Three Programs Kids Can Use to Learn How to Create Video Games
Kids Creating Video Games
Many kids today are great at playing (consuming) video games but who will create the video games of tomorrow? I think it’s fine for kids to play appropriate video games in moderation. See Common Sense Media for reviews and ratings for video games. However, many kids today only consume content. What we really need in the future is for the next generation to create interesting, appropriate, and constructive content. That’s goes for television, movies, websites, apps, and games and other media we can’t even envision now. This activity is great for encouraging interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects, as well as art.
Here’s three different ways kids can create video games at home or at school:
The first program I use with kids in grade three and up at the Williamsburg Schools is called Stagecast Creator ($$, with a 120-day free trial version). Stagecast Creator uses programming by example to help students design games and simulations. Kids design different characters and define the rules for interactions between the mouse or the keyboard. Rules are programming graphically and not with traditional text based programming.
I start the kids with a maze game. They design blocks that form the maze. They next create a main character and program it to move with the arrow keys into empty spaces. They add trap doors, power-ups or food to make the game more interesting. Here’s an example (need Java plug-in).
Students have also used this to create predator-prey simulations, similar to what wildlife biologists do. For example, students create grass, rabbit, and coyote characters. The grass is programmed to multiple randomly. Rabbits eat grass and create more rabbits. Coyotes are programming to wander around and eat rabbits. Students can see what happens if there are too many rabbits (the ecosystem crashes because there is no grass) or too many coyotes (no rabbits but lots of grass). We have also recreated the Asteroid game in previous years. This game is hard to do in Scratch (below) because you can’t replicate an instance of a character in Scratch. But in Stagecast Creator, you can create one block that shoots out asteroids and that can be copied to different places.
Scratch is another great video game creation program, which was created at MIT. This is a free download. Like Stagecast Creator, Scratch is also icon based but has an extensive collection of more traditional programming functions, which are put together to make games and animations. I use this with six graders to recreate the first video game, Pong. I have step-by-step directions (pdf) available to create a Pong game. Kids follow the directions but decorate and modify the model in different ways as they learn the software. Kids then move on to create a Pac-Man game, again with detailed directions they modify before they create their own game from Scratch (pun intended). I have a collection of Pong games created by sixth graders this year. — Scratch also has an online component where games may be freely shared and discussed. (Free Download)
Gamestar Mechanic is a website and online gaming community for creating video games totally online. Students play a video game that teaches video principles and earn points that “buy” tools to create their own games. I have not used this one as much but I know it is also is in use with sixth grades at the Norris School in Southampton. I found it a bit tedious, as a teacher, to earn the points just to learn the system but I’m sure students will find it less so. There are free and premium versions but you can do everything you need to with the free version.
This summer iD Tech Camps will be offered in Amherst, giving students ages 7-17yo opportunities to learn how to create not only video games, but also iPhone apps, 3D models, movies and website. Check out this summer camp (and a variety of other summer camp options) on the Hilltown Families post, Summer Camps and Programs in Western MA.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Heffernan ♦ Tech Talk: Supporting Creative Play with Technology
John is currently the technology teacher the Williamsburg Schools. He has also worked as an educational technology consultant, a third grade teacher, and as a software engineer. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Tufts and a Masters of Education from Lesley University. John lives in Conway with his wife, 5 year old son, and 2 whippets. In additional to his interest in technology, John is a juggler, musician, and animal tracker. Read more about his engineering adventures at kidsengineer.com.
[Photo credit: (ccl) Patrick Hoesly]