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Many popular video games involve aspects of city planning. Whether nurturing a small village or populating and running a sprawling city, kids can experiment with city planning on a variety of levels, from ensuring available resources to strategically positioning city protection. A fun SimCity science project from Science Buddies helps turn in-game city planning into a science experiment, one students can also use to enter the annual Future City competition.

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Above: A "suburbs" image from a city created in SimCity.

City planning. As a kid, I don't think I gave much thought to city planning, urban design, and civil engineering. I was wowed by whatever local structures, landmarks, or skyscraping architecture I passed by or saw when on vacation, but, growing up in a small town, the intricacies of city planning were not on my radar.


Since then, having lived in and visited cities of all sizes, I have comes to appreciate and marvel especially at the networks of roadways and transportation paths that snake through and around metropolitan cities. Road planning fascinates me. But there is a lot more that goes into city planning than just streets and highways. Civil engineers work on transportation systems, but they also work on energy and water systems and all kinds of buildings and construction projects both for business and residential use.


Video Games and Virtual Cities

SimCity, a computer game devoted to virtual city building, first appeared in 1989. The popularity of the game led to several iterations and versions of the game. You may have missed the height of the SimCity craze back in the 1990s, but video game-based city planning and world building has continued to evolve and reappear as a theme and challenge in lots of games, including computer games, console games, mobile apps, and games integrated in social networks like Facebook.

Clash of Clans village planning and design
Above: In Clash of Clans, a popular mobile game, players design their village (or base) using an in-game editor and positioning elements to best protect their resources.


Whether set on a farm, medieval times, the present day, or in the future, many games rely on creative and strategic world building. Sometimes, games pegged as something else, especially tower-defense games, have a large element of world building. This plays out in different ways, depending on the game.

In some games, you grow a city by buying and upgrading things like housing, farms, mines, and social structures.

Autodesk Digital STEAM Workshop park challenge

Experiment with Planning City Spaces this Summer with Autodesk Online Challenges!

Two creative challenges on the Autodesk Digital STEAM Workshop encourage students to explore elements of city planning using computer-assisted design tools to design city parks. The Shape: Small Park Design challenge invites beginning designers to use Autodesk SketchBook Express to mock up a small city park that fits within a set of design and cost parameters.

The Urban Park challenge offers a more robust activity for intermediate students ready to experiment with a number of tools from Autodesk's software suite. Using Autodesk AutoCAD, Autodesk Maya, Autodesk Revit, and Autodesk Inventor, students work on a park design that will appeal to a wide range of ages, uses recycled materials where possible, does not exceed 3,600 square feet, and falls within a given budget for construction.


Premier Design Tools for Educational Use

Autodesk gives students, educators, and educational institutions free access to professional design software, creativity apps, and real-world projects. For more information, details about educational use, and to download software, visit the Autodesk Education Community.


What Will You Make?

If you are already a user of Autodesk software, we would love to hear from you! If you try one of these park planning Autodesk Digital STEAM Workshop challenges, let us know how it goes!
You may also be responsible for setting the taxes and making other decisions that are integral to how the city grows and functions. In some games, you have to build and upgrade social buildings in proportion to work spaces and residential housing in order to keep the city in balance, the residents happy, and the gold flowing.

In other games, you design a base or village, a lot like a small city, but you don't have to deal with the essentials of survival (food and shelter) or with ensuring the happiness of residents. Designing a sustainable base that is properly defended and laid out in ways that successfully ward off attack from the outside may be a central element of game play, however, equal in importance to conducting raids, gathering more resources (either by harvesting or looting), and making decisions about what to upgrade and how to grow and evolve the base to higher levels.

The pervasive popularity of Minecraft and the countless maps and worlds available for players to visit epitomizes the appeal of world building in the video game space—and highlights keen interest in world building among younger players and students, too. In the open-ended Minecraft game, you can play the game as an explorer of a map created by someone else, maybe a map in which survival is the key, or you can play creatively and build your own world, block by block. (After you finish designing a map, you can make it available for other players to explore.) In survival mode, you need to first build a work bench (so you can get tools) and then build a house so you have somewhere to sleep at night to protect you from the zombies, skeletons, creepers, and spiders. But in creative mode, your imagination is the limit, and using a range of available blocks (including command blocks that can be programmed to do specific things), you can build a house, a town, a city, or a full world.

If you enjoy games that encourage creative in-game design or enjoy rearranging your in-game village over and over again, either for the creative fun of it or in response to things going wrong (losing against attacks, for example), you may want to take the idea to the next level and explore city planning as a career path or experiment with city planning for fun or for your next science fair project.


