Sunday, December 17, 2017

Cardboard Arcade- Game Design is No Game


Build Building Excitement

The week before the winter break is a challenge for every teacher. You want to keep the kids learning, you want to keep them focused, you don't want to hear, "Are we gonna have a party on Friday?" every ten minutes. But at the same time you know in your bones that the regular routine just isn't going to cut it. They can smell the break coming. You can smell the break coming. It's time to break out something really cool.

Cue the cardboard.

Much to the frustration of my custodian, I adore cardboard. There's always a stack of it in my classroom. But the Monday of that last full week that stack grows like the Grinch's heart. I don't mention this to my students. I let them come in and take note of Mt Cardboard over against the wall. I let them check the board where the schedule is normally written and take in the many question marks in place of the normal "Vocabulary/Add and Subtract Decimals/Talk About How Wonderful Mr Robertson Is". Then I dodge questions.

"Mr Robertson, why are there question marks all over the schedule?"

"Because I put them there."

"Right, but why?"

"Because that's where they go."

*sigh* "Fine. Why is there a giant pile of cardboard over there."

"Because I put it there."

"Right, but-" and at this point another student or six jump in. "He'll tell us later! He always does!"

The stack of cardboard and the mystery schedule is all leading to one of my favorite projects of the entire year, something I've run for the last four years- The Cardboard Arcade. This idea came from a lot of places, most dominantly from the Caine's Arcade YouTube video, and you can read about the very first year I did it here. Part of the purpose of this post is to compare how I used to run this project with how I run it now. This is an unexpected benefit of blogging about what I do in my classroom. It's a fun way to look back and watch how I've changed. (As an aside to this already long aside, I plan on putting a chapter in the next Weird Teacher book entirely about everything that I talk about in the first Weird Teacher book that has changed or been dropped completely.)  

We start with the video. My kids know that I like to use videos as inspirational jumping-off points for projects (get thee to OKGo's YouTube channel for all the creativity inspiration), so they adjust their seats and settle in for whatever it is I've got lined up.

I challenge you to not tear up a little during that

It's fun to watch them put two and two together as the video goes along. "Mr. Robertson! Are we gonna make an arcade?"

"We are!" And then I raise my hands to part the flood of follow-up questions. I start with the ending, because sometimes that song is wrong about a very good place to start. "On Friday we will open our cardboard arcade for business, and we will invite other classes to come in and play what you're about to build." I dispense with the other normal question quickly- No, I will choose groups randomly for this project using the Cup O Destiny; No, you will design these out of your own brains, without needing to google arcade games; No, I said, your groups will be chosen for you.

Then we got to get down to the good stuff.

Before You Can Make

  • No tickets or prizes. Trust me. Students will spend ages cutting out and writing on millions of tiny tickets that have no actual value or use. This is a poor use of time and resources. As for prizes, no. Just...just no. 
  • Games must be heavily play-tested and revised. Here's where this gets sneaky academic. First drafts are never done, they're never as good as they could be, and they should never be presented to the public. Design the game (more on that in a moment), build the game, and then test the heck out of the game until you've worked out all the bugs. Build, test, revise, fix, test, revise, repeat. This is a mantra of my classroom. And when kids can do it with builds they can do it with writing, with presentations, and with math.
  • Games will have some thoughtful, complicated build elements. Students want to blast through this. Of course they do, it's exciting. They want to get to the part where they play the game. But that skips over all the good stuff. I issue this challenge- Your game must be a complicated build for you, but an easy, fun experience for your players. It's hard to make something complex that is easy to use. This barrier slows most groups right down. Otherwise you get a super-fast ball-in-hole game and bam they're done. Nope, if that ball is being rolled into that hole you better figure out a way to get the ball returned to the player without the player seeing how it works. 
At this point students want to get going. They're eyeballing the perfect chunk of cardboard and making sign-language at their partners. But I'm still not quite ready. I'm going to do almost no whole group talking once they get started, so I need to get it in now. 



  • Design FIRST. On paper. Blueprint with dimensions and measurements, top, bottom, side views and cross-section if needed. My kids have designed builds before today. In fact, part of the reason I'm sure to get in some making before this week is so this week goes smoother. But this build will be more intense that those were. I'm dead serious about these blueprints. There will be no touching of cardboard until I've approved a workable set of blueprints. Students are about to hit a world of frustrations unlike any they've had in class so far. Which is good for them. One group always comes to me in five minutes with a hastily sketched mess.
 "We're ready."


