Guest post by Matthew Jorgensen
Game based learning has been a part of any good teacher’s arsenal since the dawn of time and, via digital devices, is permeating the classrooms of the world, engaging students to learn through, by and with play.
Sit any child in front of a computer and they will no doubt rather play games rather than type up their information report. Gaming is huge and most students play digital games on their phones, tablets, computers or game consoles weekly if not daily. So let’s take a look at how we can leverage the love of gaming into a learning experience by profiling three very popular and creative computer games that are different from the rest.
Let’s start with Kodu Game Lab, a visual-programming tool that has links to Logo and Alice, and is so user friendly that I have used it with Year Three students. To create the ‘Kode’ necessary for action to occur, users create a string of <condition> <action> lines using pieces of a Kode pie.
Action choices are limited to the existing list of tiles, but you can see that students are learning a very basic element of programming which is ‘if that, then this’. This visual programming paradigm is not new but allows for a wide scope of possibilities and engages the user to think logically in order to make each line perform the desired task. Rather than users just playing a game, they are creating a game with objects that perform what they want in an environment that they have created.
There are a variety of objects from which users can choose, and they can be customised in terms of appearance and interactivity. One excellent option is to make an object ‘creatable’. For example, insert a rock onto the world and make it invisible. Program the rock to score A1 when it sees Kodu coming along. When the ‘creatable’ Canon receives the score A1, it will spawn and start shooting Kodu. Teleporting from one location to another involves a similar process. Having students work together to create the Kode, fix bugs and share new knowledge with others is a massive educational plus for Kodu Game Lab, especially in the Primary age groups.
Creativity is another major feature of Kodu GL. Users can make their own worlds using basic terraforming tools, and can even add aquatic environments (with swell!). Students can see a clear correlation with Minecraft here as the raised sections are very blocky. The photo below shows a Year Five student’s pixel art created with the Ground Brush, displaying creativity which one could argue displays Redefinition on the SAMR Model.
Paths can be added so that objects have a fixed track upon which they move back and forth. One Year Four student created a ‘Wisp’ that moved on a path to show the player where to go to complete the mission. Another student created a Boss Enemy that moved along a defensive path at the end of the game to make that battle more interesting.
To summarise, Kodu GL is an excellent entry-level game creator for Windows 7 and 8 operating systems. Students engage with it instantly and there is a good range of supporting videos, tutorials and downloadable worlds that can be used to learn the tool. I purchased the Kindle version of Kodu for Kids by James Floyd Kelly, which supports beginners through to experts and has tutorials for four sample games. The truth is, even though Kodu seems fairly basic and easy, there is complexity in the functions that it can perform and the actions that the objects can execute. On top of that, the creativity involved with planning, designing, producing, testing and publishing a finished game or interactive experience is unique to each maker. Using Kodu allows for quick and impressive results with a small amount of time devoted to learning the actual tool.
Project Spark is the older sibling to Kodu, and if Kodu is a Year Five student, then Project Spark is about 42 years old, has 3 degrees and is CEO of a Fortune 500 company. This is some serious software. Only available on Windows 8 and weighing in at a hefty 3 GBs to download, Spark will blow your mind. It is an Xbox One world generator that allows the user to do pretty much the same as Kodu but on a much grander scale. Think Mad Max 1 compared to Mad Max 4. Users need a logged in Xbox One account to access the game and this will cause issues in a school context.
Spark uses Kode to programme the ‘Brains’ that make the objects interact and terraforming tools to create the environments, so the step up from Kodu is not without a great deal of familiarity. However, the things that you can do with Project Spark are almost limitless, and it has a thriving community of makers who create and share their games. Team Dakota are driving the development of Spark and provide an education broadcast on Twitch TV every Tuesday US time. They also play the games crafted by the community and deliver tutorials on specific elements of Spark. Players get credits for training, playing and creating which can be used to purchase items and packs from the Marketplace.
First time users are trained via a comprehensive in-game tutorial process. This will explain Project Spark and how it works so that students will be able to create a viable game or interactive experience when finished. The creation process is impressively scaffolded so that the user has a number of different ways to create games until they are confident enough to complete the process without support.
Brian Perry, Project Spark’s Community Engagement Manager, was brought onto Team Dakota after sending many hours creating with Project Spark in his own time. ‘Project Spark was developed by Microsoft as a full creation engine that is understandable and approachable for everyone. The software uses an updated version of Kodu as its scripting and development language, a unique terrain engine that allows you to sculpt your world in real-time and a brain-base object system that gives you the flexibility to bring any object in your world to life.’
The sheer variety of games that are able to be made with Spark is a major plus. Side-scrolling platforms, puzzles, first-person shooters, spaceship quests and racing games are all possible. You can even have up to four people creating a game at one time. This tool is made to impress on the Xbox so it is visually stunning.
