Let's not get back problems this young
June 6, 2012 9:56 AM   Subscribe

What non-computer based activities can I use to teach video game development to 10-12 year olds?

I'm putting together a summer camp for 4-6 graders on Video Game Development. (Thanks to the answers to this question I'm looking at using Game Maker with them). In the past I have used Scratch and XNA Game Studio but only for 1 hour at a time (a weekly class). This camp will have 3 hours of 'class time' a day for 5 days. That's a lot of time spent looking at a computer screen! I would love to get them thinking about the concepts we'll be learning about in other ways, especially ones that involve movement and creativity.

I'm looking for suggestions from either your own experience or pointers to any good resources, for games/labs/activities/crafts/anything goes that will help get across the concepts of Video Game design (e.g. What is a game? Genres of game, strategy, rewards......) without using a computer.

I'm also interested in anything that might get them thinking about some of the 'controversies' in Video Game development (e.g. violence in games, gender representation) - I would love to arm them with evidence to be able to talk about it from both sides - although I realize this might get difficult for the age group(?). Thank you.
posted by atlantica to Education (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Classic role playing games?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:58 AM on June 6, 2012

Just drop "video" from "video game" and approach the problem from that angle. There are lots of "game development" ideas you can tackle with all sorts of other games.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:59 AM on June 6, 2012

Board games that involve probability? I can see board games giving you a bit of perspective about things like grinding for levels/results and random patterns/numbers/behaviors. It could also introduce them to GUI concepts a bit with regards to usability.

I'll think on this a bit.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:00 AM on June 6, 2012

Roughing out level design in legos is something even the pros do, so splitting your class into groups, having them each build a level, and then having the kids talk about their levels and vote on the best ones is practically a whole class right there.

On preview, yeah, pen and paper RPGs would be great too.
posted by Oktober at 10:00 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

What about getting them to act like robots? They can only do the moves they are "programmed" to do, to look at what you have to instruct the robot to do?

What about getting them to build choice-based game trees? Post it notes for everyone, and string, tracing through options?

What about taking a few games they might have never seen, and have them invent rules for it? We've been doing this with a copy of Spot It! my sibling gave me.

What about taking traditional games and switching pieces about - monopoly with d20s and different cards? Checkers with Scrabble pieces?

What about taking a bunch of "game piece" "game counter" like things and having them invent games?
posted by tilde at 10:02 AM on June 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Tic-Tack-Toe could be a good basic example of programming logic or roughshod AI behavior as well.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:02 AM on June 6, 2012

You could also lay out figurines and discuss the pros/cons of each one in relation to the others.

Checker - simple, easy to make/draw/program, easily distinguished by color on, plain
Chess pawn - still simple, more complex to represent, size connotes power in relation to other pieces
Chess queen/king - so on
Monopoly figurines - so forth
BattleTech figurine - complex, beautiful, hard to draw

The same could be done with books, starting with "See spot run" up through Dr. Seuess to Harry Potter or something...
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:06 AM on June 6, 2012

These are all activities I enjoyed between 8 and 13 years old:
-storyboarding games comic-book style on large sheets of paper

-drawing HUDs on paper.

-writing design documents and game manuals

-laying out levels with Lego, magnets, blocks etc.

-telling stories about the game with friends
posted by michaelh at 10:16 AM on June 6, 2012

And teach them about Venn diagrams!
posted by tilde at 10:17 AM on June 6, 2012

(I still enjoy them.)
posted by michaelh at 10:17 AM on June 6, 2012

Paper and pen (crayon, marker, etc) are valuable tools in professional interface design. Odds are if you are using an interface, it was originally drafted on paper like a choose-your-own-adventure. Any game that requires choices, tools, designs, and other selections and options can benefit from this process. The relevant steps are roughly:
- draw out all possible screens
- walk through how they should run
- make revisions
The next level involves getting other people to test your paper prototype, the same way an electronic UI test is run.

Also, storyboards: What is the backstory? What do the cut scenes look like? (Are there any?) How does the character change throughout the game?
posted by whatzit at 10:20 AM on June 6, 2012

how about a quick game of 'easter-egg hunt' to spark a discussion about level design, collectibles, and the issue of how it's much easier to design a really cool hiding place than it is to design things worth hiding?
posted by sexyrobot at 10:21 AM on June 6, 2012

One of the best ways to design video games is with paper cutouts.

Have them make drawings of the players, parts, and backgrounds. Move them around on paper. Talk about how the pieces interact and transition from scene to scene.

They can do this all with paper, scissors, maybe some magic markers and glue. If you want to get fancy you can buy stickers, but that's not necessary.

You can tell them this isn't just pretend. It's how a lot of the best game design work gets done in real life.
posted by alms at 10:22 AM on June 6, 2012

When I was that age, I spent many afternoons with my cousins designing our own video games. We would get a huge stack of paper and proceed to idly draw things while talking about what should be in the game, what should the story be, and imagining simple playthroughs (sometimes even acting things out in real life).

Admittedly, all of our games ended up being simple imitations of the games we were playing (mostly console rpgs like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, though we did some space shooters and racing games) and we probably didn't learn anything about actual game development, but we did learn to appreciate and recognize the various tropes included in most games and we had tons of fun being devious level designers ("....once the player defeats all four impossibly difficult bosses guarding the treasure chest in the hidden room, they discover it's empty! Then the walls start closing in.....")

