.)

One other assignment we used was a journal warm-up assignment. I point this out because it is based on some of James Paul Gee's learning principles from What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. I loved the book and this journal assignment was my first attempt to see if the principles are effective with these girls. I wanted them to consider themselves within the roles of scientist, game designer and teacher.

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