Praxis: Designing Games for Good

This last week has been another really big one for me – I think it was for a lot of people! (Aside: Does it seem like there’s not a single term that isn’t intense these days? I feel like I haven’t stopped this term, but it’s all been pretty great, so I can’t really complain.) So, why was it big? I ran the third and final year 7 Praxis project with 19 students throughout the week. You can find about how I have been running Praxis this year by reading my blog post here.

This term’s project was focusing on the disciplines of English, TAS, and Art. You can see the project outline below.

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Monday: Discover

The hook lesson for this project was meant to get students thinking critical about game design. I bought four travel games from Big W (they were $5 each – Twister, My Little Pony, The Game of Life, and Monopoly) and had students play each game in teams of 4 or 5. They had to work out the rules, and objectives of each game and record them in their own words on a piece of paper for the next term to play the game. I gave them about 40 minutes for this task, and then we got back together as a group in our ‘arc’ (just what we called the space we had set up where we would come together to talk during the week) to reflect on the games, and rank them from ‘easiest’ to ‘hardest’ and ‘most fun’ to ‘least fun’.

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After the hook lesson, I gave each team (they had established their teams the week before – in hindsight I should have be more firm with team sizes, as we ended up with one team of two which didn’t end up being the best decision for that pair) a project packet with copies of the project outline for each student. I read through the project with them, briefly discussed it, and then it was time to identify what student knew and needed to know!

Students were given two different coloured post-its (green and blue) and were asked on one colour (blue) to identify everything they knew that would help them with the project (skills, content knowledge, project stuff) and all the questions they needed answers so they could be successful with the project (skills, content knowledge, project stuff). When they had written up at least 5 post-its for each, they stuck them to our big ‘KWHL’ table on the wall. I had two students read through the ‘knows’ and ‘need to knows’ whilst I wrote them up in a Google Doc. With the ‘knows’ if they were very specific skills that could benefit the others in the group, we added their name beside the skill (e.g. Duncan was proficient in four coding languages). With the ‘need to knows’ I gave students 10 minutes to identify HOW they might find the answer to the question – at this stage we spoke briefly about the need to triangulate their information, and to use a range of unusual and unique sources on top of the typical ones (this comes from the BIE creative thinking rubric). By the end of this session students had really great inquiry questions, and had identified some good potential sources. Winning.

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On the weekend before the project I went to Big W and bought 19 cheap plain coloured t-shirts (from $3-6 each) ensuring each team had the same colour. Students were shown a YouTube video on ‘branding’ and then were given the task of designing a team logo, and transferring this logo onto their shirts. They wore these shirts all week (on top of other shirts, and they were only worn during Praxis and left in the room at the end of the day – they didn’t want to be stinky!) and this helped to create that team identity essential for indie game developers, right? This was probably one of my favourite aspects of this project – the kids just loved having their team name, logo, brand etc.

The final session of the day (we were all pretty tired by now, as I’m sure you can imagine) was to watch a few YouTube clips to get them thinking BIG about their games. The first one was looking at the difference between Aesthetics and Graphics – aesthetics became a big focus for the week, because I’m an English teacher and it really interested me, plus it enhanced the Art focus. Interestingly feedback from one of our judges (an indie game developer) was that the kids had maybe focused on aesthetics too much, at the expense of game play – my bad! The second video we watched was Dr Jane McGonigal’s TED talk on games – truly inspiring (don’t we all wanna be Jane when we grow up?), and really helped the students develop their gaming metalanguage, plus their appreciation for how games can contribute to a better society.  We then shifted out focus to narrative, and watched a short clip on the Hero’s Journey– I wanted the students to consider how narrative elements (especially characterisation) could help them develop empathy in their players.

Tuesday: Discover/Create

For the first two periods half of the group went to Unity training, which just happened to be on at the same time as Praxis and it worked really well (yay for happy accidents) as they came back to the group with some great technical knowledge regarding game building. The remaining students continued to focus on the inquiry stage of their project, attempting to get answers to a number of their ‘need to know’ questions. Together we re-watched the Aesthetics vs Graphics video, and came up with a list of features that contribute to a game’s aesthetic. We then watched a video of some Skyrim settings that was accompanied by the in-game music and we discussed how they worked together to establish the world/mood of the game. We did a quick brainstorm of the five elements of narrative (plot, characterisation, settings, theme, and style) and then brainstormed all of the game elements used to communicate these, on top of brainstorming game mechanics they could use.

