Game Maker in Schools
May 30, 2009
A look at the increasing use of Game Maker in education around the world including an insight from Simon Donkers on a course he recently ran at the IMC Weekendschool in The Netherlands.
This article was first published in Game Maker Tech issue 16 released on 29th May 2009.
Over the past few years the gave development bug has been spreading across schools around the world, and not just online video game design schools. More and more school pupils, college students and summer school attendees are being given an introduction to game design and programming using Game Maker.
Whilst I am aware that Game Maker has long been taught around the world I was inspired to write this article following the introduction of a Game Maker option for 11-12 year olds in an “Active Learning Week” at the school I used to attend. Whilst I was in my final year I spoke with a couple of my tutors about the software as they were aware that I ran a blog relating to it. Now I am reliably informed (by my younger brother) that Game Maker is one of the standard software items installed across the network.
Game Maker has long been used in education; it is a central part of the game design course taught at Utrecht University where Mark Overmars is a professor and was used as the development tool in the 2005 Dutch Make-A-Game competition which attracted over 200 teams of high-school students.
In mid-April Game Maker Community member Simon Donkers ran a Game Maker class at the IMC Weekendschool at Tilburg University in The Netherlands. Forty children aged eleven with no previous programming experience created a variety of maze-based games.
Explaining his decision for deciding on Game Maker as the development environment for the class Simon Donkers wrote “I’ve chosen Game Maker because it’s easy to learn and allows students to create interesting games in a matter of hours. Also because the environment is free to use and easy to install across all systems. No admin rights required to install Game Maker for instance. Also, what I find great about Game Maker is that the only limit is your imagination (and free time). Many other ‘easy’ programming worlds only allow one specific game type to be created while Game Maker allows a wide variety.”
“I noticed in the last class for Weekendschool, as well as in previous years, that many of the 11 year old kids grasp the concept of Object Oriented Programming after only using Game Maker for a few hours. They quickly understood events and the separation with sprites, objects and rooms. In 2007 one girl’s PC crashed halfway and she created the game ‘Dog House 1’ in 1 hour. It’s a maze game in which you must avoid the fire, catch the fish to lure the cat away, grab the key to open the door to get to next of 3 levels. I don’t know a single other tool in which an 11 year old kid can create a fun, good looking game like this, with little guidance and hardly any training in just 1 hour time.”
“Giving classes like this is very fulfilling when you see the wonderful games people create. It also shows that these kids don’t start a remake of Tetris or Pacman but that they have original ideas. For instance a game where you need to grab toothbrush and toothpaste and clean teeth from dirt whilst avoiding the evil bacteria in your mouth. But also a more political race game to see whether George Bush or Barrack Obama is the fastest in a race. Or a very challenging puzzle game where you control both yourself and the enemy with your arrow controls. This requires some careful planning to avoid a collision with an enemy. But also somebody who made a game around being a postman and collecting letters as fast as possible.”
Blijbol who helped on the course said “the children were very excited while playing each other’s final games at a video projector” before adding that by the end of the course “they were more enthusiastic than they were anywhere in the programming process.”
It isn’t just pre-teens that are using Game Maker in education though; Simon has also given classes to 16 year olds as part of their computer science class. Describing the differences between this and the younger children Simon said “It’s a bit less creative and more organized because the goal is not to have fun but to get good grades. But I still see how these people learn lots of complex principles like object oriented programming, inheritance, code structuring, state machines and many other principles.”
Simon has also taught many other Game Maker classes for students, teachers and for members of game design competitions. When asked if he thought the use of Game Maker within education had been increasing in recent years he said “within the Netherlands I haven’t noticed a recent upsurge in popularity. Game Maker has been popular for quite some time already.”
Writing in the Sec Ed Journal in 2003 John Ashford, head of ICT at North Walsham High School in the UK, wrote of the many different benefits that come from teaching Game Maker. “Designing computer games requires students to practise many generic skills associated with Windows based software. Examples are file management, navigation of menu systems and use of the mouse and keyboard. It is also possible to use a broad range of different software applications, for example, when creating graphics, sound effects and musical scores as part of the project. Alongside this there are abundant opportunities to promote students’ literacy and numeracy as well as other important skills such as teamwork, planning, problem solving, decision making and evaluation.”
Reasons why Game Maker may be chosen above other game development tools include its combination of Drag & Drop actions alongside more advanced Game Maker Language scripts. Ashford explains “Game Maker is a very flexible system, easy for even a novice programmer to get to grips with. On one level, games can be created by dragging and dropping items from a set of standard toolbars. However, it also includes a powerful built-in programming language, called GML, for the more confident, who wish to progress further, with more complex tasks.”
Ashford says that another reason for the popularity of Game Maker over other game design environments is the “extensive selection of resources” available online which makes lesson planning easy. Free online resources such as a Moodle (free open source e-learning package) course created by Darren Smith and tutorials and challenges available at http://www.mindtools.tased.edu.au are just one slice of the offering as traditional Game Maker tutorials such as the official ones at YoYoGames.com can also be used in schools.
For more than five years Michael Fenton from the Nexus Research Group has demonstrated how Game Maker can be used to create educational games, simulators and eLearning resources such as interactive whiteboard applications to teachers in New Zealand. Michael has also developed educational simulators based around the subjects of Maths and Science such as a game in which you must manage a nuclear reactor developed for year 12 physics students.
The final word goes to Simon Donkers, “A great quote a teacher once said to me after a class is that ‘the biggest problem is that students spend too much time on their games and forget other classes’. While using Game Maker you learn a great many things, from simple things like English to more advanced things like creating design documents and writing neural networks. Game Maker lets people learn without them recognising it as homework but rather recognising it as a fun challenge. That’s the real power of Game Maker and that’s why many schools have been using it and will be using it in the future.”
The games created by children at the 2009 and 2007 IMC Weekendschool can be found at http://weekendschool.simondonkers.nl/
With thanks to Simon Donkers and Jeroen van der Gun who provided me with an insight into their work at the IMC Weekendschool.
Photo by Stichting Kennisnet released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license http://www.flickr.com/photos/stichtingkennisnet/2885874828/