While there are many educational games that deliver standard classroom subjects in game form, or which introduce students to basic programming skills, Gamestar Mechanic takes a different approach.
It aims to teach the principles of game design, based on the idea that immersing the student in the role of a fictional apprentice game designer establishes a platform for building technical, artistic, cognitive, social and linguistic skills.
An online digital learning platform and game environment, Gamestar Mechanic is built on a strong systems thinking pedagogy. Players progress through a “quest” in which they acquire sprites with which to build and eventually publish their own games on the Gamestar website. A game designer’s vocabulary is introduced; the concept of balancing a game; designing a game concept; and testing and iterating a game. Teachers are informed that “meaningful play” happens when player perceives the relation between actions and outcomes in a game and recognises how those outcomes are integrated into the game system as a whole.
Getting students to reflect on what they have learned is a particular challenge for schoolteachers amid the seductive glow of the computer screen, truncated lesson times and distracted students. As one high school teacher, Rhys Cassidy put it after three hour-long sessions trialing Gamestar Mechanic with 15-16 year-old students at Runcorn State High School, “There were some impressive games made but reflection and evaluation are the hardest thing to get these students to do meaningfully.”
A simple response to the challenge of promoting reflective thinking is to scaffold the Gamestar Mechanic experience using the physical learning environment, including dedicated spaces away from the smart classroom. At a second trial of Gamestar Mechanic with 11-12 year old students in Brisbane, Cassidy led the session with non-digital game play and discussion of components, behaviors, function and larger game culture. Rock-paper-scissors, it emerged, had already been customised with additional components and behaviors (water, fire, TNT) and was discussed by the students along the game’s use as a decision-making tool before the class moved to the computers to play through the Quest. The game, in other words, was immediately connected to a social system in the students’ discussion.
Another challenging goal is for students to demonstrate that they are able to transfer skills from one domain to another, for example to apply systems thinking learned in Gamestar Mechanic to a real world system. The Game Alley section of the website, where players publish their games and play-test others’ games, provides many examples however, where players have used Gamestar Mechanic to model real world systems, from political systems to energy systems.
Several teachers provide evidence of otherwise disenfranchised students suddenly becoming quite obsessive and productive when confronted with Gamestar Mechanic, empowered with their knowledge and skill to assist fellow classmates in conquering levels, collecting sprites or building games. The importance of this lesson cannot be overestimated, since it strikes at the heart of the paradigm shift in thinking about learning.
The hope for educational games like Gamestar Mechanic is that they can introduce and reinforce systems-thinking among schoolchildren rather like sprites—by glomming onto the edges of the system and gradually infiltrating the culture. Whether an introduction to systems in Gamestar Mechanic translates to what Ian Bogost calls “the kind of literacy that helps us make or critique the systems we live in” is more difficult to ascertain . But as new learning communities emerge, Gamestar Mechanic increasingly looks like a small shift with potentially far-reaching impact in the giant, complex system that is 21st Century education.
This article is an excerpt from a case study to be published on Instituteofplay.org.Discuss on learning place →