“Sandbox Games” encourage students to communicate and express themselves
Let me introduce you to a new realm of storytelling, one that is incredibly engaging and enticing to the digital-age learner. Videogames, which are a new form of storytelling, have the potential to alter how our students communicate and express their understanding of the world.
Adolescent gamers will attest to the creative possibility of modern video games, especially given how game technology has evolved over the past decade. Often referred to as “sandbox games,” programs such as Kodu, Scratch, Alice and Minecraft give users an incredible degree of control and customization in the game environment. In fact, these videogame programs herald a new era of gaming that offers an immense potential to education. Consider the possibilities of a student-designed videogame that explores, for example, the world of a Canadian fur trader. The game would not only demand a strong conceptual understanding of the Canadian landscape, but also an understanding of the 17th-century fur trade. The depth and academic rigour associated with game construction presents a new paradigm for digital-age learning.
As educators, we have begun to analyze digital technologies through a more evaluative lens. This skepticism is understood, because the market is flooded with educational technologies that rarely move beyond knowledge-based outcomes. However, as a technology coach with Edmonton Catholic Schools, I have witnessed first-hand the imaginative actuality of video game construction. Is it motivating? Check. Is it engaging? Check. Is it academically rigorous? Check. Is it collaborative? Check.
What follows are some of the highlights of my work with videogame construction programs in education.
Gaming research has begun to emphasize the correlation between videogame construction and high-order thinking skills (Carbonaro, Szafron, Cutumisu and Schaeffer 2010). However, perhaps more obvious is the causal relationship between a gamer’s understanding of a game’s content and its playability. In essence, no content = no videogame. Videogame construction is a visual representation of an idea that demands a strong interpretation of a particular concept. It is through this conceptual interpretation that a student pieces together ideas to form a videogame story. To create a game story, students might ask: “What did the landscape look like in the early 17th century? Who did the fur traders talk to? Who did they trade with? What did they trade? What was the value of one beaver pelt? How did they survive?” Because game construction demands that a designer reflect on and reconstruct his or her understanding to represent a particular topic, these questions show the depth and rigour involved in with game construction.
Perhaps the most complex aspect of sandbox games is the relatively complex layering required to tell a videogame story. Videogames are spatially different from a written story because they are defined through players’ choices. Many possibilities must be presented to the player to ensure that the story is enjoyable. In essence, a game designer must synthesize his or her understanding of the content to formulate challenges or quests that are accurate, engaging and fun to play. Videogame construction is a complex and multifaceted process; 21st-century educators are beginning to understand the importance of open-ended, project-based learning. Videogame construction is exactly where we want our students to live academically.
There is no question that videogame construction demands more instructional time than a written report or a unit exam. However, consider that though students might spend a couple of hours on a written report to explain their understanding of the fur trade, they would probably spend at least 10 hours constructing a videogame. These 10 hours are spent in a state of deep immersion with the curricular content, which means the student is becoming an expert on the topic. To further justify the time spent on this type of project, consider the crosscurricular possibilities of videogame construction:
- Overarching topic: social studies (fur trade)
- Cross-curricular connections: language arts (communication and storytelling)–math (sequential coding)–health (healthy collaboration)–ICT (game design)
When I work with students on a videogame project, I’m intrigued by the possibility of setting up an aerial video recording of them at work. Gaming has often been considered a sedentary activity; however, my aerial footage would disprove this belief. I have seen groups of students who work in incredibly collaborative ways throughout the game construction process. Videogamers often experience virtual collaboration, in what is called affinity spaces. These online spaces, or forums, allow for collaboration in solving a difficult code and offer support for a particular game or for reimagining a particular gaming character. The same is true for students immersed in game construction. I often see students get out of their chairs to ask each other for help and actively seek the support and guidance of a more knowledgeable peer. In a videogame construction project, the teacher is probably not the expert; rather, the teacher is a guide or a facilitator who ensures that the game makes sense and that zombies and robots stay out of historical projects. In fact, when I work with students I make a point of staying out of the way when it comes to technical questions. Student experts will always emerge, which means they have the important opportunity to experience the role of expert and educator.
Although videogame construction offers immense potential to the educational classroom, it is difficult to conceptualize the educational logistics of game construction. The following is my pedagogical gaming guide to how I implement gaming into a classroom environment. The future of learning is now, and I encourage you to embrace it and try videogame construction in your own classroom.
Pedagogical Gaming Guide
- Provide a gaming exploration day to orient students to the program. I use an open-source, X-box program entitled Kodu. (http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/projects/kodu/)
- Choose a curricular outcome that allows for a certain degree of freedom for exploration. Ensure that students have a strong conceptual understanding of the topic prior to the gaming project.
- Have students construct a visual representation (map) of what the landscape will look like and what will happen at varying locations.
- Provide lots of time for game construction. Whole days devoted to gaming work well; this way students can easily immerse themselves for six hours. They usually can finish a game in one day. Ensure that student groups are no larger than three.
- Allocate check-in times to ensure students don’t get lost in the details.
- Provide achievement markers, so students understand when certain tasks should be done.
- Assess students in a two-part process. Play their game in advance to get an idea of what they constructed independently then play the game with the student watching, and have the student provide a running commentary of the videogame.
Carbonaro, M., D. Szafron, M. Cutumisu and J. Schaeffer. 2010. “Computer-Game
Construction: A Gender-Neutral Attractor to Computing Science.” Computers & Education 55, no. 6: 1098–1111. DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2010.05.007
Kandise Salerno is a teacher with Edmonton Catholic Schools and a PhD student working on exploring the curricular possibilities of videogame-design programs. In 2012, Salerno received an ATA Doctoral Fellowship in Education to pursue her doctoral studies.