Getting Started with Videogame Development

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In the first segment in this series, we covered the pedagogy behind student videogame development.  We addressed how learning as doing, collaborative & peer learning, tutoring, ownership, and publication are critical components to game development.  We also addressed benefits of videogame making, including content area knowledge acquisition, students as producers of information, and the potential of game-making for encouraging STEM-related careers for women and minorities. 

In part 2 of this series, we turn to helping teachers to get started in videogame development.  We focus on tools and engines to begin the development process.  We also list practical suggestions for teachers who want to try this in the classroom.

Getting Started with Videogame Development
Most commercial games are developed using computer scientists who are well versed at programming languages (e.g. C++, Java, or ActionScript). However, game development software packages exist that do not require a deep understanding of programming languages. Some of this software creates opportunities for individuals to develop games from scratch. With these tools, users must provide the resources and determine the controls and artificial intelligence to create a game. Other software tools allow users to modify (mod) existing game resources and structures to create a game. Some commercial games are even packed with mod tools like map editors so that individuals can change content and alter resources within a game.

There are a number of free or low-cost tools available for those interested in developing videogames (with obviously varying degrees of programming abilities required). Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu), developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, uses a programming language designed for young people. Users can create games as well as interactive stories, animations, music, and art. The Scratch interface uses a simple drag-and-drop process to create scripts, a series of steps that control the game resources. The software includes a number of sample projects that users can explore to understand how the programming language works. In addition, these sample projects could also be modified. Finished games or projects can be uploaded to the Scratch website for publication.

Gamemaker (http://yoyogames.com) also uses a drag-and-drop process. Users gather or create resources, such as sprites, backgrounds, and sounds, then provide actions for each of the resources that determine how the game functions. Users can specify controls and other aspects of the game. Finished games can be created as stand-alone executable files.

RPG Maker XP (http://www.enterbrain.co.jp/tkool/RPG_XP/eng/) specifically allows users to create role-playing games (RPGs). With an extensive library of game resources, it allows users quickly to create maps, interactions, and dialogs for an RPG. The website even has characters, backgrounds, icons, and skins to directly import into the program.

Many students have Xbox or Xbox 360 consoles at home. Microsoft's XNA Developer Center (http://msdn.microsoft.com/xna/) offers free downloads of tools that enable students to create games for their Xbox. Games created for the platform can be uploaded and shared with other users and with Microsoft software engineers.

Commercial game companies also hire designers and artists to support their game development. Graphics and sounds obviously add to the entire gaming experience. There are additional tools are available to assist in the game development process. Open-source paint programs (e,g, GIMP, http://gimp.org/) allow users to create backgrounds for 2D games. Sprite editors (e.g. Allegro, http://ase.sourceforge.net/) or GIF animators (e.g. GIFWorks, http://www.gifworks.com/) can be used to create images or characters for games. Music editing programs (e.g. Audacity, http://audacity.sourceforge.net) can be used to compose soundtracks or sound effects.

Game engines also exist that allow students and teachers to create or modify existing games. Open-source game engines include Unreal Tournament (http://openut.sourceforge.net/), IRRLICHT (http://irrlicht.sourceforge.net/), the Quake engine (a basis for many other games; http://www.idsoftware.com/business/techdownloads/), and Second Life (http://secondlife.com/developers/opensource/).

For a more detailed list of game development software and tools, see http://www.ambrosine.com/resource.html.

Practical Suggestions for Videogame Making in Teaching & Learning
1. Immerse yourself in educational gaming. This consists of two steps. First, if you have not already done so, play some educational games. These could either be games developed for education or games that educators have used in education (NobelPrize.org for some examples). Second, explore resources on educational gaming. Join a mailing list--http://www.seriousgames.org/ has a good one--read an educational gaming journal (http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/Games_Resources.html), or visit a blog (e.g. http://edugamesblog.wordpress.com/).

2. Design a game yourself.  Though students may be quick to jump at the opportunity to design games, teachers may be more reluctant.  For most game development software, online communities exist that include access to discussion forums and tutorials to assist the novice game designer, e.g., see Game Learning (http://www.gamelearning.net/). Most of the software mentioned earlier is available for free download. Download and play with the software.

3. Have kids play games.  Expose students to the types of games that are available for educational purposes.  Students may be more successful when designing their own games if they have seen examples. Check out Gamequarium (http://www.gamequarium.com/), and Social Impact Games (http://www.socialimpactgames.com/) as examples.

4. Have students learn the software.  Let students create games in order to become familiar with the interface of game development software and to realize the potential of the software.  Once students are comfortable with the software interface, teachers can then have students create games that teach others about specific content areas.  Thus, students can focus on content and not on the software.
 
5. Have students make games that are content-related. Though computer science teachers can easily integrate game development activities within the courses they teach, teachers in other content areas can also incorporate game development. For example, kids using RPG Maker XP could create a historical game that reconstructs experiences and interactions from the American Revolution.  Many of the resources needed for such a game are already included within the software. Teachers could first immerse students in the content related to the American Revolution and then allow students to create a game that demonstrates their mastery of the content.  

To Learn More
There are a number of journals (e.g. Game Studies, http://gamestudies.org/), gaming conferences (e.g. Games + Learning + Society, http://glsconference.org/2007/), summits (e.g. Federation of American scientists, http://www.fas.org/gamesummit/), and gaming initiatives (e.g. Serious Games, http://www.seriousgames.org/) to explore in addition to the software already highlighted.

For teachers who are interested in learning more about the research behind educational gaming, we would suggest the following three game research collection sites: Digiplay Initiative (http://digiplay.info/digibiblio), the Claims of Games (http://theclaimsofgames.netcipia.net/xwiki/bin/view/Main/WebHome), and the IEEE-CS Task Force on Game Technology (http://www.ucalgary.ca/~jparker/TFGT/publications.html).

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About the authors: Richard E. Ferdig, Ph.D., is an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida. He was awarded his doctorate in educational psychology from Michigan State University in 2000. His teaching-research agenda includes gaming, online learning, and what he labels a "deeper psychology of technology." Ferdig can be reached via e-mail at rferdig@ufl.edu.

Jeff Boyer is a visiting lecturer and doctoral student in educational technology at the University of Florida. His research interests include gaming, online learning, and pre-service teacher education. Boyer can be reached via e-mail at jboyer@ufl.edu.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

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