Bloxels for 4th graders–game design thinking

Design (Thinking) Process

[Taught: 2017-18 school year to the present]

Using an app-based game-creation platform called Bloxels, I tasked 4th graders with making the most fun game they could–for an audience of their classmates, the wider school community, and anyone playing in the the Bloxels Arcade.(1)

Students worked in small groups, framing their efforts with design thinking, a highly human-centered process that emphasizes imagining (or empathizing with) users’ experiences, creative problem-solving, and swift iteration. Within each group, students took primary responsibility for one of three roles: Character Designer, Layout Designer, or Story & Theme Designer.

(1) The games students shared to the Bloxels Arcade contained no personally identifying information.

Horizns – an augmented reality, collaborative storytelling game

Horizns logo 1_croppedHorizns is my thesis project for the M.A. Program in Digital Media Design for Learning at NYU, created (in 2015) using the ARIS (Augmented Reality Interactive Storytelling) platform.

Here’s the back-of-the-box description:

Playable by anyone aged 12 and up, Horizns is a narrative-based, augmented reality (AR) game ultimately designed for collaborative storytelling in grades 7-12 ELA and/or Social Studies classrooms.

Players begin by participating in the (fictional) “Horizns Rewards Program,” an AR tour of the history of Times Square, NYC. The plot takes a dark turn, however, as players must “dystopify” the world around them; and everyone’s best chance at escaping a dire future means interacting with the dystopian visions of others.

If you’re interested in my (six-minute) talk introducing Horizns to attendees of the ECT-DMDL Design Expo (5/15/15), you can find it here. [Warning: Contains spoilers! ;-)]

My general aim with this project was to make something that was a) genuinely constructivist and constructionist; and b) a genuinely engaging gaming experience. More specifically, as far as learning theory goes, the  game’s design is ultimately driven by the notion of “Social Imagination,” which Maxine Greene defines as learners’ “capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, and in our schools” (Releasing the Imagination, 2005, p. 5). And for a bit more on the theory behind Horizns‘ design, please feel free to check out my Design Expo poster (pdf).

Choose Your Own (Grammatical) Adventure – Ambiguous Pronoun References audio narrative

Created for:

Project length:

  • Short (one week).


  • Matt McGowan (solo project/assignment).


  • “Create an audio piece that uses narrative to help teach a topic you know well, but that is typically narrative-free.”

For my “typically narrative-free” topic I chose ambiguous pronoun references, an error I saw time and again when I taught undergraduate composition and literature courses. Here’s the audio narrative (with me reading the script):

And here’s a brief sketch of the target audience, learning goals, and applicable learning theories:

Target audience

Middle school-age, language arts class.

Learning goals

By being immersed in a narrative environment, students will listen for and learn about the lack of clarity that can result from ambiguous pronoun references. As the narrative is audio-only, in addition to learning the grammatical issue addressed, students may also improve their listening (and therefore audio-processing) abilities.

The attached example merely shows one player-student choice for one example of an ambiguous pronoun reference. Further examples/encounters will allow for a certain amount of branching of the storyline. Player-student choice is not about making the right decision, but rather exploring different options for editing and/or rewriting so as to avoid this grammatical problem.

Learning theories

Affective Learning: The relative immersiveness of the (focused, audio-only) narrative aspect of this lesson is designed to engage and motivate students on a certain emotional level.

Gamification: The mild (chose-your-own-adventure-style) gamification of the lesson is designed to increase student motivation and encourage review via replayability.

Information Processing Theory: The focused, deep listening that students are required to do for this lesson should aid in the development of their listening skills–that is, their ability to process, store and eventually draw from information and stimuli that the audio narrative provides.

Self-determination Theory: The choose-your-own-adventure-style format enables students to have a certain amount of autonomy in the way they progress through the lesson.

Audio credits:

“Mama Hen Is Sick!” – an interactive fiction game

Created for:

Project length:

  • Medium (approx. the middle third of the term).


  • Matt McGowan (solo project/assignment).


Create a game using Inform where the player must solve a mystery based on the traces left in the environment. As part of the concept of the world, establish events that happened in the mystery and that the player will have to reconstruct.


Your game should at least have one NPC [non-player character] to talk to, and there should be a set of mechanics that allows the player to input the solution of the case.

In the coding, the length of the strings is 140 characters. You can generate text dynamically that is longer than that on the screen, though.

The final game should be a short scene that players can solve in 7-10 minutes.

Here’s part of the description of “Mama Hen Is Sick” as originally conceived (with inspiration swiped from The Space Merchants and–the Sonmi~451 story in–Cloud Atlas):


The not-too-distant future, in a factory that grows and processes vat-grown meat, the mass of which is named “Mama Hen.” The processing is attended by three dozen human clones (all male), supremely loyal and compliant laborers who live in the factory where they work. Unbeknownst to the clones, however, the factory is about to get bought out, meaning the fate of the entire operation is up in the air. All senior management staff are off at a “retreat” (a Machiavellian buyout negotiation preparation summit), leaving the janitor (a non-clone human who also lives in the factory) and the factory AI in charge.

