Game Creation in the Classroom

For the past three years, I have been working with students to create fictional yet historically accurate video games. The goals behind this endeavour are:

  1. to help the students creating the games to gain deeper insight into the historical era
  2.  to create content that will teach other students/players about the era
  3. to encourage creativity and collaboration

As you might imagine, this has been a learning process for all involved. It seems to me that the best way to describe this process is to use questions from a fellow history teacher who is interested in the process.  Thanks l_unger!

  It (The Paulsford Mysteries) looks as if it took 2 years to do, and I’ve gotten the impression that the Egypt one will too. 

The Paulsford Mysteries took 2 years because we didn’t know what we were doing. At first, I was going to use a  language called VRML to create an online world for our project. Unfortunately, numerous constraints (including the fact that VRML requires a special browser plug-in that was unlikely to be installed on our board’s computers) sent us back to the drawing board.

The process of completing the Flash version was about 8 months. The Egyptian project looks like it is on the same schedule. Keep in mind that I am doing the graphics and programming. As soon as I have students capable of either of these tasks, the length of time required to complete the project should decrease.

We are also considering the use of GameSalad, a free program for the Mac that makes game publishing much easier.

 So do you use it for assessment?  If so, how?  Mark each student’s contribution?

The Paulsford Mysteries started as a class activity, not an assessment.  Since much of the voice acting was completed by members of our school’s Historical Society, I really couldn’t formally evaluate the work.

I tried to assess the Egyptian Project work this semester, but with mixed success. When we started, I thought I had a clear idea what I would assess; as our needs morphed, however, the original requirements did not fit as effectively. The original requirements included:

  • 1 page about the character, including name, personality, profession, and daily activities
  • 1 research page outlining the role of this kind of figure (such as a warrior or a priest) in the culture. This research would provide the basis for the character design.
  • 30 seconds of dialogue that was to be integrated directly into the project

The problem, of course, is that the three components need to be completed at different times. The research could be conducted independently, but the other two components needed to be done late in the process; they also required context, meaning that the students needed to know something about the other characters and the storyline to complete the work.

 Next time I try this (either CHY 4U or CHC 2D), the students will be responsible for the for the research component very early in the semester. This will (hopefully) free us up to tackle the other components throughout the semester. The research component is also reasonably straightforward to assess. 

In terms of the collaboration, is it all up to the students?  Do they divide tasks? Where does the inspiration come from?  Is the original topic yours? (ie: Victorian England)  The premise? (ie: the detective/mystery idea)

So far, I’ve based the topic choice on what I lacked: I didn’t have anything unifying our Victorian Era work, and the assignment for the Egyptian Unit was out of date and stale.

Student contribution is essential at this stage, especially if the teacher doesn’t have a lot of experience with video games. We may know the content, but they know game play: students understand what makes a video game narrative compelling.  We work with the following guidelines:

  • We need to keep violence to a minimum.  Besides the moral/ethical delimas violent video games present, I worry about our ability to present the violence in a way that respects life. In the Paulsford Mysteries, for example, students argued that the main character should investigate a series of murders loosely based on Jack the Ripper. While the narrative would certainly reflect the realities of Victorian England, I worried that our limited experience with game creation might result in a game that trivialized the suffering of the victims. Thus, we chose a narrative driven by fraud instead of murder.
  • Our choice needs to give us some freedom with the narrative. Basing our narrative on historically significant people limits our creativity; we can’t have students confusing the choices in our narrative with historical events.

The collaborative element is where the projects really shine. I loved watching the students discuss the direction of the plot, how the characters would interact, and what would make for compelling gameplay. While I had the final say, some of our best moments came from these discussions. It seemed to me that the discussions were excellent models for the Application category on Ontario Achievement Charts; after all, weren’t the students applying their knowledge in very new contexts?

How much in class time do you allow for it?  What kind of access do you have to computers?  How many?  How often?  

Technology is key, of course. Luckily, the CHW 3M class was in a lab, and two of my history classes will be in labs next year. This makes the project much easier to manage.

If you don’t have regular access to a computer lab, consider pairing up with a Communications Technologies class.  Dovetailing the two classes’ work would help you produce what you need, and it would be an invaluable experience for the tech students.

Do they do a story board first?  Do you breakdown the process, like one might for a research essay?

Admittedly, I find this part quite frustrating. We can’t storyboard in quite the same way as a film class. Our narrative can’t feel as linear as a film; if it is, no one will want to play. The trick is to give the player freedom in the world, but lead them to one or two possible endings. Basically, you need to consider the following:

  • what is the central point of the game? (what do you want the player to take away from the experience?)
  • how is the narrative going to get the point across AND engage the player?
  • what choices will you offer the player? (This is the trickiest part, I think. How much freedom will they have to move and interact?)

I think the best approach is to use software that allows a variety of contributors to organize pages in a variety of ways. We tried Scribblar with some success. The online version of OneNote might work well, too.

What advice would you give someone thinking about trying it for the first time?

  • Start with  something very small. Keep the scope limited
  • Find out what skills your students have, and what skills they want to learn. For example, if you have a skilled photographer in your class, you can do something like a “choose your own adventure” (see next point), or even something like Death in Rome. If you have musicians and/or artists, find ways for them to bring these skills into the game.
  • Start with something text/image based. If you create a “choose your own adventure” scenario using web pages and links, you will develop a good understanding of the kind of planning necessary for a full game.
  • Let the students do as much as possible. Let them explore the full range of their abilities. The great thing about this project is that engagement should be very high; you simply have to get out of their way.
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