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Best programs for teaching video game design to middle school students

Updated on February 15, 2014

Teach kids to make Video games!

I have tested various programs that teach kids how to make video games, as a middle school video game design teacher. First, I am amazed at the amount of information out there. There are so many generous people willing to share their knowledge, it's amazing! I want to personally thank every single one of them. Without your willingness to share and give freely I would never have been able to put together the successful curriculum that I have today!

Among the programs that I use are: Scratch, Gamestar Mechanic, Game Maker 8.1 Lite,and Kodu. Each one of these programs is FREE! And of the highest quality. There is also a lot of information, tutorials, lessons, and activity communities available with many of these programs.

In this article, I will give a brief rundown on my thoughts, experiences, successes and challenges with each program.

Scratch Games

Scratch!

Scratch is my favorite program to use with my students. Mitchell Resnick is my hero, along with his incredibly talented team of educators at MIT Lifelong Kindergarten. This program has been updated this year to be browser based. You can also download a desktop version of Scratch 2.0.

Scratch is a visual programming language comprised of colorful interlocking blocks. Students learn many computer programming concepts working with Scratch. Scratch is a program that allows you to create a multi-media productions. There is a built in paint editor which allows you to work in bitmap or vector mode. There are audio tools allowing you to mix and record your own music and sound. There is even a video recorder allowing to video of yourself to your projects.

Best of all, Scratch is FREE! All you have to do is go to the website, create and account and start Scratching! The Scratch community website is an incredible resource. You can look in individual projects to see how they are programmed and remix them in your own account. Do worry the original creator gets credit each time his/her project is remixed. The Scratch motto is Imagine, Program Share! This is how you learn! I agree! One of my students proclaimed, while making a game in Scratch, "I feel like a genius when I'm using Scratch!"


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Gamestar Mechanic

Gamestar Mechanic is a fantastic browser based game design site. I, actually, start my course using Gamestar Mechanic. Signing up for Gamestar Mechanic is very easy. All you need to do is create a user name and password and you are ready to begin. There is a free account and a premium account. I use the free account with my students. In the free account you are able to complete the first Quest, which allows you to earn several sprite for which you use to create games. The first Quest consists of five episodes. Each episode teaches a different concept of game design. By the time the Quest is complete students will understand the 5 elements of game design, how the elements work together to create a dynamic system and the overall process of creating a game. Gamestar Mechanics does not teach programming. It is more about identifying the structure of a game and the design process, including playtesting, feedback and iteration of the design process. Kids love this site and learn a great deal while completing the Quest. The teacher resources are very well planned and guide you through this mini course which can take a few weeks to complete.

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Sploder

Sploder is another free browser based game design site. It is also a drag and drop program. I use the site for my Video Game Design Club. It is very easy for students to learn on their own and create games quickly. This site also has a youtube channel with several tutorials to get you making games quickly. There are several different types of game you can make in Sploder from Arcade games to platform games, classic puzzles and shooters. My club students really love this site and enjoy teaching each other! This is a great site for a game design club!

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Game Maker Lite 8.1

Game Maker has free versions and paid versions. Game Maker Studio is the paid version which allows you to make professional quality game that you can sell. (I think there is a free version of Studio too. You can not sell your games with this version.) Game Maker Lite 8.1 is a free version. This is the one I use with my students. This program is easily downloadable to your computer desktop. There are several beginnier tutorials available for this program. The programming language is visual and drag and drop. But it does teach object oriented programming concepts such as using actions and events. This program allows the user to create executable files of their games. There is a great mini course call Activate Games. This course is structured to allow the student to earn medals for completing challenges. Students earn badges for Rookie, Apprentice and Master levels of completion. The challenges are created around and environmental theme. Students tend to get a little bored with the challenges by the time they get to the Masters level and the instructions can be a bit difficult for some students to follow. There are some very good beginner tutorials built right into the program. This is a great program for older middles school student (7th and 8th grade) and high school students..

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Kodu

Kodu is a 3D game design program created by Microsoft and adaptable to the XBox and the pc.Games can be programmed for game controllers or the keyboard. This program is free to download and free to use. The programming language is a visual drag and drop. It teaches object oriented programming concepts.and some basic techniques for creating can navigating in a 3D environment. Students love this program for its ease of use and quick results. It is somewhat limited in what you can achieve visually but is great for making quick prototypes of game ideas. This is another great program for a game design club because students can be self guided and teach each other what they learn. Kodu download page Kodu Game Lab also has a series of informative beginner video tutorials and beginner curriculum

Five great game design programs and the list goes on...

There are many exceptional programs out there to get kids started with game design. In my opinion this are five of the best. I base my opinion on student feedback and success, ease of use and accessibility, along with the amount of comprehensive resource available with each of these programs. There are many more good quality programs out there. If you have a favorite that I did not mention, I would love to hear about it in the comment section. I hope you found this article helpful!

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    • profile image

      Michael 

      21 months ago

      I'm 9 months from graduating with a bachelor's in science with a focus in 3d game art. I'm really interested in teaching game development to middle or high school students in a classroom setting after I graduate. How would one approach finding a school that teaches this and what sort of prerequisites are necessary? Any information would be very helpful. Fantastic article by the way! Thank you for the great insight!

    • profile image

      Nancy 

      24 months ago

      Hi. This is my first time teaching video game design to high school students. I will be using the free version of Game Maker with the corresponding textbook. I am in the process of teaching myself. I really liked your idea of starting with Game Star Mechanic so I explored it and I think it is a perfect start. You mentioned that you came across many generous people willing to share their knowledge. I have to write my own curriculum and I was wondering if you could share how you found all your resources. I would really appreciate the help. Thank you.

    • chalktalk profile imageAUTHOR

      chalktalk 

      3 years ago

      Thank you for your comments. I am a middle school teacher (public school) in Central Florida. It is a magnet school specializing in Engineering STEM classes.

    • profile image

      Christian 

      3 years ago

      Hi,I read about all the different programs and they sound great!!I am looking for a video game design school,and you said you were a teacher at one,so I as wondering what the school you teach at is called,where it is,and if it costs money.if you or anyone could give this info to me that would be great!!thanks.

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