GameMaker at Gillen, Alice Springs

By Kym Urquhart
Gillen Primary School

Gillen is a medium sized primary school located in the west urban area of Alice Springs. The school provides educational programs for preschool through to year 6. Children from the local area attend the school whilst the school and town bus services provide transport to the school for those who live in caravan parks, the rural area south of town. A number of indigenous students from outlying areas attend Gillen and live at the St Mary’s Village.

The school incorporates the Deaf and Hearing support Unit (Lltyele Angkeme – the Arrente word for hand signing) for primary aged students who have varying degrees of hearing impairment.

The school’s enrolment has an indigenous population of around 75%. English as a Second language is becoming an important component of the school’s teaching focus due to the increasing number of Aboriginal language speaking students attending the school. In 2003, Gillen opened the Indigenous Bridging Unit, catering for children who are not quite ready to engage in mainstreams schooling.

Information, Communication and Technology lessons are currently available at Gillen School to students in Year 5 and 6. Students attend a 30 minute session with an outside instructor once a week. These lessons are delivered on the school lab computers (a pod of 6). Other than these machines students have access to one computer per class in the junior school and two computers in the senior school. Each classroom machine has Internet access and local server access. The majority of classrooms utilise these machines in a limited capacity due to time and skills limitations. Several teachers have had the opportunity to attend a Lighthouse School practicum in which teachers are able to observe not only ICT activities used in a Lighthouse school but a range of High Order Thinking skills activities. As a result of this experience teachers are beginning to extend the use of computers and other technology in the classroom. The Gillen GameMaker journey began also as a result of this Lighthouse practicum experience.

As a result of teachers attending these sessions we began to implement digital portfolios in literacy, this project is continuing. A winning grant submission is allowing digital portfolios to expand from 1 class to several classes in the Early Childhood area. Talking books were another area we have dabbled with at Gillen School. These complemented our Literacy program and gave indigenous students, in particular the Indigenous Bridging Unit students a chance to use technology and the excitement of hearing their voices and seeing their drawing on the big screen. The students responded in a positive way to all these ICT opportunities however the most popular by far was the discovery of the GameMaker program, created by Mark Overmars

In the beginning there were two teachers experimenting with GameMaker in an effort to understand the process prior to allowing students to join in. This quickly became a competition to see who could create more exciting and complex games. The focus at this time was on the creation of maze games in a similar vein to Pac Man. In the spirit of friendly competition, collaboration was entered into in an effort to build and extend our GameMaker skills. This collaboration resulted in the realisation that a particular learning cycle was followed in order to experience success with GameMaker creations. This action learning cycle - imagine, trial and evaluate was utilised by both the teacher’s developing their skills and the students who participated in the GameMaker unit.

As our experience and knowledge of the GameMaker production process grew, we began to investigate the links with the Northern Territory Curriculum Framework document. GameMaker proved to be a unit of work that had unlimited educational opportunities for Gillen students. The most obvious link to the curriculum was the Learning Technology area of the NTCF in both Problem-Solving and Decision-Making through Research and Communicating through Presentation, Publication or Performance strands. As we continued to work with the program many other curriculum links became apparent not only in the technology side but the design and reviewing elements. Links were found in the English, EsseNTial Learnings, Technology and Design, Mathematics and Arts areas of the curriculum document. With our first attempt at a GameMaker unit we chose to focus on the links with Mathematics, Technology and Design, EsseNTial Learnings and Learning Technology areas. All of these links to the curriculum document were investigated prior to research into the educational benefits of games and game creation. The links to the curriculum were later backed up when we began to research into what other people had already achieved and articles authored highlighting the benefits of game creation. One person that stood out as a strong support of game creation was Marc Prensky, it was interesting to read about the benefits of computer games and the levels of student engagement – after we had already witnessed the high level of engagement in our students.

In the EsseNTial Learning area of the program students were required to work collaboratively in order to construct and review their games. In many cases the students became teachers and worked collaboratively with the peers to assist in a certain skill. This was certainly one of the most successful outcomes in terms of student’s success, not everyone could be an expert and those students that had knowledge to share happily worked with students who were seeking that particular skill.

The obvious initial attraction of GameMaker for Gillen students was the drag and drop aspect of the program. This proved to be extremely beneficial for our ESL and ESD students. At the time we discovered GameMaker I have to admit that personally I had extremely limited knowledge of the benefits of game play and creation in education. However since undertaking the initial foray into GameMaker it became somewhat of a compulsion and as I explored further into the program and the opportunities the further I explored into the research and confirmed educational benefits for students.