I think you should include plenty of free play and not burden the younger kids too much with having to learn much about actual game development.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 10:33 AM on June 6, 2012

I think a social game like werewolf/mafia would be pretty awesome to show a group like this, it is easy to set up, and shows how the meta-game can develop separate from the mechanics.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 10:34 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Computer Science Unplugged. They have a whole program developed for teaching computer science to kids without computers.

If you want to do game design without computers, try buying a (fairly simple) board game and throwing out the rule book.

Split them into groups, let them come up with rules for how to play, and then compare their rules with each other.
posted by empath at 10:47 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Board games!

A great way to learn to make games is to analyze games that already exist. So, bring in some popular and well-known games - like Monopoly, Clue, Checkers, Candyland, etc (whatever you can find at thrift stores). Put the kids in small groups, and have them do exercises like:

* What is a gameplay mechanic? What examples are there from the game in front of you?
* Is the game balanced? Why? (Monopoly is terribly unbalanced, but it was designed to be that way)
* What kinds of pieces are there - cards, tokens, dice - and what is each piece used for
* What gameplay mechanics use chance (chance cards, dice) and which use skill (choosing what properties to buy in Monopoly, for example).
* Does the game have a story? Why? What if you got rid of the story - would it still make sense? If it doesn't have a story, what kind of story would you write for it?
* How would you change the game into a video game? Could you get rid of the turn-based nature and still have the same game? (Also leads to... draw an interface for this game if you made it a video game).

Then have them do game-making exercises:
* Change one rule about this game to make it totally different
* Pass the game and the new rule to another group
* That new group plays the game with the new rule
* Discuss
* The new group changes a second rule
* Repeat

Another game-making exercise that builds off of board games is to take all the pieces from one game and combine them to a board from another game and have the students create a game from that. For example, combining a deck of playing cards with a chess or checkers board.

Another really cool (but pretty difficulty) exercise is to take one of those games and tell the students to redesign it so it's a coop game and an 'AI' you play against. This is difficult if they don't have experience with games that do this (Pandemic is an example, I think, but others fail me right now). Alternatively, you can make them redesign it so it's two-players vs. two-players.

And lastly, the obvious thing would be to have students make their own games, and playtest them in mixed groups to find out how rules can be balanced or unbalanced, and iterate on them. You can make it simple - a game with only 3 rules and 1 win condition and these pieces - or leave it open - as many rules as the teams want.

For conversation and discussion:
* Ask questions like "what is a game?" and "what is the difference between a game and a toy?" and play devil's advocate. (Capture the flag is a game, but making sandcastles isn't, right? What about jigsaw puzzles? Is The Sims a game or a toy?).
* Candyland is a great example of a game most people have played when they were very little, but it a terrible game because it is 100% chance and zero skill. It can be useful for discussing gameplay mechanics and fun (is challenge fun? what if there's no challenge? why was it fun when you were younger? why is the game so popular?).

There's a game out there where players play a game that leads them to create a map for a standard PnP RPG dungeon, but I cannot remember the name of it (I'ts been on mefi before, so maybe someone else can pipe up). It involves a lot of dice rolling and following the rules and players draw a dungeon and create a story about the world (A meteor fell here, and the dwarves dug down to these diamonds, but then a plague wiped them out so there's ghost dwarves here, then humans built a town above it, then a dragon, etc). It is a good exercise in world building, fun, creates something new they can bring home, and gives the class something to talk about.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 10:52 AM on June 6, 2012

* Change one rule about this game to make it totally different

Good point. At that age, they might just be getting over Pokemon or other similar games; have a few decks so they know how to play, and teach them if they don't know, then talk about how if a modifier is in play how it unbalances the game. Game balance is a very important concept.

Also talk about different types of games - puzzle, progressive, team building, individual adventure.

Maybe even compare going through easier and harder games - flipping coins, rolling dice, tic tac toe, sudoku.

Spend time breaking games. "How could you cheat at cards? Stacking the deck, adding more cards, more." "How could you mess up Monopoly? What if you took out all of the tax/fine cards and only left gift cards?"

Dragon poker rules on games - the person sitting in the east-facing chair gets to shuffle through the deck to build their own advantage or gets a re-roll on dice. Then the person with the furthest away from today's birthday gets that advantage on even number hands.
posted by tilde at 11:17 AM on June 6, 2012

In the iTunes open courseware library, there is a Harvard CS50 course. Watch the first (session 0) video; there is a lot of great intro to programming theory stuff (like an exercise about writing instructions for a computer to make a PB&J sandwich, and about why code is structured the way it is) that is aimed at college freshman, and with a little dumbing down will work nicely for kids of your target age. Plus, the second (session 1) video starts working with Scratch.
posted by davejay at 11:41 AM on June 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ooh, the tic tac toe idea is great. Teach them the strategy, if they don't already know it, and then have them write it out or diagram it. Maybe as group projects? Then you have them actually play, but they can only follow their diagram (kind of like the robot idea above).

Actually, you could do this with any number of games.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:27 PM on June 6, 2012

A real fundamental lesson on how to manage a big, complex project with lots of moving parts. When I was playing Skyrim, the thing that blew me away again and again was the number of things I noticed that were not a major component of the game, just some little immersion creating thing (like the fact that the bird songs you heard as ambient sound were different in different terrain types).

At some point I started thinking about how many different skill sets were needed - how many different hands were involved in each step of each of these little things. It became a sort of total perspective vortex when I considered all the times I wasted a whole day tearing at my hair and trying to track down sample data I needed to do my work at the DJ30 company I used to work for. I don't think we'd have had a chance in hell of pulling off something requiring as much staff coordination as Skyrim did.

But we were only in the business of developing biologic drugs.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:41 PM on June 6, 2012

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