Category: Making Video Games

RobotBASIC: A STEM-focused Progamming Language

I’ve been talking with John Blankenship on LinkedIn about RobotBASIC, which allows students to control robots as well as create simulations and video games. Below is a write-up about the language and site, as well as links for more information.

RobotBASIC was developed by two retired college professors to motivate students to learn science, engineering, math, etc. It is the language we wish we had when we were teaching.

RobotBASIC is FREE for schools, teachers, AND students, and it is one of the most powerful educational programming languages available – it has nearly 900 commands and functions and it can control REAL robots in addition to the integrated robot simulator so it can easily be used by HS or college students.

This is NOT a demo or crippled version. RobotBASIC is TRULY free. There are no purchasing costs, no site licenses, no upgrade fees – EVER! We wrote RobotBASIC because we care about education and we give it away because we believe students NEED more exposure to engineering and programming BEFORE they go to college. And, they need exposure that is exciting and motivational so they will WANT to learn – they need RobotBASIC.

In addition to standard BASIC syntax, RobotBASIC also includes legacy-style commands that make it possible to teach some fundamental programming principles to even 5th graders (I have done this personally). You cannot believe how excited young students get when they do something where they feel THEY are in control (program the simulated robot). If simple programming concepts like this are introduced early, students will view programming as a natural tool by the time they get to HS.

RobotBASIC is also a great stepping-stone to college level courses because it also allows a variety of C-style syntax which makes it easier for students to transition to more cryptic languages like C and Java.

RobotBASIC is not built around other systems – rather it is its own COMPLETE system. One of the major advantages of RobotBASIC is its integrates robot simulator that allows ALL students to have their own PERSONAL robot to program, even at home to do homework. The 2D simulation, seems simple at first, but it has far more sensors that even the most expensive educational robots.

When a school is ready to move past simulation, RobotBASIC offers a fully-assembled REAL robot that has nearly all of the sensors as the simulation (perimeter sensors, compass, beacon detector, line sensors, and battery monitoring). This means that AFTER a student gets their program working with the simulation they can IMMEDIATELY control the real robot with the same program, making the real robot perform the same tasks. This system means that schools only have to buy one robot because students get to develop and debug their programs on the simulator. Remember, a real robot is NOT required. Many schools will be happy teaching robotics using ONLY the simulation, which is totally FREE.

We have eight introductory project-based lessons available as PDF downloads available on our EDUCATIONAL MATERIAL page at Many science and math teachers have never had a programming class, so the lessons are designed to allow students to progress with minimal supervision. RobotBASIC has an extensive built-in HELP system and there are many low-cost books available for those that need a more personal approach.

If you visit, near the top of the home page you will see some links to YouTube videos that show you how easy RobotBASIC is to use. There is also a link to an interview with me recently published by Circuit Cellar Magazine. Below all that, is a summary of the language’s major features.

If I can be of any help or provide you with more information, please let me know.

John Blankenship
Vero Beach, FL

A book is also in the works to provide classroom topics and assignments for science and math courses based on the programming language. This is an exciting gamification effort desperately needed in STEM fields. Outstanding effort by all.



The Rise of Kickstarter in Educational Videogames

The Internet has given rise to a number of social things. Social networks such as Facebook, crowd sourced loans through sites like Lending Club, and crowd sourced venture capital through sites like Kickstarter.

Sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer entrepreneurs opportunities to get seed funding for their projects. Participants put a pitch up on the site, and anyone interested can contribute toward getting the project off the ground. To encourage donations, rewards are often offered such as t-shirts, a donor’s name listed in the credits, or other innovative ways of making contributors feel rewarded and part of the process.

Several independent game companies have used Kickstarter to launch various titles. Funding requests can be all over the place in terms of amounts. For instance, Mindblown Labs asked for $60,000 to start up a financial literacy game called Mindblown Life. Currently they list more than 650 contributors who have pledged $1 to $3,000. Contributors at the $3,000 level get a virtual statue programmed in the game that looks like them, along with an in-game achievement named after them.

