Have you ever wondered why kids who rebel at doing
homework can play video games for hours on end? We are puzzled
especially when considering that the skills needed to master a video
game are the same skills needed for educational pursuits -- problem
solving, communicating with other players, and developing strategies.
Schoolwork that's perceived as difficult does not interest them, yet
hard games requiring the same skills enchant them. Why is that so and
what can we do?
I'm calling this article "Hard Fun", because
no youth would spend any time on a game that did not challenge him or
her to the limit. A young person typically invests over 40 hours to
master a video game. That investment of time lets us know what
dedication kids can apply when properly motivated.
My mission is to build on that interest in computer
games so students can be as good in academics as they are in computer
games. With the right direction, our student's enthusiasm for computer
games can be extended to academic achievement. First students can
discuss games why they enjoy them. Students can develop their
analytical skills by reflecting and sharing their experience playing
games. Then students can study how computer games are constructed and
make "pen and paper" designs of new games. This reverse
engineering can make academic studies more relevant. They can then
build computer games of their own design in a practical application of
their math, writing, and problem solving skills.
MIT Professor Seymour Papert developed the theory of
to explain why children learn more by doing, as opposed to abstract
rote learning. Paula Hooper, a Ph.D. graduate of MIT, is using
"constructivism learning" with an African-centered community
school, Paige Academy in Boston. The school was "organized to
support a problem-solving approach to learning, with extensive
reliance on the arts as a natural form of expression and
Click the image to
play this "Africa"
A student named Shamia learned how to make a rainbow
by writing a computer program that automatically drew half-circles. In
the process she learned about fractions, angles and geometry, not
because she set out to, but because she was determined to make her
rainbow. Shamia used a computer program called Logo
to make the problems concrete and meaningful. Logo was designed by
Professor Papert to enable young students to build things and in the
process apply abstract concepts in math and programming.
Enlightening uses of interactive media really excite
me as a developer of interactive media tools. Lingo, the computer
programming language behind Shockwave, allows creative people who may
not be technically oriented to create interactive experiences for the
Internet. Lingo permits more people to express themselves without
being limited by their knowledge of programming. Can students use
Lingo and Shockwave to build their own games? First let's get a better
understanding of why games are so popular.
Let's briefly examine the popular game Pokemon that is
all the rage. The cartridge plays on a $70 portable computer equipped
with captivating sound, animation, and color. The developers of
Pokemon succeed in breaking challenges into small pieces that keep the
player involved for the 80 to 120 hours it takes to collect the 150
Pokemon characters. At every stage, "Professor Oak" is
available to explain what is happening. The player gains a sense of
accomplishment by "training" each character. Once trained,
the Pokemon characters are traded with other trainers. Players
practice economics by winning "dollars" that are traded for
Pokemon accessories such as vehicles, tickets, ropes, maps and other
tools required to surmount the challenges. A marketing blitz of
must-have trading cards, board games and toys supplement the computer
Every level of Pokeman presents new challenges, new
scenarios, new characters and new hurdles that the player must
overcome in new ways. The tasks become more difficult as the player
progresses. There is constant immediate feedback on performance using
negative and positive reinforcement. Players share their experiences
with their friends and help each other beat the game by swapping
What parents can do
Parents can translate Pokeman or any other computer
game mania into academics by encouraging children to discuss various
games so that they can describe, analyze, and compare the thinking
processes, strategies and mechanics employed in the games. You may be
surprise at the depth of knowledge your children have about their
games. By talking about it both you and your child will be more aware
of the mental discipline required to move up the levels in a game. A
child is discouraged by challenging work at school can be encouraged
by pointing out their demonstrated ability in beating a game.
Children naturally include what they enjoy in their
creative drawing and story-making. My sons (age 9 & 7) draw and
write to augment Pokeman characters and recreate game scenarios. They
avidly trade cards and calculate points. Their imaginations will not
allow them to blindly digest Pokeman as it is, they are compelled to
add their own flavor. Parents can encourage the naturally tendency for
children to envision their own versions of computer games. You can
explain to them that there is an entire industry behind the game
itself and they can aspire to a career as a game maker. In future
articles I will describe the various career options in the game
development industry and what school preparation is needed.
What schools can learn
One of the differences between
academic achievement and computer game mastery is the immediate reward
for meeting the small progressive challenges in computer games. In
school, the rewards have less immediate value and require long range
vision to realize the tangible benefits. However, the long-term
process of game development more closely mirrors the persevering road
to real life success while still dispensing the immediate
reinforcement of games. Another difference is the audio, visual and
kinesthetic sensory neurological links that computer games stimulate.
Traditional academics do not make use of these neural pathways. By
building games students can learn with a greater variety of senses. Of
course, just as instruments are needed for writing, new tools are
needed for creating computer games.
What is Shockwave? Click on limb and drag to rotate.
Shockwave is the primary way to present interactive
games on the Internet. The majority of web users have already
encountered Shockwave. What is not widely known is Shockwave can be a
used by young people to create interactive material, such a games.
Let's take a closer look at the three facets of Shockwave. The first
the web site www.shockwave.com,
where people can enjoy free games, cartoons and music in the same
manner that one can now tune a radio to receive freely broadcast
The second facet is Shockwave, the player. The
Shockwave player is a means of viewing interactive material such as
games. Disney, America Online, Microsoft and other companies use the
Shockwave format to play interactive media. Much the same way that one
can now choose between cassette and CD audio formats, The Shockwave
format consists of animation, graphics, and sound that can be played
in a straight linear mode. Shockwave's Lingo computer language makes
possible on-screen buttons that the user clicks to alter the sequence
of events just as the remote control permits the user to program a CD
The third facet is the Shockwave Construction kit for
students. With it a student can create their own games, improve
existing games, or build an interactive illustration of a homework
assignment. Students can integrate visual arts, music, and movement
into their academic subjects using Shockwave. The kit is a special
version of the same Macromedia Director program used by over 300,000
professionals to create games and other interactive content. Students
now have access to the same powerful tool used to create material for
the www.shockwave.com web site. To learn how to use the kit students
can start with the documentation and tutorials that come with the kit.
They can also use of the several dozen books on the topic (search for
"Macromedia Director" on the www.amazon.com web site). There
are also many web sites, such as my own www.JohnHenry1.com, that
provide advise and learning examples.
Finding information about the kit is a bit of a
challenge. It is buried on the www.macromedia.com
web site under the code name "Director 7 K-12 Edition."
Challenge a young person who loves computer games and has access to
the Internet to move to the next level by getting this kit and
creating their own games.
The Next Level
Students have three powerful strategies for learning
from computer games. They can discuss and analyze the games they
enjoy. Using simple pen and paper they can design their own games.
Finally, they can turn their game sketches into the real thing using
the Shockwave construction kit.
To give direction and focus to the aspiring game
creator, in the next installment I give a behind the scenes view of
the game industry and what skills are needed on a game development
John (JT) Thompson is author of the Lingo programming
language that drives Shockwave for San Francisco-based Macromedia