Making Science Fair Connections

In the To Infinity and Beyond: Plan a City of the Future with Sim City. science project, students use Sim City to design a city for a future population of 50,000 or more people. Designing the city of your dreams may sound like a lot of fun, but students may quickly find out what lots of city officials know—it can be hard to keep everyone happy!

Using tools in the project, students test and evaluate the success of their cities and make changes to better understand how various aspects of city planning work together to create a successful city—one people want to live in!

Part of the Sim City science project involves surveying friends and family to find out what elements they really want and care about in a city. To learn more about setting up and using surveys as part of a science project, see the Designing a Survey and Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need? resources from the Science Buddies Project Guide.


Making Connections

The To Infinity and Beyond project ties in with the annual Future City competition, so spending time with Sim City this summer and translating your ideas about a perfect city into a computer simulation may be the first step into next year's science project or a first step on the way to Future City.


Motorola Solutions Foundation, a sponsor of the Future City competition,
is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.




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What variables make a game popular with players, and do boys and girls choose different types of games? Design a survey-based science project this summer and do some statistical analysis of the data you gather. Your results might be eye opening and informative in terms of game design, the gaming industry, and what works and what doesn't depending on the audience.

Boys and girls and video games / Student science project



There are only three girls, as far as I know, in the clan in one of my current favorite games. With a staggering more than seventy-five thousand clans floating around in the game, and hundreds of thousands of players around the world, clan members come and go. A few other self-identified female players have pitstopped in our clan before moving on, but three of us have been clan members for a long time and seem to be staying—three out of a clan that typically weighs in right around the max of fifty players.

That simple statistic—3 out of 50—seems revealing. It seems to support gender stereotypes about who plays video games. But there are other variables to consider. Age and location, for example, throw a possible wrench into the picture. Our clan is global. Twenty-four hours a day there are people in our clan online from all around the world, and there are players of all ages, a strong mix, in fact, of adults, teens, and even younger players. How old might you guess the three girls are? Where do they live? Do age and location have anything to do with which games boys and girls play?

Minecraft skin

Who is the Hero?

In a game like Angry Birds, the gamer remains off screen. You pull the slingshot, but your identity is not part of the game. What matters is what happens between the birds and pigs in response to your aim and launch. In games where players appear on screen as a visible protagonist, choosing between available characters—or enabling customization of one's avatar—is a common game element. Minecraft players, for examples, create and change "skins" to control the appearance of their character (like the one shown above).

In story-based games, however, players often take on the role of a predetermined main character, a protagonist who appears in video cutscenes as well as in game play. Some story-based games offer a choice of playable characters, but many do not. Does the gender of the playable character make a difference in terms of who buys and plays a game?

Discussion and speculation surrounding previews of new Zelda, Halo, and Assasin's Creed titles suggest that the gender of playable characters is, indeed, a big deal for many gamers.

Conducting survey-based science research projects like Do Males and Females Play the Same Types of Games? and Gamers: Myth or Man? can help you better analyze today's gaming scene and make some predictions about the future of game development and design.


Survey Says

To learn more about setting up and using surveys as part of a science project, see the Designing a Survey and Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need? resources from the Science Buddies Project Guide.

To view more science project ideas like the ones discussed here, see the Video and Computer Game section at Science Buddies.

In other games I play, the balance of male to female players appears more equal or, in some cases, maybe tilted to the "more girls" side. Who plays Words with Friends? Who plays Candy Crush? Who plays Hay Day or Farmville? Who plays Infinity Blade? Who plays Final Fantasy or Elder Scrolls? Who plays Temple Run or Subway Surfer? Who plays Minecraft or Wizard 101? Who plays Pokémon, Zelda, Uncharted, or Assasin's Creed?

Or maybe we need to step back and ask, what kinds of games are those listed above—and does that have anything to do with who plays them?


Games, Games, Everywhere

As an adult gamer, "who plays games" and "what games do they play" is an interesting social puzzle. As a parent of kids who also play video games, I find the gender dynamics fascinating. After all, kids today are kids growing up in an age saturated with video games, mobile apps, social media, and an always-on, always-connected, pervasive tech-based lifestyle and social reality.

I often ask my teen "do any of the girls you know play video games?" While most of the boys he knows do play video games, Minecraft, Terraria, and phone-based games like Clash of Clans topping the list in current popularity, his sense is that most of the girls do not. The ones that do appear to be on the fringe.

It can't be that clear cut. Or can it?