As with videogames developed commercially, there are fewer educational titles than entertainment titles. Mindblown labs notes theirs is one of the few specifically educational offerings on Kickstarter. Also, the dollar amounts for entertainment titles can be significantly higher, something also seen in traditional development circles. Project Eternity, a title from Obsidian, has almost $4 million pledged through Kickstarter. Top donors of $10,000 are invited to the developers’ launch party and receive all benefits of lower tiered donors, including the design of an epic weapon, designing and naming an NPC, etc.

Along with the rise of historically accurate popular games, such as those in the Assassin’s Creed series, there is a corresponding pitch for historical accuracy in some Kickstarter-funded games. Science fiction author Neal Stephenson started a gaming company called Subutai, seeking to bring historically accurate sword fighting to videogames. For CLANG (think of the sound steel swords make), Stephenson received pledges of over $500,000 from about 9,000 backers. Donors of $10,000 received replica real world swords used in the game. Lower level backers received concept art and their faces digitized onto characters.

But even for small game developers, who may or may not wish to go digital, Kickstarter provides a means of obtaining modest funding. INversionGames, for instance, offers a word game playing card set developed by Scrabble enthusiasts. To produce the cards, they asked for $1,000, which was easily funded by 61 backers.

Crowd funding is becoming so popular for gaming, a new site specifically for game titles has opened, Gambitious, although for the moment it is more European-centric and operates in Euros rather than dollars. Crowd funding through sites like Gambitious and Kickstarter hold the potential for removing lack of funding as a barrier to new game development. It’s possible professors and students may turn to crowd funding in the future when designing educational games for research purposes.


Research on Benefits of Children Playing Videogames

Some interesting new studies and projects have come out recently showing beneficial links to videogame playing for children. Linda A. Jackson, professor of psychology over at Michigan State University, led a study finding that videogame play was a strong predictor of creativity in children. Here is the abstract:

This research examined relationships between children’s information technology (IT) use and their creativity. Four types of information technology were considered: computer use, Internet use, videogame playing and cell phone use. A multidimensional measure of creativity was developed based on Torrance’s (1987, 1995) test of creative thinking. Participants were 491 12-year olds; 53% were female, 34% were African American and 66% were Caucasian American. Results indicated that videogame playing predicted of all measures of creativity. Regardless of gender or race, greater videogame playing was associated with greater creativity. Type of videogame (e.g., violent, interpersonal) was unrelated to videogame effects on creativity. Gender but not race differences were obtained in the amount and type of videogame playing, but not in creativity. Implications of the findings for future research to test the causal relationship between videogame playing and creativity and to identify mediator and moderator variables are discussed.

The paper can be downloaded here. The MSU press release is here. The paper is in press, and will be published in an upcoming issue of Computers in Human Behavior.


Meanwhile, A. Scott Cunningham, an assistant professor of economics over at Baylor, along with Benjamin Engelstätter at the Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforschung (Center for European Economic Research) and Michael R. Ward at University of Texas Arlington, released a working paper on the Social Science Research Network entitled “Understanding the Effects of Violent Video Games on Violent Crime.”

Researchers have long been able to measure physiological arousal in participants engaging in violent media. This physiological measurement is seen regardless of the media. Violent TV shows, movies, music, and videogames will elicit the measured arousal as study after study has shown. But, more tenuous are assertions this arousal leads to violence elsewhere once participants are away from the media. This study seeks to empirically link violent videogame sales with decreases in reports of violence. Here is the abstract:

Psychological studies invariably find a positive relationship between violent video game play and aggression. However, these studies cannot account for either aggressive effects of alternative activities video game playing substitutes for or the possible selection of relatively violent people into playing violent video games. That is, they lack external validity. We investigate the relationship between the prevalence of violent video games and violent crimes. Our results are consistent with two opposing effects. First, they support the behavioral effects as in the psychological studies. Second, they suggest a larger voluntary incapacitation effect in which playing either violent or non-violent games decrease crimes. Overall, violent video games lead to decreases in violent crime.

The paper can be accessed here. Some good articles discussing it in the media are here and here.


Finally, work on videogames to assist children in coping with medical problems continues in earnest. A recent example involves the University of Utah’s Engineering Arts and Entertainment (EAE) program, which brings in students from the school’s Dept. of Film and Media Arts and School of Computing to design interactive entertainment. Together with physical therapists and councilors, EAE students created a series of videogames designed to help children stricken with cancer. The unnamed minigames written for the PlayStation3 are currently being beta tested by patients in the pediatric ward at the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, with possible retail release in the near future. Articles on the games can be found here and here.

