Reflections on Minecraft Game Design STEM Camp

Last week, I had the honor of spending four full days with a group of talented and highly-energetic middle schoolers during the the Surry County Schools annual STEM Camp.  My camp, in particular, was Game Design in Minecraft.  Throughout the week, using Minecraft as our platform, we worked through a design process to create an original game, built on a shared server.


Form A Design Studio

Students first formed a design studio, a group of three to four student designers.  They gave their studio a name and then created a slogan.  Some of my personal favorites were:

CMT (Create. Minecraft. Technology.) – “Expect The Unexpected.”

4RandomThings – “Sometimes, all you need are 4 Random Things to make 1 GREAT thing happen…”

All of the submissions were equally creative.

Develop Story and Map The Game

From there, teams were tasked with developing a title and some basic story elements they wished to include in their game.  One group’s theme revolved around surviving a zombie apocalypse, another tasked you with finding a lost pig.  Once again, Minecraft’s flexibility really enabled students to unleash their imaginations and creativity.  Following this step, teams mapped out their overall design plans, labelling traps, puzzles, landscaping elements, and other challenges.  At this point, teams pitched their ideas to me for feedback.  Much of this dealt with the technical possibilities and limitations of MinecraftEDU.  After approval, teams logged into our shared server, selected a site for their game, marked off the borders with colored wool and signs and began building.  By far, this step was the most time consuming and most enjoyed by the student-designers.



As the part of the camp neared, we moved into a play-testing phase.  First, each team play-tested their own game, thinking critically about what was working and what needed to be changed.  A snapshot of the server was saved (to preserve traps and such), and studios played the games designed by their fellow designers.  They provided constructive, written feedback to the creators of the game they played and then we moved into an iteration/polish phase.  We spent some extra time discussing how to give and receive feedback.  “Feedback is a gift!”

Walkthroughs and Live Interview with Game Developers

The week concluded with a live walkthrough of the game facilitated by each team and ultimately a ceremony to distribute an official (physical) badge for their work with certificates.  Our last treat was a live chat with game developers at 1st Playable Productions.  The 1st Playable team shared their path leading to careers in game design, games they’ve worked on, and challenges they faced along the way.  Our student designers asked incredible questions along the way.

discoWhat worked well:

  • The design studio concept and the emphasis on team development.
  • MinecraftEDU.  The management aspects available to the teacher were invaluable.
  • Rezzly (3DGameLab) – All of the challenges (lessons?) were framed as quests.  Each one unlocking the next.  XP, ranks, and badges provided fun incentives outside of Minecraft play.
  • Playing alongside the students.
  • Taking breaks. – We periodically took breaks from our design work to work on collaborative, team-based quests in a Survival Mode server.  Spaced mid-way during the morning and afternoon design work provided fantastic brain breaks.
  • Getting feedback from students.  What did you like?  What did you not like?  What would YOU change?
  • Music during design time.  They love to sing while working.
  • Spontaneous dance party.  – Teleport all the kids to a central location, crank up the music. Dance! (or jump and crouch – best you can get in Minecraft)

What needs work:

  • Students didn’t actually get into Minecraft until the end of the first day.  That’s tough.  It’s hard for them to focus entirely on writing/drawing related to something they simply want to be playing.  Breaking the early design work up with some play and possible ways to do some of the prototyping within Minecraft might help.
  • Reminding players not to set off traps when exploring other teams’ builds.
  • Despite front-loading, some players simply can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to respecting others’ space and things in Minecraft.  They are accustomed to simply taking/using what they see and then arguing about it if there’s a conflict.  The solution?  Next time I’ll spread the teams out in the survival world.

I’m really looking forward to building on this first year prepping for next year’s camp.


Scrap Mechanic – An Engineering Sandbox of Fun

Years ago, a growing buzz in my social feed and from students kept pushing me to explore a retro-looking sandbox building game.  I ignored it as long as I could, but finally caved and tried the game.  The game was Minecraft and it had huge implications for learning.

scrapmWell, history repeats itself, though this time with considerably less resistance on my part.  Once again, my radar is getting pinged from different sources about a new game called Scrap Mechanic.  First, I’m seeing the amazing Adam Clark (aka WizardKeen) posting Let’s Play videos with the game.  Then, one of our district media coordinators contacted me saying that her son wanted to buy it and wondering if I knew anything about it.  So, I did the responsible thing… I bought it myself!  Check out the game trailer below:

After just a few moment of game play, I’m hooked and my kids are begging to play.  The game is still in an early release stage (beta), but it already seems very polished with nice graphics and ambient sounds.  The controls are intuitive and there’s a super-helpful in-game player guide reminiscent of LEGO building manuals to help you get started with your first creations.