Is it really true that video gamers are still, by and large, male? Or is that stereotype outdated, wrong, and a real misreading of today's gaming scene? What does the type (or genre) of game have to do with the numbers of males and females who play? What trends can be found in different age groups, and how do those age groups compare to one another when you look at gender demographics?

These are great questions for a gamer to ask, and a clever gamer can turn questions like these into a really cool science project that does a study of human behavior, social trends, and the video gaming industry—and opens up opportunities for doing some impressive statistical analysis of the results.


Surveying the Gaming Scene

The Do Males and Females Play the Same Types of Games? science project offers a framework for designing and conducting a survey of gamers to see if girls and boys differ in the genre of games they choose.

With summer break here, you could do a social-media or text-based campaign to get friends (and their friends) involved in answering your survey. (While the project outlines a traditional paper-based survey, you might want to set up an electronic survey instead and run it through your social streams to cast a really broad net for responders. The more people who take the survey, the more data you have to help support your findings!)

Before you get started, be sure and really look at the games that are on top of the charts today. (Make sure you keep a list of your sources and the dates since top game lists change frequently.) What categories or genres of games do you want to ask about? The list of genres and example games in the project helps get you started, but you will want to spend time editing and adding to the list to make it really fit today's gaming scene. You might also want to create additional categories to study different platforms and the subcategories of games that appear on each platform. You may find that you want to ask about genres (as the project shows) but that you also want to ask about a bunch of specific games, since some games cross genre boundaries or defy easy classification.

There are lots of ways to customize and personalize a study like this, but summer is a great time to get started. You may be surprised at what you learn about gaming, gender, game genres, platforms and devices, and how people of different ages approach gaming. With a bit of data crunching down the road, you could crank out a large portion of next year's science fair project without leaving the couch this summer. (If you are thinking that far ahead, it might not hurt to drop your teacher an email first and let her know you are tackling a summer science survey that you hope to turn into your science fair project.)

We do advocate leaving the couch, but this kind of study makes it easy to combine something you love with something that can really shine a light on social trends. Not only can a project like this give you better insight into gaming and the personality and profile of gamers, but this kind of data is also critical for aspiring video game designers and developers. The more you understand people who play games, the better you can develop successful games that attract thousands and thousands of players and fans. (For a related science project that compares gamer stereotypes to real gamers, see Gamers: Myth or Man?.)

We would love to see the survey you create and hear about your experience with the project!



Note: assumptions above about the number of boys vs. girls in games the author plays are based on guessing from user names or avatar photos or based on things said during in-game conversations. Many players do use ambiguous names or adopt a different identity during game play.

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Video and Computer Game Pixel Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a video and computer games project and family activity that lets you investigate how the number of pixels used to create a video game object determines how it will look in the game. If you compare older games to new ones, you probably see a big difference in how the characters look today. Which look better? Do you know why? The number of pixels used in creating the images has a lot to do with the differences you see. In this family science activity, you can get create your own video game characters and experiment to see how much detail an image has (and how it looks) at 8 pixels, 16, 32, or even more. What happens as you increase the pixels? Put it to the test with your own graph-paper drawings!

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A move is on in the worlds of tech and education, a push to show students that learning to code is important, fun, and maybe not as hard as they think! Exploring code is easier today than ever, and even students who may not be thinking yet about career paths stand to gain valuable thinking and reasoning skills from learning, practicing, and using fundamental programming skills.


Getting Started with Scratch
Interested in exploring what is means to create a computer program? Scratch makes it easy to get started. See our review of Super Scratch Programming Adventure! in "Super Scratch Succeeds in Scratching the Surface of Code with Cartoon Fun."


Thinking Like a Coder

According to Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, kids gain valuable skills from learning to "write" with new technologies rather than just use (or "read") them. They learn more than nuts and bolts, variables and logic, says Resnick. They are "learning about the process of design—how to start with the glimmer of an idea and turn it into a fully fledged, functioning project." This ability to take an idea and set up the steps necessary to make it work, block by block or line by line, testing and troubleshooting along the way, is important in all engineering design projects, including computer science projects. Through coding projects, students also learn how to take complex ideas and simplify them, breaking them down into smaller parts that can be tackled, one by one, as a whole is being built.

Mitch Resnick TEDx talk / Scratch/ Learning to Code

"How is it that young people spend most of their time using new technologies? There's no doubt that young people are very comfortable and familiar browsing, chatting and texting, and gaming. But that doesn't really make you fluent." ~Mitch Resnick, creator of Scratch

Blip. Beep. Left turn. Pen down. Move forward ten steps. Repeat if x is true and then turn ninety degrees and move twenty-five steps forward. Blip. Beep.

