Two new ways for kids to learn-and think-using game design principles
As we’ve written about elsewhere, educators are buying into digital games as valuable learning tools to be used in and out of the classroom. With the right game, kids have shown remarkable progress picking up critical skills, content knowledge, and more.
Now the success of using games to teach kids is leading some educators to teach game design as well. Two new platforms for the purpose are Scratch and Gamestar Mechanic. Both are suitable for kids who are ages 10 and up.
Neither of these will turn your kid into a video game programmer or animator. They don’t teach users what’s really under the hood of a video game. What they do is present the kids with some basic game design building blocks and teach the principles of game design and construction. Those principles include valuable skills like logical thinking, problem solving, and learning from feedback—exactly the kind of skills educators are stressing for today’s students. Which is to say, mastering game design is not just for kids who want to become professional game designers. It teaches how to think, create, and produce.
Gamestar Mechanic, a web-based game design platform, is by far the simpler of the two to master and use. No coding or programming is required. The learning process is cast as a quest to become a game “mechanic.”
The first step in the process is simply to play some games and in the course of playing win “sprites,” or points. Once a kid has won enough points they’ll have access to game building materials to modify their own versions of the game. In this way, kid users gain understanding of how the game works before trying to build it for themselves. Game building is relatively easy—all you do is drag and drop design elements into a screen window. The result is posted for the Gamestar community so other users can play them.
Unlike Gamestar Mechanic, Scratch encourages kids to learn some elementary programming techniques after downloading a free Scratch application. They’re given a blank screen and a pre-drawn character to move in the game. A series of simple programming instructions, like “move forward 10,” helps guide their progress. These instructions can be dragged and snapped together to create a simple program for a future game.
It’s easy to see that Scratch requires more effort than Gamestar Mechanic. And we didn’t think there was as much support for new users as we’d like. Our guess is a beginner would start by looking at the sample games that come with the application or one of the many user-created games on the Scratch website. There they can tinker with and customize them without building new games from, err, scratch.
For a kid who’s interested in programming or just has a do-it-yourself mentality, using Scratch could be a great way to experiment. But we think most kids will prefer the ease of Gamestar Mechanic. The entire user experience is more fun and seems more thoughtfully designed. Like Scratch, Gamestar is free in its basic version. If subscribing, users get access to more games, more design elements, and the ability to upload their own backgrounds and characters. Most important, the premium subscription allows users to get feedback by seeing how others are playing their games—giving them a unique opportunity to interact with other game designers and players in real time.