Game design as an educational activity

Thinking about game design as an educational activity for students? It’s a great one! The act of designing and creating a game requires critical thinking, planning, expressing your thoughts for an audience, mastery of programming, text, visual and human interface literacy….. I could go on and on.

Virtual pet gameThere tends to be a huge gap in schools betweeen introductory courses in computer applications and AP computer science or IT certification courses. Game design is the perfect way to fill that gap with cross-curricular, constructivist projects that are of high interest to a wide variety of students.

There are many educators using game design in their classrooms. One I happen to know personally is Bill Kerr in Australia. Bill runs a blog where he discusses his use of games and game engines with his students.

Game Engines – Game engines vary a lot in complexity, so it really depends how deep you want to get into scripting and programming.

  • MicroWorlds EX Robotics (commercial) – A new multimedia version of Logo (see below). Great for games. Numerous projects and ideas for students.
  • MicroWorlds Jr. (commercial) – Logo for pre-readers (Pk-2). Yes, they can! Comes with resources and projects for students.
  • Scratch (free) – iconic open source language
  • NetLogo (free) – math oriented Logo
  • StarLogo TNG (free) – allows exploration of massively parallel processing, which may indeed be the way the world really works
  • Squeak (open source) – the result of 30 years of Alan Kay’s R&D
  • Agentsheets (commercial) – uses a spreadsheet metaphor as the data structure
  • Toontalk (commercial – PC only) – you have to see this for yourself
  • Game Maker (open source commercial – PC only) – drag and drop actions with a language for customizing game action. Offers reduced site licenses for schools, course materials and student guides.
  • Stagecast Creator (commercial PC/Linux) – point and click interface

Logo – This language is the real deal for K-12 students. It allows students to come in contact with powerful ideas in the process of making something. Logo was designed so that the act of programming becomes a conversation with the machine, increasing student understanding and awareness in the process. Logo is also the perfect language for robots, so any would-be warehouse warriors should check this out. Many teacher resources, articles, project ideas and links to Logo organizations can be found at Gary Stager’s website.

Consumer Game Engines – Want to understand more about game design and consumer game engines? Try this website. It’s intended for people who want to break into the video or PC game business, but there are some good resources on game engines, modding, and lots of links (check out lesson #56).

5 Replies to “Game design as an educational activity”

  1. Game maker is not open source and would have to be described as having from free (previously) to commercial today. I recently wrote a blog comparing Game Maker with Etoys / Squeak

    Scratch seems the best to me now for getting started but I also like Etoys a lot and it’s being distributed on the OLPC

    I love logo but moved away from it because they could never get the implementation quite right IMO. Pity that MicroWorlds wasn’t developed as a FOSS product years ago

    Toontalk, very cool, totally visual programming – hard to develop worksheets for it though 🙂

  2. Thanks for the update, Bill.

    I think, though, you are wrong about MicroWorlds. It’s actually a good example of why some things are free, some things are open source, and some are commercial products. There’s room for all of them, and reasons to choose between them.

    Free software is not free if you spend your precious time and can’t make it work. There are many open source and free Logo programming languages (a few listed here), but they lack documentation and many times are buggy. I believe that many teachers want to jump into game making, but don’t want to spend their time fussing around with buggy, undocumented experiemental programs.

    MicroWorlds costs money, but is stable, works on current OS machines, has teacher resources and lots of support from the company that makes it. I think the value is clearly there.

    To make a viable open source option, like Linux, there have to be enough programmmers invested in the upkeep to make it work. As you say in your blog post, Scratch may look good on paper, but is still a work in progress.

    Now with OLPC, this may change as the user base widens, but that is yet to be seen.

  3. rough and ready google seach:
    * microworlds 370,000 hits
    * logo programming 125 million hits (35 years old)
    * Game Maker 27.7 million hits (about 7 years old)
    * Etoys 2.5 million hits
    * Squeak 5.7 million hits

    How do we explain these stats, the comparatively low microworlds figure? I don’t think it’s just because of teachers not “getting it”, it also had something to do with the implementation

    At the time I moved away from Microworlds (5-6 years) ago and started using Game Maker, the UI of MicroWorlds was clunky, old fashioned and the program itself was quite buggy. The logo world seemed to lack energy and youth. With Game Maker, the UI and products looked professional and comparable to good 2D game engines and there was a vibrant, growing community

    If only Seymour Papert and Brian Harvey (Berkely logo adapted by George Mills to MSW logo) could have collaborated, if only object logo had been successful … there was a great product there that was never developed to its full potential IMHO

    Now Seymour and Alan Kay (formerly Apple, Disney) are FOSS fans with the OLPC. I think that’s great

    btw I notice that etoys has the pen down / pen up of logo, expanded to include dots for example to track car acceleration etc.

    I hasten to add that under the hood any version of logo, as a version of LISP, is better than Game Maker from a Computer Science viewpoint. But that’s a hard one to sell to the kids. We need the great drag and drop which is found in scratch, etoys and game maker to make a smooth start in those mixed year 9 classes

  4. Well, I’m really not sure about using Google for this purpose. Lots of these results are just due to common words (like “game”)

    Hey, by that measure, I could invent an extremely popular programming language just by calling it “Britney Spears” (34.7 million hits)!

    Again, my point was to give teachers a list of options. it’s going to be a personal choice, and I think some teachers will find different features of these various engines appealing to them.

    I think your insights on the different languages are really valuable, but some of the features that you find intriguing are going to be obstacles for other people (and vice versa). I’m not advocating for any engine in particular, just that people TRY IT.

    i think we can agree on that!

  5. We need to advocate for good engines. The learning curve at the entry point is very important for teachers and students. If its not right, it wont work. Squeak and Etoys dont have an easy entry for me, but their importance as the game engine of the OLPC is immense. Now is the time to analyse the learning curve and make it work as well as the Game maker one works.

    More game engines at

    An alternative to google ranking:
    Game Maker 460 delicious bookmarks
    Scratch 516
    Squeak 327
    microworlds 42


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