You want your sprite to use a pink marker?

No problem.

Prefer a quacking duck sound instead of a beep?

Sure thing.

Rather draw triangles instead of squares?

Change the angles.

You want to keep score?

Absolutely!

When you know how to tweak the code, you are at the helm of the program and, with a bit of trial and error, a dash of creativity, and a splash of innovation, you can build a program to do exactly what you want it to do, whether that means creating a video game, making an animated flip-book story, exploring fractals, making a digital animal dance to songs on your favorite playlist, or sending a "just because" interactive postcard to a friend.

As more and more kinds of technology and devices become a part of our daily lives, knowing how to code threatens to become a marker of the haves and have nots—those who "have" the ability to code and those who do not.

Luckily, learning to code is easier today than ever before. There are plenty of tools and a wide range of challenges designed to spark interest. But are students getting the encouragement they need to shift them from play to program mode? What is at stake if today's youth continue to take in more and more technology, passively absorbing new games, features, and apps, but never explore what makes those games, features, and apps work?


Teaching Kids to Write (Code)

In his "Let's Teach Kids to Code" TEDx talk last November (2012), Mitch Resnick, developer of Scratch (a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab), talked about the critical importance of teaching kids to code. By virtue of kids who had used the Scratch programming environment to build apps with a Mother's Day theme, Resnick forwarded on a tribute to his own mom, saying "Look Mom... look what I did... what I enabled" as a way of acknowledging her on Mother's Day.

Further fueling the growing teach kids to program fire, Code.org released a video titled "What most schools don't teach" earlier this year. The video features heavy hitters in the world of code, including Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Drew Houston (Dropbox), Vanessa Hurst (Developers for Good), and others, joined by pop culture icons like will.i.am (Black Eyed Peas) and NBA star Chris Bosch (Miami Heat), all talking about the importance of learning to code. Though primarily a talking-head video, the five-minute short is engaging, fast-moving, speaks directly to kids, and stresses, with plenty of big smiles, that coding is fun, easy, and at the heart of (or underneath) pretty much everything in today's increasingly high-tech world. Throw in the words "free food" and shots of hip working environments, complete with hip employees zipping around on scooters between cubicles, and the video gives programming definite allure, a bit of glamour, and a level of intrigue.

Coding might not be what you think, implies the video.

Coding might not be as hard as you think.

Coding might be fun.

Coding might be worth... a look.

Coding might be... for you.

A look at the "quotes" page of Code.org shows dozens of other thought leaders and educators chiming in with similar encouragement and advice for kids interested in computers and programming. Whether they come at the issue from personal history, concern for the future, or hope that more students will pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers that involve computers, the message coalesces into a unified mantra: code is cool, and students need more opportunities and support to learn to program.


Demystifying Code

"Addition, subtraction... that's probably about it," says Gates. Tony Hsieh (Zappos) follows with, "You should probably know your multiplication tables." The message: it isn't as hard as you think.

"It started off because I wanted to do this one thing. I wanted to make something that was fun for myself and my sisters," says Zuckerberg. The message: don't get overwhelmed by thinking of programming as a whole. Think of making just one thing happen on the screen—and go from there.

"Whether you are trying to make a lot of money or whether you just want to change the world, computer programming is an incredibly empowering skill to learn," says Hadi Partovi, founder of Code.org.

Tic-tac-toe. A favorite color quiz. Making a green circle show up on a red square. The classic, "Hello, world." These are some of the coding projects the people in the video remember as their first, the "a ha" or "wow" moment when they realized they could enter a simple string of commands and cause something specific to happen on the screen. With code, they could control what happened on the screen. In each case, the starting project was simple and accomplished something trivial, easy, or purely whimsical.

That is where you begin, at the beginning.


Tech Users and Tech Creators

We know that kids are growing up as tech-savvy users and consumers, devices in hand, thumbs at the ready, and hooked into a spider web of social networks. Yes, kids are tech users. But what Resnick and others are pushing is the move from user to creator, from player to developer, from passive to active, from consumer to builder.

When it comes to technology, Resnick likens the current student landscape to one of being able to read but not write.

Young people have "lots of experience with interacting with new technologies, but less so with creating with new technologies and expressing themselves with new technologies. It's almost as if they can read but not write with new technologies," said Resnick in his TEDx talk.