Study: Predicting Player Behavior and How Zynga Profits from Data Analysis

An interesting front page story in The Wall Street Journal today by journalist Nick Wingfield discusses how casual gaming giant Zynga cashes in on their millions of players. After developing Fishville, following in the footsteps of highly successful titles like Farmville, managers noted players spending in-game currency on one type of fish more so than others. The “translucent angler fish” was being purchased more than 6 times the rate of other virtual fish. So the company quickly developed a whole line of translucent sea creatures, charging as much as $4 (this time, in real world money) for more exotic varieties.

This formula has been very successful for the company. Although only about five percent of Zynga’s player base spends serious money in their games, so many millions of people play that the company rakes in millions. They rake in even more by figuring out what the players want through data analysis.

Zynga is transforming the game industry. Traditional videogame companies create games they think players will like, then sell them. Zynga offers free games through Facebook Inc.’s social network, then studies data on how its audience plays them. It uses its findings to fiddle with the games to get people to play longer, tell more Facebook friends about them and buy more “virtual goods.” At the heart of the whole process is Zynga’s ability to analyze reams of data on how players are reacting to its games.

“We’re an analytics company masquerading as a games company,” said Ken Rudin, a Zynga vice president in charge of its data-analysis team, in one of a series of interviews with Zynga executives prior to the company’s July filing for an initial public offering.

This formula for financial success has other companies following Zynga’s lead. Rather than spending millions developing a title with a short shelf life, companies are turning to free games with extras that cost money. The primitive graphics Zynga uses are generally derided by serious gamers, but Zynga aims for the mass market, much the way American beer brewers produce bland beverages that appeal to the most palates.

All of Zynga’s games go through what amounts to a giant ongoing lab experiment involving players. Zynga conducts hundreds of “A-B tests” within its games, in which two sets of players see virtual goods on sale with, say, subtle color differences to see which color sells better…

Sizhao Yang, a former Zynga executive who helped create its virtual farming hit “FarmVille,” says his development team figured out by analyzing virtual-goods-sales data that “people buy animals a lot more than tractors and other inanimate objects.” The findings led the “FarmVille” team to more prominently feature animals in its online store, he says.

Interestingly, Wingfield reports there is considerable tension in the company between the data jockeys and the game designers. The game designers have a certain idea of how a game should look and function. The analysts drive the direction of game development based on the data, leading to tension. Some designers have quit the company in protest. Still, data remains the keystone in Zynga’s game plan for the foreseeable future.

The Zynga story on data analysis comes on the heels of the recent International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games in Bordeaux this summer ( There, Brent Harrison and David L. Roberts over at North Carolina State delivered an interesting paper, Using sequential observations to model and predict player behavior. Here’s their abstract:

In this paper, we present a data-driven technique for designing models of user behavior. Previously, player models were designed using user surveys, small-scale observation experiments, or knowledge engineering. These methods generally produced semantically meaningful models that were limited in their applicability. To address this, we have developed a purely data-driven methodology for generating player models based on past observations of other players. Our underlying assumption is that we can accurately predict what a player will do in a given situation if we examine enough data from former players that were in similar situations. We have chosen to test our method on achievement data from the MMORPG World of Warcraft. Experiments show that our method greatly outperforms a baseline algorithm in both precision and recall, proving that this method can create accurate player models based solely on observation data.

While not fixating on the profit motives that Zynga has in mind, Harrison and Roberts offer clues to game designers in guiding player behavior in-game. Educational games could become more engaging:

The ability to accurately predict a player’s behavior in a game has a number of applications. While these applications are beyond the scope of this paper, we discuss two of them briefly here to better situate and motivate our approach. With a model of player behavior, we can create an experience that is unique to a user’s tendencies or preferences. For example, if we predict that the user will choose to fight a certain non-player character (NPC) rather than talk to it, that NPC can be made more willing to fight. Another application involves guiding players to parts of games that they may enjoy. Modern games often take place in large, sandbox worlds where the player is given total freedom. It’s quite possible that players may never see content that they would like because the sandbox is just so big. Predictions about a player’s behavior can be used to guide her to the parts of the game that she would enjoy.