"What is this?" 

"It's our game. See, here is-"

"No no no. I need to be able to read this and know exactly what I'm looking at, that way when you're building you'll be able to do the same. And I can't tell what anything is. Nothing is labeled. How big is this? What is this? Is this a top or a side or a front? Nope, go away, check the directions, then come back."

It takes many drafts to make me happy. I ask questions about pieces students didn't think about. "How far from this hole to the edge? Did you randomly put it there? What's the diameter?"

"Uh, what's a diameter?"

"Good, now you're asking the right questions. Go away, come back when you know."

Sneaky math lessons up and down this part of the project. Observe- 



This is an early blueprint. It's a really good one. But there's a problem. Look at the wedge. They've got two measurements because they didn't take into account the hypotenuse being a different length than the base. They'd never thought about that until I asked them to. But then they didn't know how to figure out the proper measurements. So I got to do some teaching.


I don't get many chances to make math as organic as I (and Jo Boaler) would like. I'm trying. But here it's perfect. It's right there. We had to estimate because I was working with their numbers, and they we squaring off the end, but it was close enough. 

  • Rules. Your game must be thought out and explained. You mostly need to say this because some students will bet a little exuberant with their planning and suddenly the tutorial takes longer than the game does. Again, the watchword (watchphrase?) is "Complicated for you, simple for them."
It takes most of that first day for blueprints to get where I want them. This is good. The kids are struggling and being forced to explain things clearly. They're revising and planning and thinking through the build, making it in their heads before making it for real. "Measure twice, cut once," as every shop teacher since the beginning of time has said.

This is different from my very first time giving this assignment. I really let the kids go the first time. I wanted to see what would happen. It was more organic, but it also ended up taking a lot longer and there was a lot more wasted cardboard. I'm honestly still on the fence about which is better. I value the design process, but I also love "Do this, go." My quick builds have taken that place though. 

Scarcity Mindset

I only give one more bit of direction from here on out aside from, "Test it and revise it again. You can make this cooler."

 I need to talk about efficient use of materials. 
  • Don't use the biggest pieces of cardboard for a bunch of small pieces of game. You need those for walls and bases. 
  • Don't laminate your games with tape to keep them together. Create tab systems, they should hold together on their own, and then the tape strengthens them.
  • Please walk carefully with the scissors. I'll get in trouble if someone gets stabbed again. (Yes, I say 'again' and then walk away and don't explain it. Keep your students on their toes.)
Ready, Go

Once all the blueprints are approved my job gets kind of boring. I play music, wander, suggest as needed, mediate group conflicts that can't be solved on their own, and make sure That Kid is sticking with his group and not finding reasons to "help" the group with his buddies in it. I stress having pride in the work, remind students to be measuring their cuts, and held them problem solve. Groups that finish fast I'll push to make their game even better, stronger, sharper looking, more diverse in the challenge options. And if they've done all that then I'll give them a quick build challenge to build a specific kind of game we're missing. This year that was a ring toss. 

These builds take two days at least. Sometimes more. We're working with big objects that need to be strong. Kids feel a sense of competition with each other to make the best game. There's always at least one voice in the groups trying to find better ways to improve the game play. Someone's gotta think about the FUN. 

As a teacher, this part is strange. I'm not Teaching, but I'm making sure the kids are learning. I'm asking specific questions and reminding them that this is still school and they need to be aware of the things they're learning and skills they're practicing. Reflection is coming, Jon Snow.

Once the games are ready (amazingly Friday afternoon every single year, almost like I know what I'm doing), I grab a few classes who are itchy for something to close the day with and my kids get to strut their stuff. It's so fun to watch the other students be amazed at what my kids have made, and it's gratifying to see how proud my kids are of their work.The visiting teachers are also very complimentary, which is great.

Reflection

Every single year I need to learn this lesson again- Telling students, "Ok, now reflect on your learning," is a fool's assignment. That's so vague. They're done in three minutes. "I learned building stuff is hard. I learned to build better. I worked with friends well." 

The reflection needs to be broken down. Talk about the design part, step-by-step. What worked? What were the challenges? How did you overcome them? Now the build part, same questions. Now the play-testing, same questions. Now when we were actually open for business to other classes, same questions. That makes the kids think. This big chunk stuff is overwhelming.