Code Literacy

How do parents and educators help students flip the switch and support students making the move from player to creator? Understanding what's available is an important part of the equation. While programmers a generation ago may have cut their teeth with typing in lines of code to generate "Hello, world" on the screen, today's young coder may never even see a "Hello, world" example.

Many of today's coders are learning to code within a graphical user interface (GUI) that masks the code behind a colorful, friendly, often block-oriented and drag-and-drop environment. Many of these environments and languages are inspired by Scratch, and with these tools, designing a program can be as easy as moving blocks around on a screen like puzzle pieces, locking them into place in units, wrapping sections in other sections, setting values for variables and controls within the blocks, and creating logical relationships and steps to "run" the program all from a top-level view. The message: You don't have to "write" the code, just put all the blocks in place in the right order.

What next?

Press the "go" button, green flag, "run," or "start," and see what happens.


Doesn't work right away?

Try and pinpoint what isn't working, and then look at the blocks to figure out what may be missing or misconfigured. What else do you need to tell the program so that the behavior matches what you had in mind?


Debugging in a visual environment is much less about spotting a missing semicolon or a typo than it once was. An error on line 935? Maybe, but the budding programmer won't necessarily see that. In block-based building environments, student coders won't scan thousands of lines of code to locate and tweak a problem. Instead, a student coder faced with a program that is not working focuses on thinking through the logic of the program. What isn't working and why? What can I do about it? Which block isn't working? The environment helps make sure pesky typo-oriented bugs are kept out of the way so coders can focus on the functionality—the fun stuff.

Making changes can be as unfettered as dragging in a new block or changing the value of a variable on an existing block and then "running" the program again. With today's environments, the iterative loop for testing and development is streamlined and pretty unintimidating, which may lower the bar for getting kids interested in giving programming a try. Results are immediate. You can stop and run through the program or game at any time to see how things are going. And, maybe, little successes spur students on to add other levels and layers of embellishment, interactivity, and functionality.

Step by step, block by block, small programs can morph into bigger ones.


Coding Science Projects

Whether you or your student wants to explore programming or video game design for fun or as the basis of a science fair project, Science Buddies has plenty of resources and Project Ideas to help guide a hands-on, independent at-home activity or to serve as the foundation for a school project.

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The sample Scratch application shown in the screenshot above uses a math equation to tell the cat sprite to walk in a circle. This sample program was created by Jurand Nogiec, a volunteer from Motorola Solutions, Inc.

Block by Block

Scratch is based on Logo, a block programming language developed at MIT in the 1960s by Seymour Papert and others. Today, there are many environments based on Logo and/or inspired by Scratch, including Tynker, a new web-based environment that aims to support student programming.

Figuring out where to start may be half the challenge! The Web? Mobile apps? Video games? Computer apps? JavaScript? HTML 5? Sampling some of the possible avenues may be in order as you consider where to focus your energies, but in many cases, the kinds of logic and thinking you will use when working with one program or language will carry over and be useful as you try another program or language. Sampling won't hurt you!

The following Science Buddies Project Ideas involve Scratch, GameMaker, or JavaScript, a few of the ways students can get started learning more about programming:

In addition to the projects above, see the following Science Buddies resources and user guides for students interested in computer programming, app development, and video game design:

For additional suggestions, click the "Learn" tab on the Code.org site for a list of apps, tools, and languages, including apps designed to help students explore coding for mobile platforms like iOS and Android. GameSalad is a popular coding environment for iOS development (for coders age 13 and older). Others to explore include App Inventor (for Android) and Codea (an iPad app for iOS development). For younger developers, Hopscotch is an iPad app that lets kids age 8-12 create short animations and games.


If you experiment with Scratch, GameMaker, or JavaScript using a Science Buddies Project Idea, we want to hear how it goes and see your game or screenshots of your work! To share with us, email blog@sciencebuddies.org. We would love to spotlight your work here at Science Buddies!


(Note: not all of the programs and apps mentioned in this article are free. Demo downloads or limited-play installs may be available; prices vary. Scratch and GameMaker Lite, both of which are used in Science Buddies Project Ideas, are free. Scratch 2.0 is now an online environment; Science Buddies materials were written for Scratch 1.4. The downloadable 1.4 version is still available, but you can use Scratch 2.0 with the Project Ideas as well.)


Science Buddies Project Ideas in computer science are sponsored by Symantec Corporation.

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The National STEM video game competition supports the potential of video game design as a tool for STEM education and rewards and encourages the learning process for emerging student video game developers. Science Buddies' video game design resources can help students get started on a path of game design and development that transforms a love of video game playing into an innovative process of game creation. What kind of video game will you build?