Eschewing surveys, the authors recommend a purely data-driven approach (as does Zynga):

We feel that a purely data-driven approach has significant promise for creating accurate predictive models of player behavior in games without the difficulties associated with earlier modeling techniques. Very little research has been done in this area to date.

Read the entire paper for further discussion of the algorithm they developed. Very interesting.


Harrison, B & Roberts, D. L. (2011). Using sequential observations to model and predict player behavior. In Proceedings of the 2011 Foundations of Digital Games Conference. (FDG 2011), Bordeaux, France.

Wingfield, N. (2011, September 9). Virtual products, real profits. The Wall Street Journal, p.A1.

Center for Children and Technology Reports on DS Games at AERA

I’m honored to be invited to participate in a discussion group this fall put together by the Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology (EDC/CCT). The research this group is involved with in the field of classroom gaming is impressive.

The list of projects EDC/CCT is working on is extensive. Among many, one project with the U.S. Dept. of Education involves the design of educational game modules for the Nintendo DSi handheld, aimed at middle school science and literacy.

A paper by Marion Goldstein, Marian Pasquale, and Katie McMillan Culp, members of the Possible Worlds team at CCT, was presented recently at AERA 2011. Here is the abstract for the paper, entitled Using Students’ Naïve Theories to Design Games for Middle-Grades Science:

This paper reports on one phase of a long-term research and development project that is creating video game modules for middle-school science classrooms. The games are intended to help teachers address common scientific misconceptions by providing students with opportunities to interact with visualizations of otherwise abstract or inaccessible concepts or phenomena that are the source of those misconceptions. The visualizations serve as metaphors for natural phenomena, and linking activities help teachers build connections between the visualizations and the targeted concepts. Findings presented here are derived from formative research conducted to inform the development of a game and associated classroom materials that address genetics and heredity. The paper discusses how teachers in our sample typically teach this material in seventh grade, student expressions of common misconceptions about genetics and heredity, and how an initial design for the game responds to and addresses those misconceptions. Students’ misconceptions were associated with the concepts of randomness of inheritance, gene expression, and natural selection.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the team’s approach to instructional handheld gaming design is the commitment to research-based efforts. Through direct research with middle school students, the team uncovered several misconceptions held by the students through a series of experiments. When showed a mixed race couple, students’ assumptions regarding the physical makeup of the couple’s children were based on misconceptions. Other experiments uncovered faulty assumptions based on genetic adaptations of beetles and the random characteristics of lotteries. With this research in hand, the team set out to tackle common misconceptions among students at this age and grade level. The remainder of the paper discusses results with prototypes of the resulting game modules.

It’s an excellent report of a work in progress. Research and design such as this will ultimately result in stronger and more effective educational video games.

Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor Researches and Designs Social Games

I’ve been conversing via e-mail with Dr. Mary Flanagan, the founder of Tiltfactor at Dartmouth, where she is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities. Dr. Flanagan and Tiltfactor are doing exciting work in educational gaming. One of the key areas many researchers think it’s strongest is the social arena. This is where “fuzzy” concepts that are so difficult to teach through reading and lecturing can be more effectively transmitted via gaming. Consequently, Tiltfactor focuses on social games, including health and educational initiatives. Here’s a paragraph from their website explaining the organization’s purpose:

Tiltfactor is the first academic center to focus on critical play–a method of using games and play to investigate issues and ideas. Our mission is to research and develop software and playful art that creates rewarding, compelling, and socially responsible interactions, with a focus on innovative game design for social change. We are interested in the processes through which designers imbue their games with moral, social, and political values, whether intentionally or inadvertently, and the corollary processes through which these values are interpreted by players. Our approach involves extensive cross-disciplinary work among the Humanities, Social Sciences, the Arts, and the Sciences.

The academic gaming lab is funded in part by the NEH, NSF, and Microsoft. The center has researched and developed a remarkable list of educational titles. These include, among many others:

It’s exciting to see strong academic centers involved in educational gaming efforts like Tiltfactor is, and I encourage other educators and researchers to examine their work. As with most government funded initiatives, such as Josie True, the end product is freely available to schools and teachers. The research potential from their many efforts is considerable, and a list of selected books and articles Dr. Flanagan has written is here. Last but not least, Tiltfactor blog posts can be found at grandtextauto.

