Games Development the ideal cross-curricular topic

I spent over 10 years as a software engineer in industry, working mainly on database systems and in that time I never once used Physics and very rarely used Maths. However when I started teaching Games Development around 7 years ago, I finally started to use both Maths and Physics and it quickly dawned on me that Games Development would be an ideal way to engage students in Maths & Physics.

Around 3 years ago (2010-2011) Curriculum for Excellence came into schools in Scotland and was implemented in Primary Schools first. Part of curriculum for excellence was to contextualise subjects to make links between subject areas in order to make the learning relevant and meaningful for students. Teachers started developing cross-curricular topics in Primary Schools and were fairly successful at implementing these.

“Curriculum for Excellence encourages teachers to use their professional expertise and creativity to show how subjects can be linked, just as they are in life and work.” (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Education/Schools/curriculum/ACE 2011)

High Schools only properly started implementing Curriculum for Excellence in the last academic year (2012-2013) and I think it would be fair to say that they found it harder to find cross-curricular topics to make this work in High School.

This leads me back to Games Development, which I believe is the ideal cross-curricular topic to engage learners in traditional subjects like Maths, Physics, English, Music and Art, as well as ICT. These are subjects in which males in particular, have been disengaging in recent years.

In recent years Valve, a major games company, have been trying to get involved in education. They said,

“It’s eye-opening to see how video games can be used in amazing and unexpected ways to help educate our next generation”

In 2011 Valve made their popular puzzle game Portal free as they wanted teachers to play it and understand how much potential it has in educating young students, in subjects like Physics. Valve are quoted as saying,

“Using interactive tools like the Portal series to draw them in makes physics, maths, logic, spatial reasoning, probability, and problem-solving interesting, cool, and fun which gets us one step closer to our goal—engaged, thoughtful kids.”

(http://www.develop-online.net/news/38654/Portal-goes-free-in-Valve-education-push 2011).

In 2011 NESTA collaborated with industry luminaries Alex Hope and Ian Livingstone to publish Next Gen – a widely-applauded government advice paper on how to improve the teaching of computer science in English Schools.

The report came up with some interesting recommendations:

  • Use video games and visual effects at school to draw greater numbers of young people into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and computer science.
  • Include art and computer science in the English Baccalaureate.
  • Encourage art-tech crossover and work-based learning through school clubs.
  • Introduce a new National Video Games Development and Animation Schools Competition.

In February 2013, Michael Gove adopted one of the main recommendations of the report by announcing that Computer Science was going to become part of the English Baccalaureate.

Learning and Teaching Scotland (now Education Scotland) started a game based learning initiative in 2006 called “The Consolarium” which focused on game based learning,

“The vibrant and dynamic world of the computer game and its impacts on learning and teaching is an area that Learning and Teaching Scotland is committed to exploring, promoting and developing.” (http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/usingglowandict/gamesbasedlearning/index.asp 2011)

The Consolarium also looked at Game Design as well as game based learning,

“Game Design is a creative medium. It challenges pupils to analyse problems, structure solutions and continuously evaluate their progress. There are many game design tools available for use in schools and at home. It can be used in a number of different ways in our curriculum – not just within computing clasrooms.”

(http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/usingglowandict/gamesbasedlearning/gamedesign/gamedesignandlearning.asp 2011)

With all this supporting evidence, I believe that Secondary Schools should use Games development as an integrated learning context to support Curriculum for Excellence. Games development is an ideal topic for the “Joyning the learning” approach that is an integral part of Curriculum for Excellence. Games development involves Computer Programming, Physics, Maths, English, Music and Art. Many would consider that Games Development is 90% programming and although programming is a vital part of it, there are so many other curricular areas involved.

Girls are currently outperforming boys, at most levels and in most subjects (even traditionally male subjects). This should help re-address this issue; however it should not disenfranchise female learners, as more and more females are getting involved in gaming. Indeed it should actually help address the issue of the lack of females choosing Computer Science as a subject in secondary school, when they choose subjects to study in the senior phase. This is reflected by the lack of females working in the computing industry and in particular within the games industry.