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Click the image above to view video samples from winners of last year's National STEM Video Game Challenge.

The 2013 National STEM Video Game Challenge is on! Video game designers in middle and high school are invited to create a STEM-centered video game that shows off their video game design skills through the creation of an engaging game. The game can be educational in theme. Your game might revolve around a science concept or require the use of math to succeed, but games for the STEM Video Game Challenge to do not have to be educational. Building the game, in and of itself, is educational and is one way of putting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) into action and into real-world scenarios.

Players can create entries using their choice of a range of game design applications, including popular free tools and sites like Gamestar Mechanic, Scratch, GameMaker, and Kodu. Each of those tools is a separate entry category, and prizes are awarded for middle and high school winners in each category. Students who are game building using other tools or program languages submit their games in the "Open Platform" category.

The deadline for entries is April 24, 2013, which means you still have plenty of time to whip up your own awesome video game project and show your stuff. Whether it is your very first attempt at video game creation or the next in an impressive string of epic games you've been tweaking, playtesting, and sharing with your friends, take a step toward the public light and put your game out there! There are great prizes up for grabs along with plenty of gamer bragging rights for the winning student video game developers.


Getting Started

If you are interested in the STEM Video Game Challenge but are not sure how to get started with your first game, the following resources and Project Ideas at Science Buddies walk you through some basics, open your eyes to what is possible, and may help get you started on an exciting path of video game and computer innovation! Many aspiring game designers first make the leap from playing to creating by solving crossover challenges at Gamestar Mechanic and then building their own Gamestar Mechanic games. Scratch can also be a great first step for students interested in video game design and/or computer programming. GameMaker offers a different environment and may be a next step in a game coder's evolution.

Scratch tutorials / screenshot
Working through game design tutorials and hands-on projects lets you dive in and get started! Above: a Scratch tutorial being explored and tweaked. As you customize a sample, you become more familiar with how blocks and commands are used.

If the National STEM Video Game Challenge is your goal, the following resources may be helpful as tutorials rather than projects, but as you read through the materials, be sure and load up your game design environment and try some of these ideas hands-on. The best way to learn to make a video game is to make one, and the best way to refine and advance your know-how is to continue to try new things and add to your video game design toolbox. The more you know about how things work in a video game, why they work, and what makes a great game, the stronger your own games may be, so give these projects and resources a look:


If you enter the National STEM Video Challenge, we want to know! Please leave a comment or email blog@sciencebuddies.org to tell us about your game. We would love to feature your work here at Science Buddies, too!

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Rising sixth-grade student weighs in on the first week of Gamestar Mechanic's summer video game design camp. The first week was all about platformers. Do you know what it takes to make a top-notch platformer like Super Mario or Donkey Kong?


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Unit 1 of the Gamestar Mechanic Summer Program focused on platformer games. Students were presented with an engaging set of challenges and materials within a special section of the Gamestar Mechanic environment (screenshot above shows a portion of Unit 1's interface). The program from E-Line Media offers an immersive summer game design experience, one that may parlay into further school-year science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) exploration based on video game design projects—or even participation in competitions like the National STEM Video Game Challenge.

Related posts and resources at Science Buddies:

Gamestar Mechanic's online summer video game design program is underway! Geared specifically for students ages 10-14, the virtual summer "camp" gives students who love video games, or who have already begun exploring video game design, a chance to level up their knowledge of video game history, major game styles, and core design elements. As they work through four weekly units and tackle various activities, assignments, and challenges, participants will get plenty of fun and focused hands-on game design practice. Budding game designers will also benefit from feedback from other student designers, their instructor, and, in the end, an industry pro.

On paper, a camp that involves four weeks of making and playingvideo games sounds like a great opportunity for the student video game enthusiast. Not only does the student get to spend a month playing games and tackling video game design challenges, but the course is flexible in timing and can be worked in and around other summer activities and programs. What's it like from the student perspective?


One Designer's Experience

Science Buddies is taking a hands-on, behind-the-scenes look at the Gamestar Mechanic Summer Program by peeking over the shoulder of Matthew, a student designer taking the course. Soon to be a middle school student, Matthew particularly enjoys math and science, reads manga, plays soccer, is a visual artist, and has a deep affinity for video games, especially one for iOS, Nintendo DS, Wii, and Facebook. Before he could read, he was telling people he wanted to be a video game designer.