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Next we put all of our ideas from the morning into practice by playing the online game ‘Scary Girl’. I had one student come up and play the game (which was projected for the others to see) and as he navigated through the game I asked questions like ‘What do you notice about the music?’, ‘How would you describe the protagonist?’, ‘What is the objective of this level?’, ‘How would you describe this game’s aesthetic?’ to get them thinking critically about the game’s design elements. Playing to learn is always fun – and by the end of this period all of the kids were playing Scary Girl on their computers.

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When the other students returned from Praxis we spent some time brainstorming possible ‘problems’ on to which to base their game. Each team had to generate as many problems as they could, thinking of problems at all levels of human experience – local, national, global. We then went around the ‘arc’ getting a representative of each team to share one idea each (no repeats), and continued going around until all ideas were exhausted. This is an effective strategy for getting kids to push for original ideas, as there’s a slight competitive element as each team wants to have the most ideas. You can see the result of their brainstorming below.

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Next up was ‘ideating’ time – one group (our pair) decided to opt out of this activity, as they felt they already had determined their game design and were unwilling to budge from it. I could have argued the point, but I like to support creative vision, so I let them get on with their idea. I felt that they would be missing out on valuable feedback, and thus the opportunity to collaborate with more peers, and ultimately refine their product, but I didn’t want to stifle them too much. The others were asked to come up with five distinct game ideas (they could be all on the one topic, or on a range) in 30 minutes, and then from those five select the three best. Two students from each team then had the job of ‘pitching’ these three ideas to two students from the three other teams (we did this like a jigsaw, where two pairs stayed still, and two revolved around the groups in a clockwise direction) and received ‘warm’ (things we like) and ‘cool’ (suggestions for improvement) feedback which they recorded for their other team members. This activity has potential to be great, but as suggested by one of the students in our post-activity reflection, the students needed a criteria to help shape their feedback and their pitch. What she means is like a checklist, with things like ‘Do you think the game would be fun to play?’ and ‘Would this game make you feel empathy for the protagonist?’ Some students took this activity more seriously than others, so having the extra guidelines would probably help focus them better.

After this activity (and our reflection on it), each team spent some time together selecting their best idea. I’d really like to try out forced ranking for a project like this, but I was too scared this time as it is really new to me and I didn’t feel confident. This is a strategy that would definite end up with better products at the end, I think.

The day ended with me showing the students a game design document template as an example of how they could lay out their websites – each team had to make a website promoting their brand, and showcasing their game design. They busied themselves working on their websites and game design until the end of the day.

Wednesday: Create

(Aside: I’m tired just writing this up, so I’m guessing no-one has read this far, haha – I could probably just start rambling about my favourite Thor movie and you would never know…) Wednesday was a big day for me – I had to teach my year 12 class period 1 (I continued to teach them during the week, running Praxis in all of my free periods), and then I had to leave school at 11.15am to drive to Campbelltown to do some PBL professional learning (um, 1.5hr drive there and back, mental). This meant that I was leaving the Praxis kids in the hands of my colleagues, which is great because I love sharing the experience with other teachers. In the morning the students were given information about what they were required to deliver on Friday – a 5 minute pitch to a panel of expert judges, their website with their game design, and an exhibition of their game including visuals and (where possible) a demo of their game. The rest of the day they divided between working on these three things.

Thursday: Create/Share

With only one day to go, the teams were starting to get a bit nervous about completing all of their work – I had noticed that they were all spending a lot of time at home on the project (thanks Google Drive activity panel for showing me their late, late nights, and early morning work!). I spent about half an hour speaking with them in the arc about game design (again, I was a bit nervous myself that some teams weren’t focusing on all aspects well, especially the game play – something that some never quite perfected) and shared this awesome 7 step guide to game design. Then we looked at some tips on game pitches, with a particular focus on writing an elevator pitch as their opening, because these are super catchy and immediately engage the listener. I found some great online sources for this, but feel it could have been enhanced by an activity where students had to create elevator pitches for silly things and share them with the group, just to really ensure they understood. (Once again, time was my enemy – I just didn’t have enough to ensure everything they did was ‘spit-shined perfect’.) I told the teams they needed to have a practice pitch, including sounds, visual etc, ready by period 4 and I organised one of my Praxis co-teachers to provide them with feedback.