A Level Entry by Subject
A Level Entry by Subject

Adding further encouragement to using Games Development as a cross-curricular topic is the fact that from the early level through to the fourth level, curriculum for excellence lists Games Development as an experience and outcome that all students are meant to experience.

CFE Experiences and Outcomes for Games Dev
CFE Experiences and Outcomes for Games Dev

How do the various subject areas fit into Games Development?

I will now examine how different subject areas tie in with Games Development as a cross-curricular topic.

Computer Programming

Programming is still central to games development and a topic that has been losing interest in secondary schools until recently; however you can teach the same programming skills that you would learn making a Business application by making a computer game or mobile phone app. If anything games programming is slightly more difficult as it encompasses things like Physics and Maths.  Programming is a vital 21st century skill and a skill that is in high demand by industry. There are currently more jobs available in programming, than there are graduates to fill those positions. Games programming is the ideal way to get young learners interested in programming.

Physics

Physics is central to games, the Holy Grail in games is to make the game experience as realistic as possible and this is achieved by making games look and feel as real as possible. A major part of this is applying real world physics into the games. Things like Newton’s laws of motion, projectile physics and aerodynamics can all be applied in games.

Physics in Angry Birds
Physics in Angry Birds

English

English isn’t a subject you would normally associate with computer games, however more and more authors are getting involved in writing the storylines for games. Some of the big games have better production values and better writing in them, than some Hollywood movies. The biggest computer games make far more money than any Hollywood blockbuster. Students involved in essay writing, could write the storyline for a game, that they will then go onto make in computing. The story may even be displayed in the game or incorporated visually. 

Art

More and more games companies are employing people to work in specific areas, such as art direction, 3D animation, 2D animation etc. Art and in particular 2D and 3D graphics are vital to any game. Learners could be set tasks to produce art work, that would then be incorporated into a game. The art doesn’t necessarily have to be electronic, as the art could be scanned into an electronic format to be included in a game. Something my students did very successfully recently, when producing games for this years HNC graded unit projects in my college. Where they scanned in art work created by local Primary School children and incorporated the art into their games.

Music

In a similar vein to Art, Music and Sound Effects are specific job roles in computer games development. Games need original music and sound effects to make the game a fully immersive experience. Again students could be set projects to produce sound effects or original music scores that could be incoporated into a game.

Maths

Maths is one of the main skills that games companies look for from potential employees. Maths is involved at so many levels in games development. A simple example of this is the use of trigonometry in games to work out the direction a vehicle is moving in. Learners could be set problems to solve that could then be directly implemented in a computer game.

Trigonometry in Games
Trigonometry in Games

ICT

To support all these subject areas would require a whole range of ICT skills, such as Word Processing, Photoshop, Music Applications, Sound Editing Software, 2D/3D animation packages and so on.

Enterprise

Enterprise is an area in secondary education that is becoming more and more popular and games development is an ideal topic for this. It includes core skills central to Enterprise, such as communication skills, problem solving skills and team work where you can develop a game in a group by assigning different roles and therefore takes advantage of the different skills sets the learners possess. In 2012 Paisley Grammar pupils came into Reid Kerr College for advice as part of an Enterprise project where they were attempting to develop an iPhone App; we were able to help them by producing a PC prototype of their game.

Conclusion

Two main problems exist in making this happen, one is a lack of programming skills amongst secondary school computing teachers, who for years have been primarily teaching Microsoft Office. The other problem is getting different departments and indeed teachers within those departments to work together to make this happen across subject areas.

The Scottish government have just announced £400,000 over 2 years to CAS (Computing at Schools) Scotland for CPD training of computing teachers (http://www.compednet.com/2013/06/government-funding-for-cs-cpd-programme/ 2013). Hopefully this money will be used effectively to help computing teachers, throughout Scotland, to update their skills, particularly in the area of computer programming.

In regards to the second problem, it will require management within secondary schools to recognise the value of Games Development as a cross-curricular topic and then show strong leadership to implement it by getting departments to work together.

