A Conversation with Kevin Hodgson
I had the pleasure of speaking with Kevin Hodgson about his video game design unit and the companion website. Here are some highlights from that interview.
Why game design? Why choose that medium instead of something more text-based or more traditional for the language arts classroom?
In working with my co-teacher, Bob Smith, and a colleague science teacher, Lisa Rice, I think we were trying to tap into that interest around gaming and technology and bring it together with writing and science, and we saw this unit as one way to do that. We were building it as we were going. Thinking about what was engaging the students, how we were connecting it to the writing process, and also connecting it to reading informational texts. It was a risk. We weren't sure how it was going to end up, but we were conscious of the connections we were making.
We were also realizing how much writing was involved [in game design]. I was interested in the parallels in how I teach writing. How the whole revision process is constantly in motion with peer review, or peer testers, and publishing and then revising again; all those cyclical patterns that go on in our writing process are central to the game design process as well.
Were your students familiar with Gamestar Mechanic before this project?
None had ever even heard of it before. For almost all of them, this was completely new terrain. The nice thing about using the Gamestar site is that it's built for that kind of experience, where you're playing the game to learn how to design games. For people who don't know much about Gamestar, you have to earn experience before you can publish, and so students had to reach a certain level in order to publish their games to the Gamestar community, which was a requirement of the project. Gamestar actually teaches game design elements while you're playing and building games.
Did you have any students who struggled or got frustrated with using Gamestar?
The frustration part for us was not the site itself, but just technology. Our school has rolling laptop carts. And we have a PC cart and a Mac cart, but the Mac cart is almost impossible to get. So we used the PC cart, which is almost 7 years old, on a wireless system. And Gamestar has pretty heavy graphics. The frustration would come when things wouldn't load as they were building their games.
In the site itself, there were some frustrations playing games because you have to get to a certain level to get the rights to publish. But what emerges in technology projects is that the kids turn to each other for help. You have these cadres of kids who go around and help others without my being a part of it. Students know who to turn to in the class for help. And those kids almost always will stop what they are doing to go and help somebody else in the class. That's a neat thing to watch happen naturally without much teacher intervention.
Were there any surprises? Anything you didn't expect that came out of this project?
The surprises were some of the students, who in the beginning, I wouldn't have thought would have been the ones to go deep into game design and focus on high quality products. It gave us another view of student talents and strengths in a way that some of the more traditional writing we were doing maybe didn’t showcase.
Another thing we noticed was in our inclusion classes, with kids who are on learning plans around writing and other things. One of my classes is co-taught with Bob Smith, and we were observing the engagement of those kids as writers with this project that we hadn’t seen with any of the other projects earlier in the year. And [we also observed] their desire to want to revise, which is a huge step for struggling writers, because they knew the writing was part of the game that other kids were going to be playing--and not just their peers in the classroom, but also the whole Gamestar community. That kind of motivation for struggling writers was really fascinating to watch.
Why did you create the Video Game Design website?
For us, as the teachers, it forced us to be reflective in the moment and not lose our train of thought about where things were at that point. Part of what we were trying to do was capture what we were thinking about as we were doing it. We knew that if we were going to do this again next year, we wanted to be able to go back and look at what we were talking about and think about what we were doing and consider what changes we might need to make to make it better next time around. Often as you get caught up in the flow of day to day, you think you'll get to that later, but by the time you get to it you've lost a lot of ideas or questions that you had.
I was also thinking about making a document, a website, that might inspire other teachers to think about game design, too. And there were a number who were following along on Twitter and with RSS, who were starting to dabble in game design as we were. So that was pretty cool.
What advice do you have for teachers interested in incorporating game design into their curriuculum?
I think this is advice for whatever new technology you are trying. First is to go through it yourself. Before our science game-design project, I went through and designed my own science-based game on Gamestar and played through the quests and published a game.
And then in the classroom, I talked about all those experiences with my students. I talked about the things I wanted to do that didn't work, surprises I found; I tried to model some reflective practices for them within that framework. I wanted them to see that it can be frustrating at times, but you can work through it or find workarounds or alternatives.
I also think you have to turn to the kids as the experts. There are going to be kids who are really immersed in video gaming. There were times when I had to turn to the class and say "What should we do here?" And they became the experts at that point in thinking through things or showing things to the rest of the class.
Have a game plan with a clear goal. For us, it was--you're going to be publishing a game that is built around a scientific concept with key vocabulary built into your storyline. Having something clear as the end goal keeps things on task for both students and teachers.
The last thing is give students a chance to play each other's games. For us, bringing everyone together for a day and spending a few hours playing the games was a great experience for them all.