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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Computer Game Design in the Classroom - Gamestar Mechanic

I have written extensively about Gamestar Mechanic, but I want to address it briefly here as I'm doing a series of tools for using computer game design in the classroom.

This series stems from my desire to motivate students based on their passions.  I am exploring some ways to do that with computer game design.  My first post focused on App Inventor.  Today I'll look at the application I have the most classroom experience with.

Gamestar Mechanic

The developers of Gamestar Mechanic have done the best job that I've seen of making their program accessible for students.  In fact, it is intended to be a tool for learning.  It integrates the process of learning the program and learning game design very well.  This opens the door to integration within several content areas.  While I have not yet been as successful as I'd like with that next step, I see the potential.  Any shortcomings I have experienced in that regard make me wonder if there's any hope for this with more complex options, but that is what I still need to explore.

My Experience with Gamestar Mechanic
As I said, these projects are explained at length in other places on this blog or my other website, so I will just link to them here.

I developed a project in a science class last year that integrated game design, various technology tools and the study of ecosystems.  It's one of the more popular stops for visitors to my blog.  Here's an overview of it.

I also explored the possibility of integrating it with math lessons at the 5th and 6th grade level.  Specifically, I saw an application for reinforcing the concepts of proportions, rates and ratios.  I wrote about that experience here.


Positives

  • Gamestar Mechanic is on the low end of the complexity scale for teachers and students.  That makes it great to highlight game design concepts without letting the "how to" questions get in the way.
  • It very nicely weaves how to use the system and how to make a good game all in one teaching and playing experience.  Students who pay attention to the learning while they work through the lessons have very few questions.
  • I have seen it appeal to boys and girls in grades 5 - 8.  It blends play and creation in a way that almost all students enjoy it.
  • Several resources for teachers are available.  As I mentioned, this tool was clearly created with the classroom in mind.

Negatives

  • Its simplicity also amounts to a lot of limitations on the type of games students can create.  Some will say they're not actually making games, but just creating levels of an open-ended game by tweaking options for all the characters.
  • Games are Flash based only.  Since the whole application is Flash based, it's not a big deal that you are limited to computers.  Everything will be made on a computer, so students won't mind just playing on their computers.  Unlike other options I'll examine, there's no hope of getting the games on iOS devices or as stand alone executable files even through additional paid features.
  • Most importantly to note, it takes most students a long time to work through the levels.  Students earn the ability to make games by completing the game challenges.  If they don't get far enough they simply can't use all the tools.  If they aren't playing at home, it takes a lot of class time for some to get to that point.  Most teachers in a content area will not sacrifice class time to allow students to do this.

In conclusion, if a teacher wants to explore game design concepts, there's no better introduction than Gamestar Mechanic.  It opens the door to integration with content area topics, but in that case the teacher will have to give up a few days of class to allow students to work through the levels.

This very concisely brings me to the main question of all of this.  Can computer game design be a useful tool for all teachers and all learners?

For all the excitement I see in the students and for my own interests in game design, I want to believe it has value.  But repeatedly I have seen the fun of the games and the requirements to learn the tools and the game design concepts so easily obstruct the other learning.

My current plan is to find ways to teach the game design concepts and tools in one class, then get content area teachers to integrate those aspects into their lessons.  Until I can arrange that, I can't confidently recommend such an undertaking, even with this simple tool, to a content area teacher.

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