So much of the world’s problems are blamed on video games that it would be hard to imagine there could be anything good about having our children spend hours staring at a screen and plotting and strategizing about how to reach the next level of Super Mario Brothers. But according to the research outlined in Marc Prensky’s book, “Don’t Bother Me Mom – I’m Learning!”, games are NOT the enemy! All of the time that kids spend learning how to play a new game, ultimately, they are building the very skills we hope they will hone by the time they reach adulthood. In his research, Prensky identified 5 levels of learning that game players undergo, all skills that will be useful in the real world. Learning how a game works, including its rules and constraints, developing a strategy, accepting the context of the game, and making values-based decisions within the game, are helpful skills when playing a game OR solving a global issue!
Well, then if playing video games is not all bad, then the logic follows that designing video games must build useful skills as well. The fact is that there are few activities that will provide more training to solve real-world problems than designing a video game. Beginning with learning about the subject matter, developing a path to success, adding obstacles and rewards, putting it all together, and then testing to make sure it works as planned. If critical thinking were a sport, designing a video game is the Iron-man.
The question then becomes: how can you give your students the opportunity to train for the Big Race? There are many opportunities to teach and learn programming through game design. When I operated Portland Wiz Kids, we offered multiple courses for kids in programming with Scratch, a very simple graphic programming language, from MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group, and Alice, a 3d programming environment from Carnegie Mellon that makes interactive game design as straight-forward as possible. Both of these languages are available for free download, as are many others such as Logo, Squeak, Game-maker, Gamestar Mechanic and PhroGram for anyone looking for an easy way to begin to use game design to integrate technology and engineering design into any core subject.
For those of you who are ready to introduce game programming to a group of students, or even a whole class of students, here are a couple of opportunities to participate in a game design competition, this Spring. For readers in Oregon, I highly recommend the Oregon Game Programming Challenge (OGPC). This year’s competition is in its 5th year and as a result, the Techstart Education Foundation** is adding 2 coaching events, called Game-Jams, throughout the state with workshops for students and coaches to get them started on the challenge. The OGPC Main Event will take place on April 28, 2012 at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon and the Game-Jam events will be held on March 10 (Portland State University) and March 17 (University of Oregon). Registration for both events, is still open here.
The second opportunity is the National STEM Video Game Challenge that was started in 2010 as a response to President Obama’s Educate to Innovate Campaign to improve math and science education in the US. This competition is open to students and educators and includes some very interesting prize packages. The deadline for the STEM Video Game Challenge is March 12, 2012.
I hope some of you will take advantage of the power of adding a video game challenge to your classroom toolkit. I can guarantee you will have an impact on the level of engagement in your class, while building much-needed problem-solving skills in your students.
** It should be noted that I serve on the board for the Techstart Education Foundation, which means I have a vested interest in marketing the OGPC competition. Also know that I support the organization specifically because of the great work they do in promoting STEM in Oregon schools.