Because You Asked: Making Math Games in School

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Q: "I have always had my kids make games during final review as part of my 'Zak Project.'  Students are asked to prepare for their pre-algebra final by designing a math game that commemorates Zak, a student who loved math games but has since passed away. Could they build the games on a computer?"

Mathematics is the computer’s telos, yet math classes are often the slowest to integrate technology. Typically, the rigidity of the teacher’s style and/or the curriculum serve as impediments. However, a final exam review presents an excellent opportunity to sneak in some technology and the results can motivate teachers to expand their use of technology to the regular curriculum as well.

One of my colleagues, a 6th grade math teacher, was open to having her kids create computer games for her exam review. She needed a tool powerful enough for the kids to create cool games but also effective enough to help them review their pre-algebra fundamentals.

My immediate instinct was to use Scratch. (Here's EdSurge's Scratch page, including a short overview video.) Developed at the MIT Media Lab, Scratch is a kid-friendly way to code games and teaches the skills requisite to good programming. There is a moderate learning curve, especially for 6th graders. So given that my colleague had only two weeks--and wanted students to focus more on math than programming--Scratch didn’t seem like the right choice.

Next, I tried Quia. Quia offers a suite of tools for teachers to design activities, games, quizzes, and other interactive Java apps for instruction and review. Students aren’t supposed to create games themselves. But the “off label” way to use Quia is to let kids design a game and use my account to post it.

Now, I like Quia. I really do. The resources that are shared among teachers and the way it organizes my classes appeal to me. I like the analytics it gives me on my students’ engagement with the interactives. But frankly, it looks like something made for teachers--not kids. For the students, it’s not much more engaging than more traditional assignments.

A third option was Gamestar Mechanic. It has a promising pedigree: it was originally funded by a MacArthur grant and then further developed by game design heavyweights, the Institute of Play and E-Line Media. They’ve built a powerful and user-friendly platform that lets students create impressive Nintendo-style games that took me back to the days of blowing into cartridges and hitting reset just right.

How it works: Once registered, users play “Quests” that teach them how to use the platform, suggest elements of good game design and allow them to earn “Sprites,” which are the building blocks of a game, reminiscent of old Nintendo games. As they progress through the Quests, these Sprites populate the student’s “Workshop.” Students build games by dragging and dropping Sprites, and the Quests offer excellent tips that lead the students through the design process.

Students must incorporate math questions to advance in their games, and so with every right answer comes some form of review. (Here’s one example of how a student integrated math problems and information about the student that the project commemorates; you must be registered with GameStar to see the game). As the student designed this game, he tried to include math problems he found challenging and worked through those on paper to check his work as he built the game.

A premium teacher account lets teachers monitor their students’ work once they submit it and upgrades students to a premium account, which lets them earn all available Sprites. One teacher account plus 40 student accounts is a “basic” plan, which costs $85/year or $8.95/month. The premium account also allows the teacher to create a “project” to which students submit their games. Once submitted, teachers can view the game as the student is building it and submit feedback directly. It would be ideal if there were more data available on how much time students spent working on their games and timestamps for each addition.

In fact, Gamestar Mechanic was a pain to use from a teacher’s end. Most of the added functionality was difficult to find and proved to be limited once I did. It was hard to find where to register for a premium account and later, hard to find the games my students created. At the very bottom of the Games Alley, you’ll see a section called “My Class” in which all of your students’ games will appear. I can’t imagine many teachers use Gamestar Mechanic to play any games in the Games Alley besides those of their students, so I’d like to see the “My Class” section more prominently displayed.

Another important note is that the monitoring functionality is only available to you if students submit their games before they begin them. If they start their game before they register for your class, you won’t be able to see it until it’s done. Again, I preferred to check in face-to-face anyhow, but it was annoying that one of the hallmark features of the teacher account was unavailable to me for half of my students.

Clearly, Gamestar Mechanic was designed with students in mind. And that’s fine. The students picked up the mechanics of the platform very quickly. They were invested in their games and they worked extra hours to ensure that they were playable and fun. Even after they had incorporated their assigned math concept successfully into the game, these 6th graders had thoughtful discussions about what makes one game superior to another. It inspired higher level thinking than a basic board game or word game.

I've also been impressed to see kids continue to work on their games well after the assignments were due. By publishing the games to the Games Alley, their games became playable by the world. Such real world context for learning inspires genuine and enduring buy-in from the students.

Gamestar Mechanic was the best option for the students, and so that made it the best option, period. When the kids played each other’s games, they discovered a fun way to review. After playing all the games, they had covered much of the semester’s work. Students commented that the games were a helpful addition to their typical review process though they did not supplant studying altogether.

My not-so-tech-savvy colleague also said she’d love to do this project again. She may not have been able to make good use of this tool without my help, but if you are a tech-savvy teacher or have the support of a Tech Integrationist, I highly recommend Gamestar Mechanic. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend an unnecessary amount of time “grading” (read “playing”) the games. It could be worse.

Gamestar Mechanic: Gamestar Mechanic is a platform and an online community, designed to teach students the principles of game design.

Price: The Premium Teacher Account offers features that upgrade students’ accounts and allow the teacher to monitor student progress. The basic plan is $85/year or $8.95/month and offers one teacher account and accounts for 40 students. For one teacher and 200 students, the cost is $29.95/month or $265/year, and $99.95/month or $895/year for 25 teachers and 1000 students.

Created by: Gamestar Mechanic is currently being developed and published by E-Line Media in partnership with the Institute of Play. Gamestar Mechanic was originally developed by Gamelab in partnership with the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab (AADL) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Learning Guide was developed by The Institute of Play and E-Line Media. The initial research and development was funded in part by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in response to a grant proposal by Dr. James Paul Gee, and Eric Zimmerman.

Number of users:  Between its launch in fall 2010 and late spring 2012, over 150,000 kids have used Gamestar Mechanic. Collectively they've made over 200,000 games, which have been played almost 5 million times. Gamestar has been used in over 3,000 classrooms, community organizations, afterschool programs, camps, according to eLine Media.

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