The point of interest in Gillen’s case was the benefit and engagement of indigenous students as they make up the bulk of our clientele. In order to make the knowledge accessible for our students we chose to create a heavily scaffolded unit of work that provided students with the support and knowledge in incremental steps. This allowed students with the urge to extend their learning to do so and others that required support to move with the group. There are a number of Aboriginal speaking students with limited English skills in the class that created a simple single room game environment. We also had a profoundly deaf student begin to create a simple maze game with a character, monsters, walls and exit doors.

As the students began their journey with GameMaker the teachers found themselves increasingly pressured to find out more about extension activities and opportunities. In doing so this extended once more the educational outcomes that GameMaker addresses. Students began to experiment with sound and editing of sprites. Ethics then became an issue with students wanting more choice and more opportunities to learn about GameMaker. The students wholeheartedly embraced the concept of programming their own games and provided enthusiastic feedback to the teachers involved. Comments such as:
  • The best thing I have ever done in class.
  • It is fun to learn about.
  • It’s a great challenge.
  • After finishing my game I felt amazed, surprised and finally finished. J

It was this feedback that led us to continue researching and looking for more information on how to improve our student’s products.

Fortunately for us, GameMaker has a multitude of web resources along with a devoted following that allowed students the opportunity to download wanted sprites and sounds. For many students this was their first experience with downloading files from the Internet and in doing so discussions about copyright and associated Internet issues ensued.

In order to find out more a wider collaborative exploration and process began. The Internet provided a wealth of knowledge and contacts to pursue in the pursuit of GameMaker information. As a result of this search contact was made with Al Upton and the chance of having expert professional development was provided. Al in conjunction with Vincent Trundle from the Australian Centre for Moving Image provided this expert tuition to a select number of Alice Springs educators. This opportunity was supported by the Desert Oaks Cluster who provided funding for the participating educators. This event demonstrated the interest from Alice Springs teachers. As a result of the interest demonstrated in the GameMaker professional development session an application was made to the Australian Government Quality Teacher Program. This application has been to develop a professional learning community for teachers interested in pursuing GameMaker in their classroom and school. It was during this professional development session that we were encouraged to write a unit of work for fellow Northern Territory educators. This unit of work entitled A-mazing is the unit that was created following our implementation and experimentation of GameMaker in our classrooms. It is currently under submission for inclusion on the online resource NTexplore.

Two of the most beneficial resources and sources of collaboration are the EDNA GameMaker forum and the Games In Learning forum. These two lists are constant sources of new information, skills, opinions and resources available for computer gaming in the classroom. The EDNA forum provides links to the GameMaker pages, resources such as sprites and sounds, links to pedagogy and practice and links with other educators that are able to assist you with queries that you might have. The first item on the action plan for the Professional Learning Community was for members to join the Games In Learning forum, in order for all participants to begin to access articles and become involved in discussions.

A number of issues were encountered during our GameMaker experience. The most frustrating was the constant lack of time and access to computers for students. The most educational was the student’s constant thirst for knowledge and skills to utilise in their games. Students consistently created and thought up different scenarios that would never have been considered by the teachers. It certainly kept us on our toes. One of most pleasing aspects of the GameMaker unit of work was the student’s engagement in the activity from the initial planning and discussion right through to the creation and reviewing process. It was encouraging to see students being supportive and constructive in their reviews of fellow student games.

The use of GameMaker in the classroom produced a steep learning curve for both teachers and students. The program generated interest and excitement for everyone involved. It was difficult to tell who was most impressed with their creations: the students or the teachers. From a teacher’s point of view it was extremely satisfying to see students being encouraging with their review of teacher created games and the pride in which students from the class were able to tell friends “my teacher made this.” The other pleasing and satisfying aspect of the unit was the level of pride displayed in the products. Many students were eager to show friends, peers and other staff the result of their labours. They were genuinely proud of their achievements and loved sharing the games with any person who would look and listen. The students were also happy to be “experts” during this time, showing observers how they created specific elements of their game.

Personally the most beneficial aspect, other than the students’ success and motivation, was the collaboration and contact with likeminded educators from across the country. It has enabled professional discussion and the contact with more experienced teachers has not only assisted professional practice but has inspired us to extend ourselves, work together and learn from each other.

The future for GameMaker in Alice Springs is looking promising. The professional learning community is getting together and teachers have demonstrated an interest in learning more about it. As the learning community gains more experience and knowledge there can only be more teachers and students using the GameMaker program.