Learning Through the Creation of Games
Last year, Florida third grader João struggled in math and, in turn, scored poorly on the math portion of the FCAT, the state’s standardized test. This year, though, he is performing much better. What makes the difference? Extra tutoring? Perhaps. But a more likely scenario was connecting the subject matter with his interest in sports and games, and transferring these skills to formal math instruction. João needed a more interactive approach to bring math alive.
When I started hitting the books with him, I kept thinking about soccer and Brazil. What makes the Brazilian national soccer team consistently outstanding year and year? Each decade, there is an influx of raw talent. Children don’t necessarily play the sport organized into leagues as is common in the U.S. They play impromptu on the streets, improvising and experimenting, fiercely competitive as they play. I wanted to help João build his math skills, and I wanted to incorporate game creation into the activities we did together.
To prepare, I attended a game design workshop entitled “Are You Game?” It was co-hosted by E-Line Media, a leading educational game publisher, and BrainPOP, a New York-based company that creates animated, cross-curricular content. BrainPOP’s movies and related interactive features are used by thousands of students in class, at home, and on mobile devices, and their free professional community, BrainPOP Educators, is over 165,000 members strong.
The week after the workshop, João and I started developing skills that work across platforms by playing games. But his intuition, creativity, and problem-solving skills sprouted when he took on inventing his own games. We started by coming up with simple games based on the ones he already knew how to play. João created a paper-and-pencil game involving a random number generator (in this case, nine 6-sided dice) and he invented a set of rules, coming up with conditions that players might encounter during the game. Once this game was established, we played it countless times. João also asked his brothers to play.
Over the last several weeks, the game was played hundreds of times, with players’ input on the game’s strategies as well as its flaws. But for João, the idea of alpha and beta testing increased his appetite to lead a team, to learn about how a product is developed, and of course, to hone his own basic multiplication skills, allowing him to come up with his own strategies to expand to multiples of tens, hundreds, thousands, and millions.
To create a game, there are certain elements that must be addressed. One, of course, is the objective. What is the game’s goal? Are there winners and losers? Do players compete against themselves or against other players? Do players play against a “host” or “dealer”? What are the game’s mechanics, or rules? What is the sequence of events that take place during the game? Finally, what tools are needed to play the game? For students who struggle with basic multiplication facts, they could use a calculator, but João designed the game so that it could be played without a computer. During the alpha testing, we found that João’s game included too many parts to be played easily, so he simplified the steps. Instructional goals were now met more easily.
So where can we get help in encouraging students to develop their own games? Contact the professionals at brainpop.com. Also the National STEM video game challenge is ongoing. More information is available at http://www.stemchallenge.org. #