Check Out Virulent, a Hot New Medical Game in Development

One of the hottest areas in educational gaming at the moment is in the medical field, where players can be immersed in virtual biological environments. I’ve been corresponding by e-mail with Nathan Patterson at the Morgridge Institute for Research, a nonprofit biomedical research institute. Nathan sent a note describing what his team has been working on lately:

We recently released our first independently developed game called ‘Virulent’.  ‘Virulent’ is an action strategy game that was designed for the iPad but is also playable through the Unity Webplayer.  It places the player in control of a group of virus particles that are trying to spread their infection by evading the immune system and infecting cells.  The current version includes the first 7 of 15 designed levels.

The current version of Virulent is freely available for the iPad or the Unity WebPlayer. The team is seeking feedback as they continue building out the remaining eight levels. If you are interested in game design, would like to be part of a work in progress, and if you are willing to offer some insight and advice to the team, please take a moment to download the game and play through the levels.

For the iPad:

For the Unity WebPlayer:

Here’s a screenshot of the game on the iPad:

Making ESL More Game-like

Stephan J. Franciosi over at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto, Japan, has a neat article on introducing game-like elements to ESL/EFL instruction. It appears in the Feb., 2010 issue of The Internet TESL Journal.

Here’s the key quote:

I devised the following as a simple checklist for evaluating or modifying classroom activities. The items are based on game design literature, in particular Koster’s (2005) list of features shared by historically popular games (120), and Salen and Zimmerman’s (2004) discussion on what motivates us to participate in game-like activities (337). They are also partially intended as a summary of the theory (readers interested in learning more about educational computer game applications online are referred to the blog links in the reference section). In order to illustrate the major concepts incorporated in the questions, I will show how a commonly used classroom activity, the cloze task, could and should be more like computer games by showing the computer game application of each item, elaborating on the theory behind it, and discussing the application for classroom activities.

Included in the checklist are considerations on goals integrated into the games, incremental challenges, strategic decisions, and uncertain outcomes.

This is a great article for teachers of ESL interested in adding educational games to their pedagogical arsenal, and a good resource for those involved in the designing of related educational video games. Highly recommended.

Francois, S. J. (2010, February). Making ESL/EFL classroom activities more game-like. The Internet TESL Journal, For Teachers of English as a Second Language. [Online.] Available:

No Need to Reinvent the Wheel to Revolutionize Educational Video Games

(Fellow blogger Tom DeRosa and I are trading posts this week. He runs the excellent blog, I Want to Teach Forever. Be sure and take a look at his book, too.  Details after the article – JR)

I am not a gamer. I don’t own any consoles, and the only game I play with any regularity is Tetris online. When I look at video games today, I usually see them through the eyes of an educator. This is why I’m so convinced that everything we need to make paradigm-shifting educational video games that kids will actually play has already been created. Instead of starting from scratch, educators need to team up with innovative video game studios and merely tweak the powerful learning-based game models that already exist.

My revelation came over winter break as I was visiting my family in New Jersey. What was to be a very busy holiday turned into a week of me sitting on my Dad’s couch, sick as a dog. My father has an xBox 360 and regularly plays games that involve running around and shooting things (first person shooters or FPS in gamer parlance), none of which I’ve had interest in. This year he was focused on a game that was very different, where he was given a wide open world with innumerable choices and methods of achieving goals and completing tasks: Fallout 3, widely regarded as one of the best xBox titles ever (if not best video game ever).

It is a mix of first person shooter, role playing game (RPG), puzzle (in the vein of Myst or Riven) and open-world exploration (like a single player Second Life) on a scale that by all accounts is hard to find elsewhere. In this game, you make decisions that change your character, and who you are changes the possibilities of what you can do.  You solve difficult problems, most of which have more than one answer. It’s the kind of thinking that we want students to do in school, that we know they need for college and beyond, but it often gets buried beneath rote memorization and test-prep strategies.

