Digital Media in the Classroom Case Study: Gamestar Mechanic
4.19.11 | Sherri Dodd teaches technology at Milwaukee Montessori School. She brought Gamestar Mechanic – the video game that teaches kids how to design video games – into her class last October. Earlier this month, she watched one of her students win a national White House contest with a game made on the Gamestar Mechanic platform.
This story is part of an occasional series showcasing how teachers are using digital media to expand learning. Read related stories here.
Other teachers are also reporting a booming interest among students and classroom successes. Catherine Conley, a digital literacy specialist at Suffern Middle School in Montebello, N.Y., introduced Gamestar Mechanic into her classroom last year to teach skills such as systems thinking, collaboration and iterative design. And Lauren Gabrielle, a sixth- and seventh-grade teacher at Quest to Learn, a school built around gaming theory in New York City, used Gamestar Mechanic to put game design at the center of her digital media class.
With the first school year wrapping up in which Gamestar Mechanic was used, it’s a good time to take a look at how teachers—and students—made progress with it in the classroom.
Gamestar Mechanic grew out of initial funding from the MacArthur Foundation five years ago, when game designer Eric Zimmerman and literacy scholar James Gee came up with the idea of creating a game to teach game design, which would really teach kids about systems thinking, iterative design, collaboration, problem solving and digital literacy –key concepts commonly known as 21st-century literacy skills.
By the time the game actually came to market last fall, it was being released by E-line Media, which used to provide angel investing for pop culture products with social messages but now plays the role of game publisher, under the direction of former Activision executive Alan Gershenfeld. The game was developed and published in partnership with the non-profit Institute of Play. They added a robust curriculum to the game for teachers. New back-end services address teacher and parent concerns about open platforms and provide an online community for students to share their games.
Gamestar Mechanic takes kids on narrative quests, during which they learn to fix broken games before designing their own. Once students develop new games, they publish them to “Game Alley,” where other students can provide feedback.
When Gamestar Mechanic was released, Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review, told Spotlight it was a great way of “shoe-horning kids into higher order thinking.”
Making Their Own Materials
Sherri Dodd of the Milwaukee Montessori School didn’t need much convincing about the notion of game-based learning.
“I taught foreign language for years,” Dodd said, “and games are a staple for teaching vocabulary and grammar – you’re looking for anything other than flip cards.”
With videogames, the learning opportunities explode, Dodd said.
Dodd teaches technology to seventh graders in a once-a-week class. Being a Montessori school, there are only eight kids in the class, and each student uses a tablet computer.
Gamestar Mechanic first piqued her interest because students could turn their own study materials into a game. Preparing for a spelling test, for example, meant developing a game in which the avatar gets word definitions when bumping into certain text blocks.
The first week of class, Dodd’s students completed the game’s quests. By the second week, working in clusters, they were making their own games.
“I’d just stand back and get out of their way,” Dodd said.
21st-Century Literacy Skills
At Quest to Learn, the whole school is built to be like a videogame that has come to life. Lauren Gabriele teaches digital arts, but the class is called Sports for the Mind. The first trimester of 2011 was dedicated to Gamestar Mechanic. Today, kids are still waxing enthusiastic about making games in the school’s game design club, which takes place during lunch.
“What happens using Gamestar Mechanic in the classroom is it introduces systems and components and shows how different attributes of a system determine that system’s behavior,” said Chloe Varelidi, a game designer at the Institute of Play who works with Gabriele at Quest to Learn.
How can I take this information and put it into a game to teach someone else what I have learned? That’s the question.
– Catherine Conley, Suffern Middle School
A system is a set of interrelated parts that together form a whole larger than the sum of the parts. Systems thinking is a way of viewing the world as series of systems that pays special attention to the way the different parts interact with one another.
Varelidi said giving students constraints was key to using Gamestar Mechanic to teach systems thinking. The first assignment in Sports for the Mind, for example, was to make a game that was a birthday card. It had to be a top-down game with a limited number of enemies and limited number of blocks used to build the game’s mazes.