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Making games in partnership with local Schoolchildren

This year our HNC Games students at Reid Kerr College worked in partnership with a local Primary School, Lochfield Primary in Paisley, to produce games for their HNC Group graded unit project. This is the third year we have worked in partnership with Lochfield for our HNC Graded Unit games, however this year we took things a step further with the schoolchildren actually contributing art work for the games.

Students presenting ideas to Lochfield Primary
Students presenting ideas to Lochfield Primary

The project began in February and in discussion with the school we set the theme for this years games to be “Healthy Living”. So we tasked our students to come up with game ideas that promote an awareness of the benefits of healthy living and asked them to select a representative from each team of 4, who would present those ideas to the primary school. On the 8th of February we visited Lochfield Primary and our students gave PowerPoint presentations on their game ideas to around 70 Primary 6 pupils. They were then given the opportunity to get feedback from the kids and discuss their ideas further in small groups, effectively using the schoolchildren as a focus group. Some of my students were extremely nervous about the idea of presenting to and talking to schoolchildren, but as in previous years those fears soon dissipated when they realised how enthusiastic and positive the children were about the games, something that rubbed off on the rest of their team-mates when the representatives reported back. One thing that we introduced this year, which we hadn’t done before, was that we asked the schoolchildren to draw art for the games, so during the discussions with the schoolchildren, our students also discussed with them the types of art they would like them to create.

Discussions with the schoolchildren
Discussions with the schoolchildren

From February to May our students worked away in their teams turning their concepts into games for Windows 7 using XNA4. We received a bunch of art from the schoolchildren which we scanned in and used in at least half the games, along with art produced by our own students.

On May 20th we had a big event at the college and over 70 Primary 6 pupils were bussed into the college for the day. We had to split the schoolchildren up and we enlisted help from the Care & Construction departments in our college, who took turns with half of the group while the other half played the games our groups had created. Once the children were finished playing the games they went onto an online survey and rated the games out of 20, based on originality, graphics, sound and most importantly gameplay.

Schoolchildren playing the games
Schoolchildren playing the games
Total concentration
Total concentration

Lee Stott from Microsoft attended the event and very kindly provided prizes, in the form of Kinects, for the winning team. It was a close call between two of the games and in the end one vote could have swung it either way; eventually the only game which featured a 2 player mode won. In the end it was a triumph for gameplay, however the game which came second had an excellent concept, was a great game with far more complexity to it and even had a level designer. I’m hopefully they will develop it further and enter it into the imagine cup next year.

The top 4 games as voted for by Lochfield Primary 6
The top 4 games as voted for by Lochfield Primary 6

This partnership with Lochfield Primary has improved our students’ experience of learning in a number of ways and opened the eyes of the schoolchildren to games development as a possible career path.

Benefits to Games Development students

1. They had a realistic learning experience by designing and writing games for a live client group.

2. The partnership was an enjoyable and positive learning experience for both the schoolchildren and the college students, as they experienced working with a partner to produce artwork for the games.

3. The competitive element of the partnership was appealing to them and a motivating factor.

4. Peer review by other students and by the schoolchildren was invaluable in forming ideas on how the games could be improved in the future.

The winning team (from left to right: David Savage, Grant Hamilton, Michael Collins, Ryan Kennedy along with Lee Stott from Microsoft).
The winning team (from left to right: David Savage, Grant Hamilton, Michael Collins & Ryan Kennedy, along with Lee Stott from Microsoft).

Lee stayed on after the schoolchildren had left and took part in a judging event in the afternoon with my HND Games Development students, who had been tasked with producing a Windows Phone game based around an apocalyptic theme (so lots of Zombie games). We had an impressive judging panel,which I had kept as a little surprise from my students :-),  that included myself, David Marshall & Martin Barrett from Reid Kerr, Fiona Rushton & Ian Tyson from James Watt, Daniel Livingstone from UWS and of course Lee Stott from Microsoft. Ten of my students presented their game concepts, how their games had been developed and how they felt about the way their game had turned out. They also answered questions from the panel, who had the opportunity to play all the games on Windows Phones. In the end the panel came up with a top 3 and Lee presented the winning student with a Windows Phone as a prize.

