Making Video Games ... With Fifth Graders

By Giancarlos Alvarado [12.06.07]

 Children love anything that they can touch and manipulate because it appeals to their developing tactile sense and motor skills. Video games can provide children with the kind of creative and educational outlet that they inherently crave. In this day and age when impersonal standardized testing and state standards emphasize uniformity over uniqueness and creativity, creating a common platform that nourishes student-teacher relationships is more crucial than ever before. And while all educators must adhere to these standards, there are ways to break out of the mold. My way is to have my class create its own video game. Games have become a common platform for my students and me, bridging the gap between the formalities of the education system and the fun and excitement of learning.

Putting video games into a classroom is an unsettling topic for many parents, teachers, and administrators, given the violent or mindless and frivolous reputation of games in mainstream society. For many, the question is simply, "Why take something that is considered only a fun pastime in our society and integrate it into an educational setting?" Yet why wouldn't the concept work? It's been successful with mediums such as documentary films so why not video games? Games are, after all, quickly becoming the number one industry in entertainment -- which leads me to the question, "Can video games become a successful part of our educational system?"


Giancarlos Alvadaro decorates his fifth grade classroom with memorable video game characters.

Like many of you, video games defined my childhood. (Okay, they defined my collegiate career as well.) Fictional works such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, Xenogears, Panzer Dragoon, Resident Evil, and Shadow of the Colossus piqued my interest far more than any textbook or, for that matter, anything the teacher tried to impart to the class. Video games are something that most children can and do relate to.

Origins of the Project
I'm sure the bigger question for you is how I came up with the crazy idea of having my fifth grade class create a video game and how in the world we've pulled it off.

In 2003, I worked for an after school program, and we were in need of activities that would keep the students busy.  Around the same time I discovered this neat software application called RPG Maker (used to create simple role-playing video games) and wondered, "What if I teach my kids how to create a game?"

I started a video game club, and it was a smashing success. We had a lot of clubs at the time, such as dancing, art, and gym but it was the video game club that was the most popular by far. Kids would join the group after finishing their homework and work on individual RPG Maker projects. At the end of the year, each student received a CD of his or her video game to play at home.

I continued to run the club until late 2004 when I decided to focus on finishing my college education. Now, having graduated, I am a full-time fifth grade teacher with my very own classroom which allows me to test the waters beyond after school programs to see games can be just as beneficial in the classroom.

 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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