In past summer experiences, Matthew has used Stagecast Creator and Multimedia Fusion. After learning about Gamestar Mechanic from Science Buddies, he worked through the quests there. He also recently explored Yoyo's GameMaker. This summer's Gamestar Mechanic program is a next step in the exploration of video game design for Matthew. He's already a fan of the Gamestar Mechanic platform, so at the outset of Week 1, he was excited about the course and hoping to both learn more, encounter some new challenges. In short, he's looking at this summer camp experience as a way to level up!


Unit 1: The Platformer

The first week of the course focuses on platformer games. Whether they know the terminology or not, most gamers are probably familiar with games in this genre. Classic games like Donkey Kong, Mario, and even early Sonic all exemplify the platformer format.

The first week's course materials kick off with an excellent and engaging video in which a headset-wearing guide walks users through the key elements of a platformer game. From perspective to gravity, students get a video-based crash course in what really "matters" in this genre—and a look at plenty of examples of games that demonstrate these key elements. Did you know that being able to "jump" is particularly important in a platformer? Couple that fact with the importance of perspective, and you've got the foundation for a game. "Jumping is what makes a platformer a platformer," says Matthew. "If your character can't jump, you'd have a top-down," he explains.

Being a veteran at Gamestar Mechanic, Matthew was familiar with much of the material for week one, but the videos, game samples, and challenges helped review and reinforce key concepts. Differentiating between the platformer and another core style, he continues, "In a top-down game, bird's-eye view, you can't jump, and you don't change gravity. But in a platformer, you can control gravity." Gravity makes a huge difference in game play, says Matthew. "Set it to six, and you feel like you have a 1,000 pound boulder on your back."

In addition to perspective and gravity, students learned about various jumps that can be used to navigate the spatial elements of a platformer. "I learned what all the jumps are called—hook, horizontal, and vertical—and how to use them to their highest potential inside of my games." He says that the examples helped him think about the importance of using the various jumps effectively.

After completing his first game assignment, a platformer, he moved on to one of the extra-credit challenges for the first week—design a re-make of a retro classic platformer. "That was really cool," says Matthew, who admits to searching for his old copy of Super Mario for the Gameboy to relive the fun after watching the Super Mario video in the course. "That assignment was cool because you were able to see you can make games like Sonic using Gamestar Mechanic," he says. "Sometimes, you can even make them better!"

When asked about the importance of a young designer going back and looking at a timeline of video games, Matthew notes that he hadn't heard of all the games he learned about in the first week of camp. Games that are familiar and nostalgic for older gamers are sometimes games younger games don't know at all. The course's careful attention to the history of design and gaming upon which tomorrow's games will build is a cool stepping stone for the participants and helps connect what they are learning to the video gaming industry at large.


Moving Ahead

Matthew is now working on Unit 2—the Action Game. Stay tuned as we check in with him next week to see how it's going.


Sign-ups are now open for the next sessions of the Gamestar Mechanic Online Learning Program, with six-week sessions beginning September 10, 2012.

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A new online video game design program from the makers of Gamestar Mechanic offers video game enthusiasts the chance to move from player to designer—with the help of industry pros.


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"Whether you're a beginning game designer or have some prior experience, the key way to 'level up' is to keep making games and getting feedback on your work."
~ Brian Alspach, E-Line Media

Virtual "Summer Camp" for Student Video Game Designers

A new four-week summer program for students combines the power and fun-factor of Gamestar Mechanic with customized feedback and mentoring from industry professionals. With this new program, E-Line Media, the company behind Gamestar Mechanic, hopes to create a new learning pathway for student video game designers. Game on! (Four-week sessions begin July 2, 2012! Learn more.)


Supporting the Science of Video Game Design

The following Science Buddies resources and Project Ideas help students turn an interest in video game design into a science project:

Xavier / Student Success Story
Students Succeeding with Video Game Design Projects

More and more students, like Xavier (pictured above), are exploring video game design angles in projects for schools, local fairs, and competitions like the National STEM Video Game Challenge and the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Check these two recent success stories:

Are your students enrolled in camps this summer? From camps that triangulate art, science, and physical play to create a multi-faceted day-to-day experience to specialized camps that offer the ability to focus on a particular subject, hobby, or skill over an extended set of days, summer camps invite exploration through hands-on projects and activities. While lanyard-making still makes an appearance at some camps, the "meat" of many camps lies in their ability to enable an immersive subject- or theme-oriented experience that lets students explore new fields or dive further into areas of high interest.

Offering an à la carte approach to summer, camps have cropped up en masse in recent years to intersect with a wide range of student interests, including LEGO, robotics, science, art, music, cooking, and even skateboarding. In short, if your student has a particular interest or passion, there is likely a camp—even for video game design and programming.


