When a class descends into silence and is so absorbed in work that you can almost hear their collective brains ticking, you know you're on to a winner. Such was the reaction when I introduced game design to Year 9 some years ago.
Creating computer games had been the preserve of programmers - geeks manipulating seemingly incomprehensible codes - but GameMaker, developed by Professor Mark Overmars at Utrecht University, changed all that.
The drag and drop interface makes creating arcade games (think Pac-Man, Tetris or Space Invaders) easy. It's free Windows-based software, so most pupils can continue their projects at home. Many will, for hours on end, because, above all else, GameMaker is pure fun.
Basic principles underlie all games, whatever genre. Teach these clearly and then marvel at the creativity it unlocks. In essence, games or levels take place in rooms. These contain objects that comprise the challenge. Without a sprite (picture) an object is invisible. A room with a surrounding wall and a ball requires two objects (a block for building walls and a ball) and two sprites. GameMaker provides hundreds of sprites. Create a shared folder containing only those required to alleviate early confusion.
Some objects trigger events. Identifying the event and the associated actions are the key learning goals. Start simple. A ball is created (event) and starts moving in a random direction (action). Sooner or later this triggers another event: the ball collides with the wall. Add a collision event (with wall) to the ball object to invoke a bounce action. To repeat - all objects have properties, the most important being events and associated actions. Within 30 minutes your pupils are delving into the finer properties of objects. How do I make it travel faster? Can I have multiple balls? What happens when they collide?
So far this is just animation. It's interaction that makes game design stimulating. Animations are watched, games are played. Create a racket object to respond to key press events. Players can move it left or right at will. Setting the ball to bounce off the racket creates a basic game. Add target objects. When the ball hits these (event) we might score points, destroy the target, create explosions, play crazy sound effects or jump to the next level (actions). The range of actions is so wide that some prior familiarity is essential. Within the hour, the penny has dropped and the wow factor is rising.
Pause to consider the ingredients of a good game. Investigate successful games to tease out general principles. Like teaching, games are interactive challenges. They must be involved from the start but provide progression to maintain interest. Many aspects of GameMaker allow for this: different levels, multiple lives, health barometers and so on. It's all about identifying goals and rewards. Consider the aesthetic too. Would a splash screen introduction help? A game is a creative fusion of design, art and sound.
Underpinning GameMaker are logic and sequencing skills, identifying what will happen and when. Computational thought without a line of code in sight. Making things happen requires planning and tenacity to solve inevitable problems. Final success is best judged through peer review. Depending on scope (and Pac-Man games are easiest initially), pupils may need to investigate gravity, co-ordinates, relative positioning, variables, timers or visual illusion en route. Complex concepts allied with an urgent need to know make for deep learning.
Roger Davies is director of ICT at Queen Elizabeth School in Cumbria.
- GameMaker7 software, resources and tutorials can be freely downloaded from www.yoyogames.comgamemaker
- www.mindtools.tased.edu.augamemakerdefault.htm is Margaret Meijers's marvellous introduction to GameMaker
- http:book.gamemaker.nl is home to The Game Maker's Apprentice, which is a wonderful book written by Mark Overmars and Jacob Habgood. Essential (and addictive) reading to go beyond the basics
- Jacob Habgood discusses the educational benefits of teaching game design atwww.gamasutra.comfeatures2006 0807habgood_01.shtml.