The winning game - Dead City
The winning game – Dead City
The winner of the Windows Phone from Microsoft for best Graded Unit game
Ally Louden – winner of a Windows Phone from Microsoft for the best Graded Unit game
The 2nd and 3rd placed games - Escape and Haven (Escape on the right hand side, Haven at the bottom left).
The 2nd and 3rd placed games – Escape and Haven (Escape is on the right hand side, Haven is at the bottom left).
Runner up Ryan Anderson and 3rd place Daniel Boyle
Runner up Ryan Anderson and 3rd place Daniel Boyle

Kinect Games Version 4

I have updated all my Kinect games to use the new Kinect SDK v1.7 and with it I have added some significant changes.
Math Mage & Word Mage
Math Mage & Word Mage now feature a fully immersive, interactive Augmented Reality experience, where the player actually appears in the game world wearing a Mage hat nonetheless :-). This works for both 1 player and 2 player modes. You can also now press number keys 1 or 2 to toggle player 1 or 2 between Right-Handed and Left-Handed modes. You can also take extra snapshots of the players in the game by pressing the SPACEBAR on the keyboard.

Math Mage with Augmented Reality
Math Mage with Augmented Reality

In Math Mage you swipe through the correct numbers using your right hand or left hand in the style of “Fruit Ninja” and you must avoid swiping the wrong numbers. It can be used to revise times tables, odd numbers, even numbers and prime numbers. Word Mage uses the same principal, but with Nouns, Adjectives, Verbs and Adverbs, where you must swipe through the target words and ignore the words outwith the target category. You can edit the word lists and there is even a miscellaneous category where you can make up your own word lists based on anything like countries, capitals, foods etc.


NoNeed4Green
Kinect Games version 4 also features my new NoNeed4Green, the Green screen without a green screen, which you can read more about in my recent posts, but it bascially lets you create scenes using background pictures and foreground objects of your own choosing, while people who stand in front of Kinect are cut out and placed in the layer between the background and foreground to produce images which can be saved. Watch the video below recorded using FRAPS and you will get the idea.

Kinect Magic Cursor
My magic cursor, which lets you control Windows using your hands, now works with press and grip gestures for doing the left mouse button. To simulate a left-click you simply PRESS with your left hand. If you GRIP (make a fist) with your right-hand it simulates holding the left button down. If you RELEASE (stop making a fist) it releases the left mouse button. To move the mouse cursor you simply move your right-hand in front of Kinect.

Kinect Angles, Kinect Time and Kinect Pong remain pretty much as they were, but are updated to use Kinect SDK v1.7.  Read my earlier blog posts for details of those games.
Click here to download the full stand-alone installer for the latest version of Kinect Games which includes Kinect SDK v1.7.

Click here to download the latest installer for Kinect Games without Kinect SDK v1.7 (for those of you already have the SDK this download is significantly smaller).

The games require a Kinect for Windows or Kinect for XBOX360 device connected to a Windows 7 or 8 pc.

Please download the games and use them with your students. I’d love feedback from teachers who are using the games on their experiences with playing the games in their classrooms. Please email me at david.renton@wcs.ac.uk with comments and feedback.

Kinect NoNeed4Green v2

I’ve already made some changes to my NoNeed4Green, so here is version 2. The main addition being the facility to add foreground pictures. The foreground pictures have their own sub-folder called foreground and they use PNG files only, as you need images with transparent backgrounds for it to work. This allows you to put objects in front of the live cut-outs of people as well as having a background behind them. This lets you do things like putting someone behind the desk of the oval office or behind the desk of the BBC newsroom or on the bow of the Titanic. You can also now resize and move all 3 layers. Layer 1 is the background, layer 2 is the live cut-outs of people, while layer 3 are the foreground objects.

NoNeed4Green new interface
NoNeed4Green new interface

There is a few new keyboard controls as well :-

H toggles between hiding all on-screen buttons and revealing them.
Keys 1,2,3 select layers 1,2 and 3 to allow you to move and resize them.

