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  • Making Video Games ... With Fifth Graders

    [12.06.07]
    - Giancarlos Alvarado

  •  Project After Shock
    Our year-long classroom project is an entirely original, student-created video game currently titled Earthquake Terror: After Shock. It's an unofficial sequel to Peg Kehret's story "Earthquake Terror," in which the main characters Jonathan, Abby, and Moose are stranded on the fictional Magpie Island when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake strikes San Francisco. In the current version of After Shock, students must guide Jonathan through a ravaged Magpie Island in search of his sister Abby.

    The game's development is divided into numerous aspects. We use RPG Maker XP for its simplicity. I want my students to focus on the creative and educational aspects of game development without being bogged down by complex programming routines. The actual in-game work consists of a small group of two or three students working together on the game engine, planning and populating the virtual world. While those students are working on the game, other students also in small groups write scripts, draw artwork, design maps, and create music.

    The project has several objectives that adhere to the educational guidelines that all teachers must follow, but my primary objective is to supplement everyday lessons in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies through video game development. Ultimately, I want this game to be a culmination of everything the students have learned throughout the school year. For example, using the story "Earthquake Terror" as a base for the game's story allows me to integrate my social studies and earth science lessons into the actual plot of the game, which further enhances what my students have learned in class. With this project I hope the students improve their reading, writing, analytical thinking, social studies, computer science, team building, multi-tasking, and problem-solving skills.

    The Challenges
    The most prominent issue I faced in the classroom was figuring out how to ensure that our project met New Jersey's Core Curriculum Content Standards in education. One of the district requirements that has worked in our favor is one that states, "reading, writing and technology must be integrated across the curriculum."

    Video game development is challenging work regardless of how large or experienced a development team is. Professional teams often struggle with issues such as funding and time constraints. And in my class, I've also contended with those three big issues. In terms of time constraint: How does a teacher fully integrate a video game development project into a daily classroom schedule with 10-year olds? Due to the nature of classroom learning, spending an entire day working exclusively on the project is impossible. Fortunately, our school has recently created a technology lab schedule, which lets my students complete their project at a much quicker pace.

    We've faced by our share of funding issues as well. All the extra hardware and software we needed to create the game has been purchased by me. As a young educator, this is not the best permanent solution, especially if the program grows as I hope.



    Reaction and Criticism
    The general consensus in my classroom is that the project is a lot of fun. Students feel that the video game has, in a way, breathed life into the characters of Jonathan, Abby, and Moose despite their cartoon appearance. One student told me, "I never believed that we would actually be creating a video game." That same student went on to explain that s/he learned a lot about earthquakes and what to do in case one ever happened.

    Parents and co-workers have been overwhelmingly positive about the project, citing its originality as a catalyst for more independent reading and learning. Parents have especially been ecstatic about the educational component and lack of violence in the current version of the game, especially in comparison to more popular mainstream games, such as Grand Theft Auto.

    Video game development in the classroom is not for everyone and is still very difficult to implement today. A teacher must be not only highly computer literate and programming savvy, but also well versed in a middleware program such as RPG Maker XP. In order for a project such as ours to be applied to an everyday curriculum, teachers would require vast amounts of training, which is a costly obstacle.

    Earthquake Terror: After Shock was submitted to the 2008 Independent Games Festival Student Competition. Our aim in entering the competition is not to win, but to demonstrate the value of video games in a legitimate educational setting. Our class is continuing to work on the video game until the end of the school year.

    Giancarlos Alvarado is a bilingual fifth grade teacher in Trenton, N.J. He holds an AS degree in music from Mercer County Community College, a BA in history from Rutgers University, and is currently working on two master's degrees (in teaching ESL and education administration). He founded the Video Game Design Institute, an after school program (and educational non-profit organization) that teaches students how to create video games.

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