I spend a fair amount of time encouraging teachers to think about “games in learning” not just as students playing games, but student designing games and other digital experiences. Game design is a great combination of systems thinking and design, offers students a lot of choice within constraints that make for concentrated problem-solving, supports a collaborative classroom, and more. It’s everything most people hope for when we talk about 21st century skills and project-based learning.
One of the issues, however, is that many teachers think that they can’t teach programming. Programming is seen as too difficult, something that is done only by highly trained professionals — the proverbial “rocket scientist.” In reality, programming is just like any other subject. Lots of teachers learn how to teach things that may seem very difficult. I know if you stood me up in front of a class and told me to teach Advanced German or Organic Chemistry I’d run screaming from the room too! But every day, teachers get up and teach all sorts of difficult things – programming is no different.
Gamestar Mechanic is not exactly a programming language – it’s more like a toolkit, where students can construct games of all kinds. It also provides game-like entry to game design – the initial steps are “challenges” that take you one step at a time, just like a game. There are some other cool features, like an online showcase and community. With initial funding from the MacArthur Foundation (see Digital Media in the Classroom Case Study: Gamestar Mechanic), Gamestar Mechanic was fully released to the public in Fall 2010.
If you are interested in game design for children, the Gamestar Mechanic website is well worth your time. It includes sections for parents and educators, and offers both a free version and a premium version that seem reasonable, with pricing and features both for home and school use.
Related wiki: Games in Education Resources