There’s a great deal of learning potential, here, too.  The main idea of the experience, so far, is building structures and machines.  Building structures is relatively familiar territory, but the real fun is in machine building.  Unlike other sandbox games, physics plays a big role in Scrap Mechanic.  There’s gravity and other forces at work.  With engines, wheels, thrusters, and bearings, players can create everything from gas-powered cars to rocket-powered flying saucers, or if you’re so inclined, a rocket-powered flying saucer car.  Maybe you want to build a catapult to launch your friends across the world or build a transforming tree house.  These are just a few examples among many out there on YouTube.

sm-femaleCreative tinkering and trial-and-error exploration are hallmarks of the game play and those are just a couple of the reasons Scrap Mechanic has huge implications for learning.  This is a fantastic, digital maker space!  This would be a welcome addition to classrooms and media centers looking for an alternative digital space to encourage students’ creativity.  Either turn your learners loose and let them follow their own interests, or give them a challenge to help them get started!  Build a vehicle that can transport three or more crates from your shop to the warehouse.  Create a stable, rocket-powered car.  Design a machine that will fling your friends the farthest.  There are so many possibilities.  As they design students will have to wrestle with engineering challenges.  “How can I add weight to make this vehicle more stable?”  “To what angle should I set this bearing to maximize the reach of my lift arm?”

Check out this video of a group of YouTubers who’ve challenged each other to build machines to throw their friends across the map (mild language warning):

Again, this game’s in early release and the developers have more in store prior to the official launch.  You can currently purchase this game through Steam for $20 USD and it’s worth it.  I already have school media centers asking for it to use as a center for their school maker spaces which is really exciting.

Keep an eye on this one!




Teacher as the Game Master

Paper, pencil, and dice games are fundamentally simple.  Players track information for their imaginary characters using sheets that keep track of  vital numbers like health, charisma, dexterity, and strength.  With a roll of a few special dice, the outcomes of combat or encounters with story characters are determined and drive the game play forward.  Likewise the Game Master/Dungeon Master sets the backdrop, spins the initial story, spurring the players on  to adventure and uses their own dice rolls to randomize outcomes within a set of parameters.  Game sessions are engaging, imaginative, and far from canned experiences which makes them incredibly compelling.

So, what if a teacher were to take the best elements of the role of a game master to create an adventure in learning for their students?  What if that thematic unit you’d planned for October were not only immersive but also playable?  That’s the topic of one of my recent presentations.  Take a look!

Download your copy of the play-along Google Spreadsheet here!


 So, what do you think?  What tips and experiences do you have?



(Updated June 10th, 2016)

Permission to Be Silly – Permission to Engage

In my 17 years as an educator I’ve come to a conclusion.  We educators can be pretty stiff.  This, of course, isn’t always the case and there are exceptions to the rule, but sometimes we get bogged down in data-driven decision making, behavioral objective writing, assessments, and so forth.  All of those are valid and worthwhile, but sometimes we forget to let our hair down and simply be in the moment.  In fact, I fear some of us may have even forgotten how to be in the moment, cutting up and having fun.

cq-blueThe annual NCTIES Conference is an absolute highlight of my year as I have the opportunity to learn new things and connect, face-to-face, with my network.  It is also the perfect place to unleash my inner mad scientist for some fun social experiments.

You see, I think we all desire to have fun and even be a little silly from time-to-time.  However, professional conferences are rarely the place where this happens because of the aforementioned stuffiness.  [+ 5 to me for using “aforementioned”] What a missed opportunity!  Sometimes, we simply need a meaningful context to engage with others and grow our network while having a little fun in the process!

GAMEFUL THINKING to the rescue!!  Games give us a context to engage even when it’s difficult to find one.  So, last year, I created Quest Cards/Conference Quest to provide people with an excuse to have fun, meet new people, grow their network, commit random acts of kindness, and yes, act a little silly.

Conference Quest is back for #NCTIES16!  There are even new quests contributed by @ewolfhope and @kristinedwards3!  Want to play?  It’s easy.  You can play by yourself or with a group of friends.  All you need to do is download and print a set of cards for each player.  You can follow along with the #CQ and #NCTIES16 hashtags.  Will you be bold and challenge a featured speaker to an arm wrestling match or will you be the one who starts a zombie flashmob?