Fallout 3 represents a world of well-designed, immersive, and most importantly popular video games that have most or all of the structural elements that make learning possible. These elements are now fairly common in top games:

  • Players make decisions that effect not only themselves, but the world around them.
  • Players are faced with multi-step problems that require logic and reasoning skills.
  • Collaboration and cooperation is encouraged (if not required).
  • An engrossing story creates a context that’s fun and far different than their school-influenced concept of “learning”.
  • Players are given small, specific tasks to complete, keeping meaningful goals in clear sight.
  • Each small task completed is often part of a bigger picture, and each one opens up the possibility for other tasks that keep the player going.
  • Most tasks or problems have multiple solutions.
  • A comprehensive, fairly automatic system tracks players’ achievements, and can be referred back to at any time.
  • There’s some level of freedom to explore and to choose which tasks they will do first (or at all).
  • Often, tasks require or would be made easier with background knowledge of a subject players might not already know about. They are often forced to look up and learn about these topics if they truly want to reach their goals.
  • Players are encouraged to go back and replay part or all of the game differently in order to reach measurable goals.

If you replaced the word “players” with “students” above, wouldn’t this list appear to be the features of an excellent, high-achieving classroom?

The immersive video game of today encourages, even requires learning and higher order thinking. The structure is there. More importantly, let’s not forget that these games represent the most popular and ubiquitous games available, with a generally bigger audience than movies and TV shows.

The only thing missing is for educators to partner with the studios to incorporate content across the curriculum, taking advantage of what’s already there. Isn’t that what the best teachers always do?

This is a guest post by Tom DeRosa, aka “Mr. D” of I Want to Teach Forever. You can find more ideas, resources and inspiration for teachers on his blog, or in his book Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition.

Exploring the Renaissance Through Videogames

Shortly after Assassin’s Creed 2 came out, gamers noticed the rich historical detail included in the game’s setting. The protagonist who players guide through the game is sent back in time to Italy, AD 1499, there to prowl around buildings and streets and attack villains. The developers, self-avowed history nerds, hired consultants to ensure the buildings were rich in period detail. Here’s how The Wall Street Journal reported on their efforts:

They hired Renaissance scholars to advise on period garb, architecture, urban planning, weaponry and the like. They took tens of thousands of photographs of interiors and streets. They used Google Earth liberally to piece together the ground-up and sky-down perspectives through which the action flows. …

The game’s creative director, a Montrealer named Patrice Desilets, lived in Italy for some years, where he acquired a feel for the vivid intrigues of the Renaissance. He grew fascinated, he says, with the notion that “finally people can control time, and relive the past, through games.” The producer, Sebastien Puel, was born in the south of France, in the fortified medieval French town of Carcassonne, and grew up surrounded by history. The head writer, a Harvard graduate from Los Angeles and former screenwriter, Corey May, was driven, he says, by the challenge of “telling a story that feels real and is set among real people who existed.” …

Overall, though, Assassin’s Creed II is as close as we’ve managed to get to real time travel. The grown-ups can lap it up as a kind of virtual tourism. For the high schoolers, still the main audience, the video offers a kind of education by stealth. History matters more if your life depends on it, even as Ezio, and even if you’ve got lives to spare.

The amazing thing is developers of a highly anticipated release would even care to get most of the details right. If modifications of the game are allowed, it may find its way into history courses. It may find its way into classes regardless. Other academic efforts, such as Rome Reborn offer students only the opportunity to explore architecture. In AC2 students can fight bad guys while exploring.

Now, another major game focusing at least in part on the Italian Renaissance is due for release. This one is based on Dante’s Inferno. Yes, players will plumb the depths of hell, as envisioned by Dante, in this game from Electronic Arts. As you might imagine, hell is a bit graphic. Also, if you’ll recall, Dante described levels associated with the seven deadly sins. In the game, the level for lust is particularly graphic, replete with phallic symbols and nudity. This and other extreme graphics earn the game an M rating.

Producers are releasing a print edition of the poem illustrated by pictures from the game, hoping to encourage players to read Dante’s original work. Maybe kids who talk their parents into buying the game, despite its M rating, can actually learn something about the original work. But, I suspect parents would prefer the old-fashioned text version of the poem rather than an explicit video game.

Kaylan, M. (2010, January 12). Time travel gets closer to reality. The Wall Street Journal, D7.