This Year's Arcade

Here's what my class made this year.




This is a claw machine game called The Dragon's Claw. They put Stackimals in the box and built a hook to catch them with. The biggest design challenge was the track at the top. They went through a lot of designs trying to figure out how to get that opening in the middle for the H-shape. At one point the group went, "Nope, it'll be two tracks, each with a hook." But I vetoed that. I knew they could figure out the supports and they did. Game was hard, but not impossible. They added challenges like taping two Stackimals together or taping the rings up or down. They originally planned a three minute time limit, so I made them set it for three minutes then sit quietly and watch it count down. The final time limit was 90 seconds after that.


I have a student obsessed with the book ad movie IT. Yes, she's a fifth grader. Whatever, she's reading. This group needed to put the backing on their game so the darts would go in the holes then fall down back to where the player could get them. We went through a lot of dart designs and they tried hard to get away with lazy pieces of cardboard with fake fins taped on. I'm not thrilled with the final design, but they evolved from darts into ninja throwing stars, which worked better and were easier to aim.


There's a lot going on with this build, and I was impressed with the thought. Again, there's a ball return but it took some doing to figure out how to get the ball to get into the return from anywhere, no matter how it bounced off the backboard. The hoop moves back and forth on the track. This group needed almost no input or prodding. 


This is pinball. I didn't think it would work. It totally worked. I thought the paddles wouldn't be strong enough and the group worked hard at figuring out the mechanics, angles, and pivot points the paddles would need. They didn't realize they were doing that until I told them, but that's only because knowing the words for what you're doing matters. There's a ramp in the back of the game that actually works if you hit the ball right. And there's a groove behind the paddles for when you miss, and the groove returns the ball to that pink box on the side. They even build a little push paddle halfway back on the left because they noticed the ball had a tendency to get stuck there. Again, very little prodding from me.


Air hockey. A simpler build, so we spent a lot of time measuring and finding the centers of the circles and the box. The paddles were the trickiest part of this design and they went through a few iterations before landing on a design that worked and was easy to make.  


This ski-ball game is the least pretty build, but still a good one. It's pretty big, and the group did all the cutting before putting anything together so it was one of the last finished. One of the struggles was supporting the angled top piece without using a million miles of tape, and they finally landed on wedges underneath it. There's also a secondary slanted piece beneath the holes to act as a ball return, and that too required supports. There's a lot going on under the surface of this game.


Robot soccer. This group was struggling to come up with a good idea. They designed and designed and weren't happy with anything. Then they came to me. "Mr. Robertson, there's this video game called Rocket League. It's like a soccer game, but with cars. Can we use the Spheros from the MakerSpace to make a Rocket League game?" Dude! Yes. The biggest challenge was designing the "car" to go around the Sphero to protect it and act as a shell. We never really nailed it down, and I think with another day of play-testing we'd have gotten it. The shells didn't stay on quite right. Still, great idea and I loved that they were thinking about all the tools possible. (I had told everyone we weren't going to use the stuff from the MakerSpace, but rules like that are made to be broken if needed.)


The last-minute ring toss. I obviously didn't have enough oversight on this one because I'd have never let Donut be painted like that. Alas, it worked and it was made quickly.


City Smash. The plan for this was more ambitious than the final product turned out to be, which is ok. The player uses a spoon to flick an eraser at the buildings and scores points when they're knocked down. Early drafts of the plan had the buildings leaning against the back wall and we had to talk through how a building would fall if it was already up against something. They needed to design a strut on the back that would be stable but would also collapse fairly. There's also something about a car on a string, but that rule never made sense to me. Players seemed to get it though.

That's our arcade. The students loved it, I loved watching them create something so elaborate that we could share with others, and now I've got a ton of arcade games in my room. For a day. because (and they don't know this yet) I'm going to make them take the games apart. We could use that cardboard for something else. Reuse and recycle, right?

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher

18 comments:

  1. This is fantastic. Thanks so much for sharing your process! I don’t have much to say in the chat tonight - I mentioned last week that I just started a new LT sub position - but I will say that I’ve been facilitating paper circuits builds for middle school the past few days and it’s a GREAT way to keep kids engaged without overtaxing the pre-break preteen mind.
    This kind of thing would be way hard for me as a specialist (no time) but it looks really fun. I’d be delighted to have my kids do this. :)

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