Here is a video demonstrating how it works.

Download it from the link below, unzip it and double-click on the .EXE file to run it. You require Windows 7 or Windows 8, XNA4 runtime and Kinect SDK 1.7 installed.

Click here to download No Need 4 Green version 2 in zip format.

Click here to download No Need 4 Green version 2 with C# source code in zip format.

Kinect No Need 4 Green – The Green Screen without a Green Screen

This little piece of software allows you to produce easily, quickly and cheaply the type of picture that you would normally need a proper green screen setup to create. The software uses a Kinect for Windows or Kinect for XBOX360 device connected to a Windows 7 or 8 pc.

All you need to do is stand in front of the device and it will cut you out. You can choose between different backdrops, which you can add to by copying your own pictures (JPEG or PNG) into the PICTURES sub-folder. You can zoom in & out and move the cut out image using the keyboard or by on-screen controls.  You can take snapshot pictures of what is displayed in the window and these pictures are saved into the SNAPSHOTS sub-folder.

Kinect No Need 4 Green The Green Screen without a Green Screen
Kinect No Need 4 Green
The Green Screen without a Green Screen

The keyboard controls are as below:-
SPACE bar takes a snapshot photo
W,A,S,D keys move the cut-out image left, right, up and down
+ and – keys zoom the cut-out image in and out
UP and DOWN keys allow you to adjust the viewing angle of the Kinect Device
LEFT and RIGHT keys allow you to choose the backdrop picture
M toggles mirroring mode on and off
F11 toggles full screen mode on and off
C toggles depth cut off mode on and off. This mode changes the way Kinect cuts the image out, by cutting out based on the distance from Kinect, rather than trying to cut out individual people. When in this mode the < key and the > key allow you to adjust the cut off distance.

Download it from the link below, unzip it and double-click on the .EXE file to run it. You require Windows 7 or Windows 8, XNA4 runtime and Kinect SDK 1.7 installed.

Click here to download No Need 4 Green version 2 in zip format.

I created it using Visual C# 2010 with XNA4 & Kinect SDK v1.7.

Click here to download No Need 4 Green version 2 with C# source code in zip format.

I must give a shout out to my friend Jimmy Edwards who did a similar thing earlier this year, you can have a look at his project here.

Kinect Magic Cursor version 1.7 with Gesture support

I am releasing a new version of Kinect Magic Cursor which works much like the last version except it now uses gestures to simulate the left mouse button, instead of raising your left hand. So now your right hand controls the mouse pointer and you can PRESS with your left hand to simulate a single left mouse button click. You can also GRIP (make a fist) with your right hand to simulate holding down the left mouse button for dragging, selecting etc. To stop holding it down you simply RELEASE (stop making a fist). I went with the LEFT hand for PRESS rather than the right hand as I found pressing with the RIGHT hand tending to move the cursor and made it hard to click on small buttons.

Download it from the links below, unzip it and double-click on the .EXE file to run it. You require Windows 7 or Windows 8, XNA4 runtime and Kinect SDK 1.7 installed.

Click here to download Kinect Magic Cursor V1.7 in zip format.

Click here to download Kinect Magic Cursor v1.7 with C# source code in zip format. I wrote it using Visual C# 2010 and XNA4.

Makey Makey

If you haven’t seen Makey Makey have a look at this amazing piece of kit. It basically simulates a USB keyboard and mouse, but allows you to map things connected to the Makey Makey board to keyboard buttons and mouse buttons. The exciting bit is the “things” that you can map, which are basically any objects (including human beings) which conduct electricity. Watch the video below and you will get the idea.

Gareth Ritter of askthemusicteacher fame, pointed me in the direction of Makey Makey and asked me if I could write a program to map keyboard buttons to slides in PowerPoint, so that he could map real world objects to different slides in a slideshow. I put this together using C# and you can download it below.

Click here to download Powerpoint Controller for use with Makey Makey.

It requires XNA4 runtime (a bit unnecessary I realise but I was reusing code from an XNA game to save time) and will run on Windows XP, Windows 7 & Windows 8.