A friend whose older son was in one of my sons’ Boy Scout troop asked me to attend her younger son’s final Cub Scout meeting and talk about game design. Now, I teach game design every day to college-age students, and I have a lot of experience running game design merit badge workshops for boy scouts (in fact, I’m one of creators of the Boy Scouts Game Design Merit Badge). However, this opportunity presented a different set of challenges. For one thing, I had only about an hour. And for another, we’re talking about ten-year-old boys, and that means barely-contained bundles of energy.
Okay, I needed a game plan. To keep their energy focused into a productive hour, I needed to keep my talk fast-moving and keep the boys active. So, here’s what I did.
After giving the briefest of introductions about my background (Disney, Activision, Spinmaster toy company), I asked them what their favorite game was? “Minecraft!” Of course. “Angry Birds!” “LEGO Marvel Super Heroes!” “Portal 2!” Now, those are all great video games, but what about other times of games? What’s your favorite board game? “Monopoly!” “Life!” “Risk!” What about sports? Those are games too. “Baseball!” “Football!!” What about party games? “Pin The Tail On The Donkey!” “Tag!”
Well, is every activity a game? Is homework a game? “NO!” Is taking the trash out a game? “NO!” So what does an activity need to be a game? “Fun! It has to be fun!” Right you are! Fun is an essential element of a game. But throwing rocks across a pond can be fun. Does that make it a game. “It can be, if you try to make it skip three times!” Oh, so the activity needs to both be fun and have a goal. Anything else? “Rules! It has to have rules!” (This kids are smarter than my college students!)
Maybe we can turn any activity into a game. How about painting? Is painting fun? “Yes!” Is there a way to give it a goal? “Maybe someone has to paint something!” “Maybe it’s two people!” Okay, here’s the goal: there are two painters, and we give them a word or phrase to paint. And the first person to paint it correctly wins. What other rules can we give to them? “People have to guess what they are drawing!” “They take turns!” “They have to do it in a time limit!” Congratulations! You Cub Scouts have invented the game Pictionary!
Enough talking! Let’s play some games! Let’s play one of my favorite games of all time — Tic Tac Toe! (I begin pulling papers, marking pens, dice, and colored discs — one side red, the flip side yellow — out of my supply box). Now, I’m a little fuzzy on the rules. Tell me, how do we start the game? Very quickly the cub scouts assemble the following How To Get Started Rules:
- Draw a 3×3 grid
- Choose 2 people to play
- Each person picks a color
- Roll the dice to see who goes first.
So, how do we get from the game start to game finish? “We take turns!” And what do we do each turn? “You put your color down in a square!” Any square? “An empty square!”
And how does the game end? “You win by getting three in a row!” Is that the only way the game ends? “No, you can get a cat’s game where no one wins” Well, I think that’s everything we need to know to play. So, let’s break up into groups of two and play the game.
After a couple of minutes, I tell them to stop. I re-arrange them into groups of three, with one person appointed to be game designer. I explain to them that the job of a game designer to create fun experiences for other people. It’s like being the host of a party: you decide what decorations there will be, what food to serve, what music to play, what activities to do, and when your friends arrive, you need to make sure that they are having a good time. But different people like different things, and so it’s hard to guess what will be fun for them. So, you have to watch them, and if they aren’t having a good time, you have to switch things up.
And so, I had each “game designer” propose one change to the rules that he thought would make the game more fun, as well as what his prediction would be about how the players would react to the rule change. The “designer” then watched the other two scouts play the game with that rule change, and then tell me his observations afterwards. Then I let another scout be the game designer until each scout had a chance. Most of them simply added more squares to the grid, but one scout made a very intriguing circular grid unlike anything someone has suggested before when I’ve done this exercise with students.
After everyone had their turn, I explained that even video game designers may first play their games on pen and paper before it goes to programming, because its so easy to make changes to pen-and-paper games. You can even play a first-person shooter game as a pen-and-paper game! And with that, I pulled hexagonal graph paper, sticky notes, cards, tokens, and discs out of my supply box, and described the rules for a “paintball” game (I winked at the scouts’ parents as I said this, since I knew that would be the only acceptable way I could present a first-person shooter to young kids) based on a game described in Tracy Fullerton’s book Game Designers Workshop.
- Use hex paper as the floor of a room
- Use sticky notes as walls
- Each player uses a colored disc as their avatar and draws an arrow on it to show shooting direction
- Each player colors one hex as their starting location and places their avatar on it.
- Each player takes 3 tokens to represent their “lives”
- Each player takes a deck of 9 cards: 3 “turn” cards, 3 “move cards”, and 3 “shoot” cards.
- The game is played in turns. During each turn, each player chooses 3 cards from their deck of 9 cards, indicating the actions that they want to take in each round in the turn.
- Each turn consists of 3 rounds. Players take the action for the card corresponding to that round, in the following order:
- Shoot: Any other player that the arrow on the player’s disc is currently point is hit, unless a wall blocks the short. The hit player loses a life: if he loses all three lives, he is removed from the game, otherwise, he returns to his starting point.
- Turn: The player rotates his avatar disc so that its arrow points one hex side to the left or right of its current direction.
- Move: The player moves his avatar disc one hex over from his current position, in any direction.
- The game ends when only one player remains alive.
I was worried at first that the rules would be too complex for ten-year-olds, but my worries were unfounded, as I had underestimated the kids. They picked up the rules quickly, and the natural leader on each team wound up calling out rounds and actions. As the meeting time drew to a close, one game had been one and another was close to winning.
There was a moment or two when scout’s tempered flared because they weren’t happy with how things were going, or their excitement was almost not containable, but I kept things moving quickly enough that I was able to redirect their attention.
All in all it, the experience went as well as I could have hoped. The scouts seemed to have a fun time, the parents were pleased, and I got a blog topic out of it. I’d happily do it again some time. I’m available for future cub scout meetings, birthday parties, and bar mitzvahs.
Last Saturday I attended an event called Hack The Classroom at Loyola Marymount University. Aimed at K-12 teachers working at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the six-hour program consisted of talks on the future of technology in education and hands-on workshops on how to hack your classroom with the top iPad Apps, Google Docs, and other technology. My wife, a Catholic high school teacher, had invited me to go with her, and since I was about to head up development of a educational software project myself, I was interested to attend.
Not having been inside a school in over thirty years — aside from visiting my wife’s classroom, attending my children’s open houses and delivering an occasional talk to students about game development — I really didn’t know much about changes in teaching approaches that had taken place since I was a kid. I was immediately blown away by the keynote presentation about technology as core curriculum, which related the evolution of educational thinking, from traditional (Web 1.0) to current (Web 3.0).
Whereas education in my youth was closed and industrial, the current view is that education should be open and ubiquitous.
Most surprising to me was the concept of “flipping the classroom”: the idea that teachers should present their lectures at the student’s home (via online presentation software), and that “homework” should be done in the classroom so that students having problems can be assisted by teachers or more advanced students acting as tutors. This is a form of blended learning which encompasses any use of technology to leverage the learning in a classroom, so a teacher can spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing.
As excited as I was about these new approaches, I was somewhat dismayed that there was a need for workshops to show teachers how to use such simple resources as Google Drive, Twitter and even Wikipedia. However, I’ll give the teachers credit for recognizing that there was a need for them to step up and learn about the technology that their own students use everyday.
There are plans for future Hack The Classroom events organized for other educator groups. You can learn more here.