Download Your #NCTIES16 Conference Quest Cards Here

Update:  If you’d like your own set of blank cards to use with students or your own events, you can download them here.  Just please give attribution! Thanks!

#NCTIES15 – A Guide for First-Timers

Yes, that's me!The 2015 NCTIES is coming up next week.  I’m excited that there’s a fantastic team of educators going from Surry County Schools.  For many, this will be there first time.  I’ve gotten lots of questions about what to expect, so, I put together a pretty detailed “First-Timer’s Guide” to NCTIES.  It’s pretty detailed, so here’s a link to the Google Doc:

NCTIES 2015 – A Guide for First-Timers



It’s The Teachers That Make It EPIC

ninjaThree weeks ago, I launched the SCS EPIC Academy pilot with a group of educators in Surry County Schools.  In case you missed my last post on EPIC Academy, it’s a fully-online, game-inspired, approach to professional development.  Through a quest-based learning approach, teachers and administrators can select challenges that interest them, complete them in at a pace that’s right for them, and explore these topics to a depth of their choosing.  Follow a quest chain to its culminating “Epic Quest” and you’ll unlock an official SCS Badge.  That’s the elevator speech version, anyway.


So, what’s the response so far?  To date, 40 district educators are active in the system.  I just shared with them their collective accomplishments just a moment ago.  Together, they have:


  • Accumulated a total of 7880 XP!  (That’s 7.8 CEU’s!)
  • Completed 217 quests.
  • Acquired 91 achievements.
  • Submitted 201 quest ratings (for an average rating of 4/5 stars).
  • Shared 681 educational resources via Pinterest.
  • Discovered one ninja and her secret quest chain!
  • Unlocked 2 official SCS EPIC Academy Badges!


Beyond the numbers, however, our teachers are sharing some incredibly thoughtful reflections (especially on a game-inspired approach to learning).  Consider this reflection by one our guild members, tarheelgirl:


Considering the seductiveness of autonomy in gaming is a new thought process for me. What would it be like to set parameters and then allow students to chose a series of experiences to “test” their abilities? I am also drawn to the idea that children need to experience (really feel) success before they will be motivated to keep reaching for it. If you have never had chocolate….then you do not crave it and certainly will not walk on the treadmill to earn yourself a Hershey bar. If kids never feel academic success, then how will they know what they are striving to attain. Quick, easy success early on in acquiring a new skill could lead for more applied interest.


And, this thoughtful response from teacher_heather:


How will students learn to grow and change if they don’t learn to fail first?  I couldn’t help but think of when I used to play Mario as a kid.  I remember I would get so angry if I didn’t get past Bowzer to rescue the Princess.  I would take note on what I did wrong, fix it, and finally rescue the Princess!  Of course after hours of playing, I would get bored and voila!  I would find a secret tunnel that would lead to another land and find a few hidden treasures along the way.  If we give kids something to work towards through gaming, mixing math, science, etc. along the way and let them know that failing is okay, they would be more willing to do their best.  I would have to say the same for teacher’s professional development.


To say I am proud to be working alongside such professionals would be an understatement.


sortinghSo, what else is going on?  I am encouraging players to set personal goals for themselves this week and gave them some examples:  “I’m going to reach 300XP by week’s end.”  “I’m going to unlock my first badge this week.”  “I’m going to write a new blog post tonight.”  I’ve also challenged them to explore ways that we can use 3DGameLab’s newest feature, Teams.  Personally, I keep going back to Hogwarts, there.  I just need a sorting hat.


Lastly, the secret quest series.  To date, one player, iluveducating, has discovered the ninja, and has embarked on her quest to find the three hidden keys.  As a “game designer” (yes, air quotes, there… term used very loosely), I’m torn between dropping serious hints, and simply letting it unfold over time.  I’m leaning toward the latter, though it’s taking self-discipline!


In March, I’ll be presenting the pilot for the first time to our Board of Education and will also be doing a session at NCTIES 2015!  Stay tuned!