Providing constraints keep students from becoming overwhelmed by the complexity of the systems they’re creating. Slowly, Gabriele and Varelidi gave the kids more components to work with and adjusted the assignment to demonstrate how much one factor can alter the whole system. A jumping avatar versus a walking avatar, for example, makes for a completely different kind of game.
Since a player can only do what she is capable of doing in a game, playing with Gamestar Mechanic is an inherently scaffolded-learning affair. This keeps frustration at bay while learning very sophisticated concepts, Gabriele said.
Making games with Gamestar Mechanic also incorporates representation and metaphor. In Sports for the Mind, one of the assignments was to make a game about the holidays.
“But the holidays mean something different to everyone,” Gabriele said. “So Gamestar gave students a way to represent themselves through the structure of a game.”
Earlier this month, the White House announced the winners of its National STEM Video Game Challenge. The competition was part of the president’s Educate to Innovate Campaign, and middle-school students around the country submitted videogames made on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics. One of the winners was seventh-grader Shireen Zaineb, a student in Sherri Dodd’s class in Milwaukee.
Zaineb won for “Discover ...,” a game she made about mass, friction, weight and gravity. Using her school-issued tablet computer, Zaineb built backgrounds in Gamestar Mechanic that were varying degrees of rough and smooth. As players were inching along a rocky background, for example, a text box would appear telling them the reason they were moving so slowly was because of friction. Bailey Sperling, a sixth-grader at Suffern Middle School, won for most playable game with “Extreme Depths.” Her digital literacy teacher, Catherine Conley, said the first few weeks of a 10-week class on oceans were dedicated to learning how to research online. As they were researching, the students were doing the quests in Gamestar Mechanic. Then, Conley challenged them to put the fruits of their research into a game.
“How can I take this information and put it into a game to teach someone else what I have learned? That’s the question,” Conley said. “To make a good game, you really have to master your subject.” [Hear more from the young game designers in this video.]
Collaboration and Community
Chloe Varelidi of Quest to Learn said one of the most important skills students in Sports for the Mind learned through Gamestar mechanic was how to collaborate. For example, you can’t even publish a game to “Game Alley” that hasn’t been play tested and beaten at least once. This means the students are working together and giving feedback to one another. Besides, with all the different components that go into making a game – core mechanics, storyboarding, writing, music – it’s the rare game that gets made alone. Lauren Gabriele of Quest to Learn said some students in her class got so involved in the collaborative element of game making that they created Excel spreadsheets to keep track of everyone’s different tasks.
The students worked in clusters. As each kid figured something out, they worked together to share their knowledge,
– Sherri Dodd, Milwaukee Montessori School
Sherri Dodd at Milwaukee Montessori reported a similar trend in her class. “The students worked in clusters.” she said. “As each kid figured something out, they worked together to share their knowledge.”
Dodd was also struck by Gamestar Mechanic community that existed outside of the classroom. Dodd made it a class requirement for students to post feedback on other people’s games, even people they didn’t know, and she analyzed their feedback to make sure it was constructive.
“You have responsibility as a member of a community,” Dodd said. “Just because you have a user name doesn’t mean you should hide behind anonymity.”
Also, occasional feedback from Gamestar Mechanic designers thrilled her kids, Dodd said. It made them feel part of something larger and encouraged them to keep moving forward.
Addressing Safety Concerns
Catherine Conley of Suffern Middle School was attracted to Gamestar Mechanic right away, but wasn’t sure her district would allow it. Parents and administrators tend to worry about students working online.
“They’re worried about open platforms,” Conley said. “They’re hard to regulate.”
On Gamestar Mechanic, Conley was able to set up a private realm so that only sixth-graders in her class could have access to collaborate and chat. She demonstrated the game for parents to ease fears before bringing it into the classroom.
Conley also appreciates that she can pull chat sessions from the day to review in the evenings during her grading time. Viewing student chat streams allows her to offer feedback and make specific suggestions.
Sherri Dodd at Milwaukee Montessori recalls what happened when one of her students entered an inappropriate game title that had the word “retard” in it. Right away she received an alert. And the student himself got a personal email from the Gamestar Mechanic development team.
“This game will help shape the future of our technology program,” Dodd said.
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