Running a practice pitch was super effective – each team was given 5 minutes (which I displayed via a countdown timer on my laptop for them), and James (my Praxis co-teacher) and I used a criteria/grid sheet to record out notes for each team. At the end we spent about 3 minutes per team going over their strengths and weaknesses, and the teams also asked to have our written notes too. We pointed out aspects of their delivery that needed work (some were more informative than persuasive, some teams laughed throughout their presentation, some relied to heavily on notes, all needed more detail and more energy) and I think this really helped them improve the quality of their pitches significantly.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent setting up the space for the next day’s presentations – it’s important that the students take responsibility/ownership of this task. I also reminded them to bring in food and drinks for refreshments for their guests the next day.

Friday: Share

The morning started with each team working on setting up their exhibition displays – there was lots of running around, printing stuff out, finding scissors and velcro tape etc. Heaps of energy, but focused energy, which is great. They had about an hour to do their displays, which seemed to be enough time as they had (mostly) created all of their resources the day before. After this, I encouraged them all to run through their pitch at least once, but since I was busy running around getting certificates for them and the judging panel, plus printing out the resources that needed colour, I didn’t make this a formal practice, and I should have… it would have improved their overall presentations, and saved me a bit of grief I copped as a result. Anyway, we are only human, and I am endlessly learning from my endless mistakes. Pro tip: get kids to rehearse a lot! One thing we did get right with the presentations was the technology – all kids made sure their tech worked, and was ready to go before their pitches.

So, I had a bit of a competition element for the final event that I stole from a uni lecturer’s blog post about teaching his students elevator pitches. Basically the teams are competing for ‘funding’ for their game from the judges (who were given two yellow business cards with the words ‘Congrats – You’ve been funded!’ on them) and the audience (who were given two blue business cards with the words ‘Congrats – You’ve been funded!’ on them). The judge cards were worth five times the money of the audience cards. The teams knew their objective was to get the most money overall.

One all of our guests had arrived (judges sitting at the judging panel, with their note taking sheets, and glasses of water, parents and grandparents, plus invited year 7 students all sitting in the audience) it was time for the show. I was pretty nervous just introducing the project because there were a lot of people in the room, including my principal, teachers from Maitland HS and Narrabeen Sports HS, the five invited guest judges (Dr Jane Hunter, Pete Mahony, Brett Rolfe and Paul Sztajer) and all those parents and grandparents! Imagine how those year 7 students felt! I was super impressed with how well they all delivered their pitches – yes, always room for refinement, but boy were their ideas amazing. You can see some of their ideas in the images below, plus you can check out their websites. Disclaimer: I didn’t get to check out their websites, so they might have horrible grammatical errors – forgive us.

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Following their 5 minute pitches, everyone was invited to visit the teams’ exhibitions and ask as many questions as they have about their game designs. This was a new addition for the Praxis model I’ve been running this year because I felt that some students’ knowledge and ideas wasn’t being showcased 100% through the presentations only. It was great to have so many people from the audience – including the judges – tell me personally how impressed they were with the depth of the students’ knowledge about their games, as well as their passion for their chosen ‘problem’. Stoked.

The final stage for the ‘sharing’ was the feedback from the judges. I made one student from each team stand out the front, with their team’s ‘box’ in front of them, and then the judges each gave general feedback to the whole group, and then revealed which team they were ‘funding’ and put their business cards in the corresponding box. I know this seems like it’s weirdly competitive, but it’s all part of the industry, it’s cut-throat, the kids know it, and were prepared for the reality. It was also heaps of fun – the kids were SO engaged, and worked hard to get the cash. After all of the feedback, we thanked our guests with cards and chocolate, and then I congratulated the Praxis kids for being awesome by giving them certificates. It was cool.

After everyone had left, we sat down as a group and added up their ‘cash’ – it was nice to there were separate teams that won the judge vote and the popular vote, and that the votes were pretty close for all of the teams. Everyone was happy – and (despite being massively exhausted from a huge week) we all cleaned up the space, and then played some games together, not video games, party games like Mafia, If you love me, and Murder Winks, haha. So.. yeah, Praxis was awesome, I learnt a lot, and I’m really looking forward to the new iteration of Praxis being implemented for all year 7 students in 2017.

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2 thoughts on “Praxis: Designing Games for Good

  1. I loved the depth of reflection that you have provided in this post Bianca. And yes, I did get to the end. As I was read the little voice inside my head said that this is a breakout group and could not be scaled. Then you closed with the statement how ALL Year 7 students are getting involved next year. I am really interested in whether there is anything that you will need to change in taking it this next step?

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