The Town of SpringHaven

There is a small village on the outskirts of a mountainous region, perched on a plateau overlooking the sea.  It sits in the shadow of a great castle adorned with great towers, fortified walls, and topped with a roof made entirely of blocks of pure diamond.  SpringHaven, as the locals call it, is a quaint village in a vast, largely unexplored world.  Shopkeepers and an ever-patrolling lad named Drakia, add to the activity and bustle, but real life is breathed into this town, and the surrounding regions, when the world’s architects are there.  I’m talking about the learners who are actively creating and building this living, breathing virtual world in Minecraft.  I merely provided them with the canvas, but they are the true artists who are making this year’s newly re-designed survival server come alive.


This year, we’ve re-launched our district’s survival Minecraft server with an emphasis on building community among our student-players.  If the first few weeks is any indication, they have embraced that call.  They designed our starting area, the town of SpringHaven, the great Diamond Castle that overshadows it, and are working to create a unique world, all their own.  Another goal of this year’s project is to increasingly hand over the leadership and ownership of this community to the learners.  We’ve instituted a challenge/rank system, offering players the ability to “level up” by actively contributing to the design of the world and participating in the community-building projects and contests that we will be rolling out.  We’ve also incorporating some exciting new plugins, including MCMMO which allows players to level up skills like Mining and Archery.

Just last night, we just launched our first event, a community build (a collaborative, server-wide building project), called “The Town of Deadwood!”  In the spirit of the Halloween season, players are invited to build a deserted, and haunted town, each choosing a different component to be responsible for, and working to add it to the town’s deserted streets.  By participating, they earn community participation points and can advance their “status” on the server as a contributor.  Want to see our event flyer?  You can find it here:

I’m thrilled at the level of engagement and ownership I’ve seen so far.  I can’t wait to see what’s next!


NCTIES 2013!! Game On: Play to Learn


So, needless to say, I’m pretty excited about this year’s theme for the conference.  There are a number of fantastic sessions related to games and learning.  My session resources can be found here:

Game on!


A Hero’s Journey: From Azeroth to Tyria (Guild Wars 2)

The WoWinSchool Project continues to amaze me.  What began in 2009 has grown, evolved, and continues to engage students in unique and exciting ways.  The keys are tapping into relevance and creating a space in which what our Heroes learn relates to the context of their experiences.

The curriculum that Craig Lawson and I wrote for the program and released in June of 2011 has resonated with other pioneering educators around the globe.  This year has been no exception.  With the more affordable, dynamic MMO’s entering the market and game-based learning gaining the attention of district-level decision makers, more Lorekeepers (teachers) are taking up the banner and guiding a new generation of student-heroes into this adventure in learning.

The adaptability of the learning quests in the curriculum makes it suitable for games beyond World of Warcraft.  In Pender County Schools, our programs have made a significant transition to a new world.  The subscription fees associated with WoW have, historically, made it cost-prohibitive for many would-be additions to the program.  As our allotment of 60-day subscription cards began to dwindle, I began to research viable alternatives that might allow us to continue our momentum.

I experimented with Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic, and though they have merits, both, at the time, were subscription-based, and in my experience, didn’t provide the epic-level experience we’d had in WoW.  I began following the developments of ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2 and held out hope that this might be the one.  A month after release, I was convinced.  Around this same time, LeVonda Vickery from the REACH School in Oregon, contacted me regarding her desire to use our curriculum with Guild Wars 2.  So, I wasn’t the only one thinking about the possibilities!  Guild Wars 2 would take us and our program forward, providing our heroes with deep, story-driven content, while adding a huge layer of community-driven experience I felt had always been lacking from World of Warcraft.

We conducted a test to see how well it would fit with a group of five students in Cape Fear Middle’s SAGA class.  Their feedback was very positive and the game performed acceptably on our newest Dell desktops (with integrated graphics) and beautifully on our Alienwares.  After discussing with our school-based Lorekeepers, we agreed.  “It’s time to move to Tyria!”

All of our 30+ Heroes have now embarked on a new adventure in Tyria.  GW2’s emphasis on character and story during character creation really sets the stage for focusing on a player’s role in the bigger picture of world events.  The unique level-adjusting system means that players who have outpaced their guild mates in level can go back to support their lower-level friends while still being challenged.

GW2’s focus on guilds also creates unique opportunities for our student guild, The Legacy, to engage with the larger server community.  The perks that guilds earn for gaining influence points (by working together in the game), allow for students to have a greater say in the direction of their community takes.  A great example of how we’re taking advantage of this is with our recent guild emblem contest.

Already, more schools have joined or expressed an intent to join the program in the near future.  The Legacy Guild is growing!  Exciting possibilities are on the horizon!