computer games in my class

Here’s an update of how I’ve been using computer games and games programming in my class.

In the 2008-2009 session I piloted an S1 enrichment course on games design. Pupils choose in primary seven from three strands: Technologies, Health and Wellbeing or Creative Arts. I got one quarter of the time with the Technologies pupils to show them games design.

We worked with a program called Neverwinter Nights that was generously supplied by LTScotland and the Consolarium. In the May before I’d been lucky enough to go on the training course LTS had set up to kick-start games based learning. I learned a lot about NWN and met lots of great teachers who (at least from the last I’d heard) are doing great things with games. More that that here

Anyway, as pilots go, I think it was a success. One of the champions of games based learning (and NWN in particular) is Judy Robertson who had good things to say about the pilot. The pupils that took the course are now in S3 and some are in my Standard Grade classes and have mentioned NWN several times (usually when I’m trying to get them to do boring SQA-related practical tasks).

I’m not using NWN at present because the following year the game was installed in a room which was subsequently timetabled away from my use when I had S1. We also had less teachers on rotation meaning longer sessions with pupils, so I diversified my input, looking at games, magazine making, radio stations, videos and photo editing. For gaming I used Scratch and worked on basic movement and graphics skills.

This year I’ve not been given any S1 classes on my timetable so no games for them!

As a computing teacher, I’m drawn more to Scratch than any other games programming tool out there. It certainly has significant drawbacks in terms of the graphics that can be used (the resolution of the games is maybe 360 pixels squared or something like that) and due to the fact that there’s no way to do 3D games. I like Scratch despite this because the programming interface is so well designed, and, because I’m teaching programming as well as games design, I like how pupils can’t avoid learning logic and structure.  The lowest level of detail in scratch is that of each sprite. But text and graphic control and manipulation at that level is similar to the text input and output used in SG and Higher coursework.

So the mission with Scratch from here is to develop it as a way to introduce programming, as well as just make games. I’m planning to write units for S3 that show pupils how to use all the concepts they must know for SG Computing in Scratch, and I’m also planning for them to hand in their final coursework programmed in Scratch.

I have mentioned this elsewhere and there is discussion of it in our local authority too. While I understand people would have reservations about ‘dumbing down’ programming, I think that’s missing the point. Programming is not an exercise in falling over mistakes in grammar, spelling and syntax, it’s an exercise in logic, problem solving and analysis. I’d like pupils to be able to achieve up to Credit level in Scratch, and then supply a ‘conversion course’ to let pupils learn a language like TrueBASIC. This means the scratch course can be in no way superficial – pupils must understand exactly what they are doing.

So the plan for Scratch is to use it from primary 6 to S1. We start wit P6 visits and show them how to control a character. Then P7 visits do some imaginative thinking and design characters which they then control, and for those getting ahead, collect objects for points.

In S1 (if it’s available) pupils will learn a set of core game design principles like movement, object collection, points, health, collision detection etc. Then they can chose out of nine game types (platform, top down racing, aiming and shooting, maze etc) to focus on, and could work on three or four over the time they have.

In S2 there would be a portion of the year looking at games design. Those pupils that came to us in S1 would be given a mixture of advanced tasks and mentoring work.

In S3 the examples from S2 will be used to talk about input, output, structures like loops, arrays and so on. These will be assessed for understanding as concepts (I think this is important if looking at a transition to another language later on) and then used to program coursework.

Goodness, that’s a long and not particularly exciting post. But anyway,  I wonder if anyone will spot this and if so, if they can give any thoughts on the use of Scratch. I am of course interested in other uses of games, but, that’s probably enough for now for this post, and certainly will be keeping me busy this year writing new stuff for classes!

Update: now that I’ve bothered reading online again, I see there’s a Making Games in Schools project on the go, hurrah!