Compared to Kodu GL, Project Spark feels so much more technically and visually spectacular. It is a triumph for game aesthetics; a comprehensive beast that is at times overwhelming in terms of options. The training is a necessary process, but starting with Kodu GL and then moving into Spark helps to make connections with the creation tools. As for use in education, Spark again can be used to teach basic computing concepts and game design. Brian points out that ‘Project Spark is well suited for the classroom because it was built as a tool that anyone ages 8 to 80 could enjoy and learn from. The visual scripting language of Kodu makes it easy for students to follow along with coding. The shortcuts we allow you to use in Kode makes it so you can create a player you control with movement with just two Kode tiles.
Project Spark has successfully been taught in the classroom for the past year with students ages 8-16. We have worked with schools to develop training modules that fit with age groups and educators have continued to expand Project Spark’s presence in their classrooms as they’ve seen the fantastic results. Project Spark’s easier interface and scripting, along with its complete development package have made it an ideal candidate for education.’
Like Kodu GL, there are benefits for logical thinking, problem solving, social constructivism, creativity, persistence, flexibly thinking, accuracy, attention to detail and communicating with precision. Both tools allow for text-based communication amongst the objects, which can enable a narrative thread and an interactive ‘choose your own adventure’ style game. Let’s just see where Windows 10 and Hololens take Project Spark in the near future.
Minecraft is totally different to the two Kode-based tools above. It is not a game making tool, although you can make games with it. In terms of acceptance into education, schools, classrooms and even Learning Areas, Minecraft is leading the race. Its simplicity engages students instantly, and the two modes of survival and creative cater for different styles of use. The community and culture are very strong and the users have generated excellent support materials for new users.
Everyone has heard of Minecraft and if you do a straw poll at your school, upwards of 60% have played Minecraft and/or have an account. It’s kind of a big deal. With mods like ComputerCraft, which adds computers, monitors, turtles and modems into a Minecraft world, teachers can use Minecraft EDU to safely implement Minecraft in the classroom.
Tim Wicks from Buddyverse Minecraft Camps has seen the learning benefits first hand. ‘
ComputerCraft allows students to write code and simulate systems in a Minecraft world. Minecraft EDU is a subscription based solution for Minecraft in schools, and allows for a tighter control of student use. We could go on forever about so many elements of Minecraft, but I will focus on the educational potential from here on.
Minecraft has obvious links to Lego due to the blocky aesthetics and snap-to-grid creation process. It therefore enables the maker in all of us to create structures and architecture that can be potentially amazing. There are some truly unbelievable constructions located on Minecraft servers all over the globe, such as King’s Landing from Game of Thrones and Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings. These can be found at http://on.mash.to/1Hw98oB. So, in this context we can see artistic value in Minecraft which can be linked to History and Geography. Minecraft Homeschool offers a course on the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, which are all recreated using Minecraft.
After spending 10 minutes playing Minecraft, you can see that everything is based on Mathematics. The blocks are Im2, the days are 10 minutes long, users collect up to 64 of each item and to craft tools in Survival mode, the four operations are needed. The spatial awareness that is developed with using geometry is obvious. Minecraft has rollercoaster parts that can be used to investigate scientific concepts such as gravity, acceleration and energy, and students can recreate circuits controlling mechanisms using the valuable Redstone resource.
So not only does Minecraft offer students a world in which they can create and interact, it also enables simulations of complex processes and phenomenon to be conducted in an environment that engages students. There are many mods and worlds that can be utilised to facilitate different educational outcomes, such as School Mod, Mathlandia and Wonderful World of Humanities. Coupled with a safe server solution such as Minecraft EDU or Buddyverse, individual teachers or schools can deliver learning through Minecraft and capitalise on the engagement that it fosters in all students.
I’ll be the first to admit I have just scratched the surface here, especially with Minecraft. QSITE has a number of Minecraft devotees who are constantly looking for ways to bring it into the learning process, so join the mailing group and ask a question or two. My advice for those of you brave enough to delve into these tools is to start with a lunch time group and let the students teach you. Set some basic tasks and solve problems together. If a student finds a solution to a task, ask the others to do it a different way. Spend some hours learning how the tool works and create something!
Minecraft is well supported on the net and some of your students have probably even made their own videos. Kodu GL is supported through the app and online, and Project Spark has a comprehensive tutorial inbuilt. Bring your principal in to have a look at what you are doing and have a conversation about getting it into the classroom.
The Kodu Kup is a massive event in Europe, and I have just started to initiate an ANZ version for 2016. If you would like to be involved, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
By Matthew Jorgensen
Matthew is a teacher on the Gold Coast and QSITE Gold Coast Chapter Chair. He is a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and Master Trainer interested in GBL with Scratch, Kodu, Project Spark and Minecraft.
Tim Wicks is the owner of Buddyverse, a Minecraft server solution for schools and a Minecraft camp provider. Tim can be reached at email@example.com.
Brian Perry is on the Project Spark Community Engagement Team, based in Seattle. He is an avid gamer and was recruited to Team Dakota after engaging with Project Spark as a user. Brian can be reached through Twitter (@proj_spark).