What is it?
I've been using the Gamestar Mechanic platform for years now. Gamestar Mechanic, or GSM, is a web-based program that teaches the basics of video game design. The program is free to use; however, you can pay for a premium membership and gain access to extra content. In the years that I have been using this for my early morning program, I have only used the free edition. Below is the link to a flyer and a video from the GSM website that gives you a peek into what it's all about.
Where to begin?
To start, students are encouraged to complete the quest. The quest walks them through how to play GSM and how to make a well-balanced game. It guides them through the common pitfalls of game creation and shows them how to avoid making games that no one will want to play. When people first join they start without a "Publishing License" and only a couple of sprites to use. Basically, they can make a game but it is only limited to a couple of different blocks to use plus one good guy and one bad guy. Furthermore, the game will be unpublishable. So no one will be able to play it. As students progress through the quest they will unlock dozens of new characters and sprites to use in their games. This adds much-needed variety to their creations. Finally, when the quest is complete they will unlock a publishing license that allows them to create games then publish them for the world to play. The overall point of GSM is as follows:
- make games (Create)
- share them with the world (Publish)
- get feedback from peers (Critique)
- iterate the game. (Modify)
- share again (Re-Publish)
Following the quest, I encourage students to progress through the challenges and contests which can be found close to the bottom of their workshop. By completing these they gain access to several very important characters and sprites that are not given out in the quest. A platforming shooter called the league hero is a must have for all creators. Also, the damage block is another sprite that everyone seems to enjoy. This is given out as a reward in the damage block challenge. The block is used to create some very challenging games. There are several other challenges that are only open during certain times of the year. These tend to be put at the top of the priority list when students finish the quest as well. Once the challenge "times out" they will be forced to wait almost a full year to gain access to them. The rewards in these challenges are usually very good.
Once students complete the quest and get a few challenges under their belt I start to push the creation process. They should start by browsing the "game alley' and testing some other mechanic's games. This is usually used to spark some ideas and get the creative juices flowing. Unfortunately, the game alley can be a trap sometimes. There are always a few students from the class that will try and "live" here during the course. I always have to limit the time spent in the game alley. As much as I would like to just cut the game alley out, it is an integral part of Gamestar Mechanic which I will discuss later.
After the students spend some time getting ideas they should have all the tools necessary to start the creation process. There are some basic requirements that need to follow in order to publish a game.
- Is the game beatable? There must be an end to the game. If they can't beat the game then it cannot be published.
- What is the point of their game?
- Is there a story?
- Are there clear directions on how to play the game?
- Does the game have a title and a closing message? Without a title, the game cannot be published.
Some of these steps can technically be skipped in order to publish the game to the game alley. However, peers and other members of the GSM community will let the mechanic know that there are some features missing from their game. Students are encouraged to check for comments and feedback on their published games often. This way they can make any adjustments necessary to make their games balanced and possibly more fun to play.
Being a Community Member
As I mentioned before, the Game Alley is an important part of GSM. Not only are you supposed to create games in Gamestar Mechanic, but you are also supposed to play other mechanic's games. However, just playing them is not enough. Being a member of the GSM community involves playtesting other peoples creations then providing them with constructive feedback. This is, by far, the most difficult portion of GSM for students to grasp. I have to repeatedly model the feedback process for them almost daily.
Feedback is part of the iteration process and without it, creators will not know if their game is well balanced or no fun at all. A majority of GSM members tend to skip this process altogether. They will just play your game and leave no rating or message. In order to combat this, I generally require my students to leave feedback on at least one game a day. They also start to feel good when feedback is left on their games. Most times, if you write a good review on someone else's page, they have a tendency to reciprocate and give you feedback as well. Kind of a "Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" situation.
As you can see to the left, Gamestar gives you a template to provide feedback to other creators. I try and teach kids how to give fair ratings. Ratings are very subjective but you can instruct them to try and be as fair as possible. If the game makes you feel good and has high replayability then you should give it a good rating of 4-5 stars. If it feels unfinished and really isn't very inspiring then it should get 1-3 stars. Generally speaking, I encourage my students never to give a 1. Instead, post a comment asking the other player to update their game. Or just don't make a comment at all.
As for difficulty, I have the students use a scale I made to help them. I usually ask them, "How many trials did it take you to beat the game?" My scale:
- beat it first try - 1 difficulty star
- beat it in a couple of tries - 2 stars
- took a handful of tries - 3 stars
- beat it eventually but took more than a handful of tries 4-5 stars
- couldn't beat the game - 5 stars
All in all, the feedback process is huge in GSM. It connects the community and serves as part of the ELA writing process. Students should, in complete sentences give constructive feedback after playing a game telling the creators what they liked about their creation and what can be improved.
Many teachers wonder how Gamestar can be used in the classroom. I have actually put together a curriculum linking ELA to GSM. I teach students that many good games have good stories. After we get settled into the program, usually about 2-3 weeks in, we begin storyboarding and/or prewriting. The writing process goes hand and hand with the game creation process. We take the time to review classics like "The Legend of Zelda" and "Super Mario Bros" and pull out aspects of the story for discussion. We understand that many video games today tell full stories verbally through speech. But we also know that there are still many games that use readable text to tell their stories. Gamestar Mechanic offers a "Message Block" that can be rewarded through a challenge. When the message block is unlocked they can add text to their games that can be read by the player. Through this, the creator can tell a story within their games.
Gamestar Mechanic is an excellent way to grip students. Creating video games can be a highly engaging way for children to learn a wide range of STEM skills. Digitally creating environments can teach children computational thinking along with the basics of computer programming. In addition, students will be honing their communication skills with peers by testing and evaluating their games. GSM also falls within the Quad-D framework with a major focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Here are some games created by some of my students. I could technically list off hundreds of games but I will just highlight a few. Feel free to test:
They Live (Based off of a 1988 movie with Roddy Piper in it. Very well thought out game.)
Clown Horror (Very difficult - We usually have challenges to see who can make the most difficult game. This was the most difficult of the year.)
Gamestar Tutorial (Created by me for my students)
Students I have worked with so far - This link will take you to a list of students I have worked with so far. There are a few Mechanics on there I have not worked with but about 90% of the names on there are past students. Click their names to test their games as well.