Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Computer Game Design in the Classroom - App Inventor

I try to focus a lot on passion in this blog.  On the job I want to motivate students by appealing to their passions.

I find this to be most difficult when working with teen boys.  While there are certainly some tough cases, my difficulty is rarely due to my inability to identify their passions.  It's usually the challenge of bridging the gap between their interests and the required curriculum.

I know many these male students are very passionate about video games.  When I ask them what they want to study in our digital media courses, they often tell me they want to learn to make games.  (It is not limited to just the boys, but it is always the boys more than girls.)

It seems like game design could be an ideal motivator.  On top of that, it's my hobby too.  But somehow I have yet to find a good way to make video game creation accessible to all students in a way that meets all requirements of the courses in which I am working.  I've been exploring the options more this summer and I will post a few brief conclusions I've formed about some tools at our disposal.

Lesson plans and course flow are in the works too, but for now I'll start with the programming tools.

MIT App Inventor
I am starting with this one because it is 100% free.

My Experience
I used App Inventor for my own studies in a graduate course last year.  I have not tried to use it with students yet.

I was able to make a playable game quite easily with this program, but it did not look great.  I made no effort to explore the graphic capabilities.  Also, my game was not an action "video game" in the usual sense.  It was a fairly simple two-player game that involved selecting options.

Here's a video demonstrating the game.  I show it on the Android simulator in the video, but I did play the game on a phone as well.  (I have to love that one comment a user posted for it!  As a former math teacher, I'm used to less than pleasant sentiments expressed by the unimpressed.)

And here's the classroom project that it was derived from.


  • It is quite simple to get started with App Inventor.  I have years of programming experience, so that probably helped.  The list of options are small, intuitive and well documented, though, so I found it to be the easiest application to take the game from concept to playing it on a device.
  • Unlike most programs that allow you to create for mobile devices, it's free.  Being able to play their games on their phones should appeal to many students.
  • Many resources are available for educators.  I have a lot of exploring to do in that area of their website.


  • It only works on Android devices.  You can test it on a simulator if you don't have a phone, but there's no option to post playable versions online.
  • Testing was a little slow with the Android simulator.  The debugging process could get frustrating with small fixes and significant wait times to see what worked and what didn't.
  • Files were quite large.  Even my simple games had relatively large files and when I tested them on my phone last year things were sluggish sometimes. 
For all the good I see in this program, I am not focusing on it as a possibility this year in school, mostly for the reasons listed as negatives above.  If you have more experience with App Inventor I will be glad to hear additional thoughts on this.

For my next installment, I will provide some thoughts on a resource I have more classroom experience with.


  1. Great post Mike! I started a company to teach students like yours in fun subjects like app development and game design. My trial runs have been resounding successes, so I'm vastly expanding my course offerings.

    Stone River eLearning is soon to release a package of online courses for K-12 and Higher Ed that will teach students app development, game design or both. Android App Inventor is one of the courses we have already created.

    If you're an educator, you can check out the education pricing here: http://howtomakeanapptoday.com/k-12-higher-ed/

    Thanks for the great post, and pass this along to educators who are interested in teaching their students these fun topics.

  2. I did play the game on a phone as well. I have to love that one comment a user posted for it! As a former math teacher, I'm used to less than pleasant sentiments expressed by the unimpressed. Anyway Thanks for nice post.
    Game Design