The story takes place at night, when all the other clones are asleep. The central mystery revolves around finding a saboteur who has infected Mama Hen with some kind of flesh-eating disease that’s causing her to rapidly (and disgustingly) deteriorate. She could be dead by morning. The player character (PC) is awakened from his sleep cycle by the factory janitor, who says he needs help cleaning up the unholy mess that Mama Hen’s deterioration is creating. The janitor also wants to see if the PC knows anything about what’s happening to the meat.

The principle/iterative difference between the finished product and the outline for the game is that I ended up getting rid of the janitor NPC, as the AI NPC served all the story purposes I had in mind just fine (and I only had 7-10 minutes of play time to tell that story).

“Mama Hen Is Sick!” is entirely a text-based game, but this is the “map” I had in mind when making it:

outline draft 3.001

And here’s a game play screen from the opening scene:

Mama Hen Is Sick!

This interactive fiction assignment was my first-ever intensive coding experience. I’ve since learned that Inform 7 is a…let’s say “weird”…place to start such a journey. It felt it. This fact, combined with the assignment’s constraints–the 140-character string limit, in particular–, made for an extremely challenging design scenario. It also made for one of the most educational experience I had in the DMDL program.

If you’d like to play “Mama Hen Is Sick!”, the zipped Inform file is here on Dropbox. (And if you don’t have an “interpreter” to play interactive fiction on, here’s a list of a bunch.) I plan on going back to work on–expanding, tightening, polishing–the game in the not-too-distant future; but, until then, if you do play it, feedback (good and bad) is most welcome!

Making art history come to life with “Frieze Tag”

Frieze Tag wireframe - Figures assembled

Created for:

Project length:

  • Short-medium (final two weeks of class, design document).


  • Matt McGowan (solo project/assignment).


  • Design a learning game; produce a design document that contains a detailed software analysis (or landscape audit), related classroom activities, and a mockup or prototype.

My response to this assignment was a design for a multimedia, augmented-reality learning game/app called “Frieze Tag!”

The full design document can be found here:

“Frieze Tag” design document (pdf)

These are a few screens from the mockup (or rigged-path prototype) I created for the prototype:

And here are some images from the “Klepsydra” segment of the 2004 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony in Athens:

“The Great Mural of Our People” – a MinecraftEdu + Makey-Makey design

Drawing of Stonehenge builders rolling stones

Created for:

Project length:

  • Short (one week, design document).


  • Matt McGowan (solo project/assignment).


  • Integrate tangible computing into another assignment done during the semester.

I elected to add a tangible element to the design I did for the course’s “Empowering narrative-making in others” assignment earlier in the term–a MinecraftEdu-based project entitled “The Great Mural of Our People” (the text of which is here, for comparison’s sake). Here’s the result of adding Makey-Makey to the mix–wherein students design simple, interactive machines that simulate laborers operating the same machine together:


Interface critique – the Vtech Rhyme & Discover Book

VTech Rhyme & Discover Book cover

Created for:

  • Digital Media Design for Learning (DMDL) degree; Interaction Design for Learning course (Fall 2013).

Project length:

  • Short (one week, design document).


  • Matt McGowan (solo project/assignment).

This toy describes itself as an “interactive baby book,” and is meant for kids from 6 months to 3 years (though my daughter lost any real interest after age 2). In general, it’s got some interesting features, but I ended up hiding it away from my kids because, ultimately, I think, it fails in its professed purpose as a “book.”

The good

Affordances – decent

  • Its sturdy but flexible-enough construction allows for easy, natural, even slightly enjoyable page-turning.
  • The animal buttons on the sides of the pages are very easy to discover and use. They invite attention more than well enough and are solidly pushable. The “sliding” buttons on the interior pages also provide relatively easy discovery and use.
  • It succeeds in looking and feeling both like a book and like a toy.

Function and feedback – highly effective (unfortunately…)

  • Auditory and visual feedback are both highly responsive and engaging.

The bad

Mapping – the toy’s true undoing

  • The main culprits are the animal buttons on the sides of each page–which are, in short, a feature that serve as such a terrible distraction that it made me conclude that the toy is actually bad for kids. There is very little rhyme or reason to exactly what these buttons will do in any given situation–either say something about the animal or start the singing of a song on one of the facing pages (but which one?). These smiling animal faces flash during any and all actions and are simply too big to ignore. Given their size, it can even be difficult (for adults, let alone children) to turn the pages without grabbing/pressing them.

Function and feedback–conspiring to distract

  • The on-page slider buttons and the center (“binding”) musical note button also serve as distractions and are far from obvious as to their function. The pressing of any button anywhere on the device stops the current action (such as the singing of a song, which is meant to be done in conjunction with the words on the page) and begins a new one. “Reading” this book with my kids, I think I was able to get through just one song in its entirety about ten percent of the time.

55-word story

Composed for an Interaction Design for Learning Environments (Fall 2013) assignment (as a part of the Digital Media Design for Learning degree at NYU):

On Mission

“Stalin wanted a new army that was brutal and pliant,” McCauley whispered. “Some scientist suggested human-ape hybrids. Stalin agreed. Women volunteered.”
“BS…,” hissed the kid, gripping his rifle.
“The scientist reported only failures. Left Africa within a year.”
“So why the heck we here?”
“The scientist lied.”
–From behind them, a grunt of acknowledgement.