Incorporating these four concrete elements of game design in the planning phases can make the creation process much easier for students.
Our school has just introduced Scratch to our 4th graders. This particular set of students has not done any sort of programming before, so the block-based nature of Scratch was completely new to them - in addition to the concepts related to programming.
The concern with introducing them to Scratch wasn't with the Lego-like connection of blocks or the eight color-coded themes that organize the types of blocks. These parts of Scratch are incredibly intuitive (**tipping hat to the folks at MIT Media Lab and the Lifelong Kindergarten Group**). Because it is so intuitive, after just 2 30-minute sessions, these 4th graders have made some very impressive programs!
My real concern was that the students would lose their way in the creation process as they explored and tinkered with the capabilities of Scratch. They would have an idea in their head for what they wanted their program to do, but while figuring out the “how” they would forget the “why.” Having experienced it myself - forgetting what I was trying to do while I was trying to do it - I thought these students would surely have the same dilemma.
The remedy was that they needed to have a way to layout out their plan. “Failure to plan, is planning to fail.” This is good advice in any area of life, and certainly in programming. But the planning couldn’t be too constraining to their creativity. It needed to be robust enough to fit the needs of whatever they imagined, but tied to concrete concepts that the students could grasp at the start of their work.
To this end, I identified four design elements that all games should have:
- Object – What is the goal of the game? (ie collect coins, get through the maze, score points, etc.)
- Operation – How do you play the game? (ie Do you use keyboard keys to move? Press the spacebar to jump or shoot? Move the mouse around? etc.)
- Obstacles – What’s the challenge that you have to overcome? (ie bad guys, a timer counting down, running out of fuel, life meter, etc.)
- Outcome – What happens so you know you won or lost? (ie “You Won!” screen, “Sorry, you lost” screen, celebration dance, etc.)
To introduce the concepts, we played a remixed version of the Collide game created by the ScratchEd Team (my remix is linked at the bottom). Afterward, we tried to identify those four elements in the game. To deepen their exposure to these ideas, we then discussed other games to see if those four elements existed in them as well. The Mario games provided a rich set of examples that lots of students were familiar with. Sure enough, they could make connections to the four elements in those games as well. (Interesting comment regarding this experience… I did this “what other games” discussion with one set of 4th graders and not the other. Based on the language used by students as they talked to each other, the group that had the extra discussion internalized and applied the four elements in a much more sophisticated way than the other group. I wasn’t surprised by this, but the opportunity to compare between the two was available.)
We spent a short amount of time looking at some of the unfamiliar blocks and scripts that made the collide game work. The reason for this was to shorten the learning curve and invite more experimentation. Then it was time to get out of the way and let them create.
We’ll continue to return to these four elements over the remainder of the school year, and look to refine them as we go. Hopefully this foundation helps students make amazing things on Scratch, and at the same time reinforces the importance of planning in the other aspects of their studies.
Author's Note: After originally posting this, and after more experiences with Scratch for my students, I asked them to create a "final project." In their homerooms, they were learning about famous inventors and scientists. With that as a focusing theme, students designed games based on the famous people they we studying. To help with the planning, students completed a form that help captured their original ideas. Links are found at the bottom of this page.