Virtual Summer Camp

E-Line Media, the company behind Gamestar Mechanic, a popular online video game design environment, is giving summer camp a virtual boost with the introduction of a new four-week, online video game design program. Created for students ages 10-14, the flexible program combines the appeal of the Gamestar Mechanic interface as a fun, engaging, and easy-to-learn entry point for kids interested in gaming or game design with the expertise of professional video game designers who will work with and mentor the young game makers. Through a series of exercises and challenges, students will, over the course of the four-week program, further their own design portfolio as they explore and create platform games, adventure games, and action games. The program culminates with each student's creation of a final project, a game that showcases the student's growing skills as a video game designer.


The Story Behind the Virtual Summer Program

Science Buddies caught up with Brian Alspach, Executive Vice President and General Manager for E-Line, to find out more about the summer program.

Q: Gamestar Mechanic does a great job, year-round, of introducing students to fundamental video game design concepts—and hooking them on making their own games. What was the inspiration behind creating a more "class-like" virtual summer program extension and experience?

A: We see lots of young people with an interest in making games. For some, that interest is just beginning, and we think Gamestar Mechanic and the self-moderated learning experience you can have there can help a student with a burgeoning interest get started on a learning pathway in game design. But we do see it as only the start of a pathway, and for kids who want explore that interest more deeply, we want to build out the entire ecosystem around game design. That includes deeper learning experiences like the online summer program.


Q: The summer course is designed with students ages 10-14 in mind. How flexible, or extensible, is the learning opportunity in terms of skill level? Will the course scale and provide both challenge and room to grow for someone who has been building games for a while using Gamestar Mechanic? Or is the course primarily for the beginning game designer?

A: Whether you're a beginning game designer or have some prior experience, the key way to 'level up' is to keep making games and getting feedback on your work. One of the unique things that the summer program offers is an opportunity to do this in a highly scaffolded environment with instructors and game industry pros who are dedicated to working with the young designers and giving them that kind of feedback. It creates a unique opportunity for growth and self-expression around the areas that the aspiring young designer is interested in.


Q: Does the course use Gamestar Mechanic as the sole development environment?

A: It does. At this stage of the online learning, we're trying to keep the focus on game design, both because it's the area where we have the most experience but also because the skills that make someone a good designer tend to be underrepresented in approaches that, say, have kids jump into the technical side of game creation right away. Over time, we'll be expanding our online learning program to include courses that focus on other topics and disciplines within game design—programming, art creation, other game genres, etc..—so this course will serve as a nice entry point to set kids up for those future experiences, too.


Q: By approaching video game design as a 'game,' Gamestar Mechanic makes it easy—and fun—for 'players' to get started with game design. To what degree do you feel the environment prepares students to jump to the next level in game design (e.g., more object-oriented design and programming)?

A: I think approaching it as a game is a great way to build motivation, keep kids engaged, and create opportunities to learn from examples, especially at an early stage. But it really is an entry point to a learning pathway of increasing flexibility in game making, more technical skill being required. If you don't have a solid grounding in design concepts and skills, it's easy to lose your way. These online courses are one way we're approach building out that pathway, and I think this first one in the summer program provides a good starting point.


Q: Based on how the course is structured, what will a typical student exit with in terms of a portfolio of games she has designed?

A: There is a mixture of optional and required game making projects in the course, so students can exit with a portfolio of something like a dozen games by the time they complete the course, with a combination of instructor, pro-designer and peer feedback on all of them.


Q: Pairing aspiring game designers with industry experts is an exciting aspect of the program. How will this component work? Who will the students be working with, and what kinds of interaction can they expect?

A: We think it's a really transformational thing. The kids will have personal instructors, who are educators and students of game design, who will provide coaching and feedback throughout the course. In addition, a subset of their game design assignments will be reviewed by 'game pros'—real folks working in the game industry as designers, producers, artists, etc.... We've got a really neat format where the pros playtest the students' games and video capture their play along with a PIP window with them giving their feedback. The kids get to see a pro react to their game in real time and get suggestions on how to improve it.


Q: What is most exciting to you about this new summer program?

A: For me, the opportunity to connect kids with mentorship and coaching from the instructors and pros is really compelling. If you're a kid with an interest in, say, sports or music, there are tons of support structures you can draw on to help you along the way. That doesn't exist for the most part if your interest is in making games, so we're excited to be taking our first steps to help create some of them.

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