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From Storyboard to Computer Design

For today's students, the leap from playing video games to programming video games isn't necessarily a big one. Even elementary school students who enjoy filling some down-time with a favorite game can begin exploring the logic and sequencing involved in designing a video game.

Before sitting down at a computer, encourage your students to work on mapping out a storyboard as they think through the premise (or plot) of their game. Who are the main characters? What is the goal? What kinds of problems will be encountered? What skills do you need to win?

Answering these questions is an important first step and gives the game designer a chance to think about the concept of game levels or stages and the need to develop traps, challenges, and objectives for each level -- as well as the need to build in ways for main characters to successfully handle each situation. This stage in the development also encourages solid grounding in "process-oriented thinking." It's easy to envision A, D, and Z, but what steps happen in between? If a storyboard for a video game ends up looking like a massive flow-chart filled with conditional if-then statements (if this happens, then this will happen), chances are they are on the right path - and they are demonstrating the kinds of detail-oriented and conditions-based thinking necessary for computer programming.

Storyboarding gets the ball rolling, but the magic lies in working with software that enables the designer to begin bringing the story (and the game) to life.

As a parent or teacher watching a student's first steps in game design, it can be eye-opening to see the cycle of development as it unfolds. Having grown up with first-wave Atari systems and having spent time learning to program on a Commodore 64 system in my own pre-teen days, my history with video games is one steeped in games like Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Asteroids, Centipede, and other "vintage" games.

When I saw the game my 8-year-old designed as part of a week-long LEGO camp this summer, I was amazed to see familiar principles from those early games peeking through, as well as features and concepts he's absorbed from games he's played on the LEGO site (e.g. JunkBot and WorldBuilders) and from his own experience with hand-held games.

With computers already an established part of the routine for many students and in many classrooms and learning environments, working with video game programming software can be viewed as an extension of computer literacy efforts and can increase a student's familiarity with technology as well as result in a project (and product) that she enjoys, is invested in, and is proud of. When it comes to introducing students to computers, there is room to do more than simply have them cut and paste digital stickers or use a "paint bucket" in a graphics program or learn to type a report in word processing software. For some, the grasp of digital storytelling and the programming that lies beneath it is innate, and with GUI-based game design software like Scratch from MIT, there's ample room for students to experiment.

For those interested in programming but not in gaming, working with LEGO Mindstorms can provide introductory grounding in principles of programming, circuitry, timing, and robotics. Maybe your class will end up with a small bot that can help clean pencils up from the tables and floors!

The following Science Buddies Project Ideas can get you and your students started:

If you have high-school-aged girls interested in computer programming, video game design, digital design, or another computer-related field, be sure and check out the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing. National winners will receive a $500 cash award, a laptop, and a trip to the awards ceremony.

The application period runs from September 15 to November 1, 2009. For more information on the award or the NCWIT, please visit: www.ncwit.org.

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