Teacher by Day – Game Developer by Night

At E-Line, we’re often impressed by the games that teachers create to aid their students in learning. Martin Esterman, a teacher from Marietta, GA, is a great example. In 2012, Martin won the Educator Stream of the National STEM Video Game Challenge for his game, Addition Blocks, that helps students increase addition speed and accuracy. Since winning the Challenge, Martin has received a great deal of exposure for his game and was the recent recipient of a Channel 11 Class Act Award. In the Q & A below, we asked Martin to share information about what inspired him to create Addition Blocks and why he thinks games are beneficial for learning.

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Martin, thanks very much for being a part of this interview. Why don’t we start with you telling us a bit about your teaching life. What grade(s) and subject(s) do you teach? How long have you been teaching?

Martin:  Hey Kerri, great to talk with you again! Teaching is actually my second career. Originally, I was a software engineer for several small companies until I discovered how much I enjoyed working with middle-schoolers. Very clearly, I was led to leave the world of computers, and returned to school to earn my Master’s degree in Secondary Math Education. I’ve been teaching Math for 11 years, all at the middle school level, and primarily advanced students. I was recognized as a “Georgia Master Teacher” in 2006. Currently, I teach in a STEM Magnet program at Marietta Middle School, in Marietta, Ga. I absolutely love it, because I can combine my engineering & computer background with the math curriculum.

What inspired you to create the game?

Martin:  I was thinking about a way to make a game to practice addition of integers. The ‘Bejeweled’ /Pattern matching games were pretty popular, so I merged game play with finding sums as the ‘matching’. Pretty quickly, I put the game together, and basically never got around to implementing negative numbers! I liked the simplicity of the game using only the digits 1-9 and finding the sums, so the game just stayed ‘AdditionBlocks.’

Had you been using any games in the classroom prior to making you own? If so, what were your observations about games for learning?

Martin:  One of my goals for my classroom is to show my students that math can be fun. So, whenever I can, I bring a game or activity or project into the learning process. I use games to help practice whatever we are learning at the time. Most of the games I used early in my career were pencil-and-paper games or puzzles – one of my favorites is “Cross-Sums” (more popularly known now as Kakuro). I’ve made up games like “Percent Bingo,” where I give the students a decimal or fraction, and they have to turn the number into a percent.

Overall, I believe that playing games and doing puzzles as part of my teaching creates an environment where students can relax and have fun (if they *choose,* ha!); which makes the classroom very conducive to learning. Additionally, if I have ‘earned’ the credit that we will have fun in my class, then students are more responsive to the more rote work of lecture and class work when that has to be done. As a plus, I believe some of my middle schoolers actually begin to enjoy ‘doing math.’

How long did it take to make Addition Blocks? What sort of process did you go through? Had you ever made a game before?

Martin:  The very first version of the game took maybe 3 or 4 months working on weekends and over breaks. When I discovered the STEM Video Game Challenge, I took another 3 or 4 months and made the game more playable, adding the speed and difficulty options, implementing the achievement system, and fixing some bugs. Over the summer I spent a lot of time on the game, improving graphics, (more) bug fixes, and porting to HTML, iOS, and Android.

I have made quite a few games, as this is a hobby of mine that actually started when I was in middle school! I made a computer version of Kakuro (Cross-Sums) 6 or 7 years ago that I have my students routinely play. I also made a 4-in-a-row game based on the Factor Game for practicing integer multiplication. However, AdditionBlocks is the first game that actually went public, primarily due to the STEM Video Game Challenge and E-Line Media.

How often do you use Addition Blocks with your students? What sort of response have you witnessed?

Martin:  Since I teach in a Middle School Magnet program, most of my students are advanced learners, so I use the game as a warm-up/activator or after tests/quizzes when students have finished early. But I do have students who ask if they can play the game during class!

The response to the game from parents and teachers has just been amazing, and I’ve really been humbled. In fact, a few of my co-teachers are addicted to the game! Several other teachers have told me they have started using AdditionBlocks in their elementary classrooms. One parent has told me that she had her child play the game every day for 5-10 minutes, and has noticed an improvement in her child’s adding skills.

How can teachers begin using it now?

Martin:  First, understand the game is not intended to *teach* basic addition, but to improve a student’s speed and accuracy. If you see a student ‘counting’ to add (“5 + 3 is 5-6-7-8”) or using their fingers, their fluency is low, and they should start the child on the ‘slow’ speed and ‘easy’ difficulty…But, AdditionBlocks is really for anyone to increase their speed. Interestingly, students will also begin to see patterns with numbers and sums. AdditionBlocks can be used to show how ‘grouping’ by 10s will help in addition, especially when students get to higher sums in the game.

However, I think with any basic skill development activity, whether it is done with pencil and paper, or using AdditionBlocks, practice needs to be done routinely (2-3 times per week) for short periods of time (5-10 minutes). Students also need to see they are improving by charting or graphing their progress.

What does the future hold for Addition Blocks?

Martin:  I am currently working on the next version to be released early summer. I’ve contracted with a graphic designer and we are re-doing all the graphics. The new version will have 4 game modes, including a Practice Mode, and new achievements. Wait until you play the challenge mode! Ha! Anyway, ‘Like’ AdditionBlocks on the Facebook page for news and updates!

Do you have any other games in the works?

Martin:  I hope to have MultiplicationBlocks and IntegerBlocks completed this summer as well. The Product Game just needs some tweaking and bug fixes. I also have a couple of games for practicing decimals, fractions and percents – The Percent Bingo game along with “Percentominos.” Another game focuses solely on fractions that can be used to show equivalent fractions, comparing and even adding. I’ve got a lot of other ideas that I would love to see produced!

Thank you again, Martin. We look forward to seeing what happens with Addition Blocks!

Thanks, Kerri and everyone at E-Line! I really have enjoyed working with this company.

Real Robots of Robot High: Bringing Social and Emotional Learning into Technology Class

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During my first week as a violence prevention educator in Providence, Rhode Island, I was the guest speaker in a 6th grade health class. The topic was Teen Dating Violence: How to see it. How to stop it. A newly minted public health graduate and armed with the latest evidence-based curriculum, I walked through the classroom doors feeling prepared. But, with the first mention of the word “dating” the tenuous order in the class came undone. Earphones went in, cell phones and mp3 players came out. I wondered if it even mattered to talk about relationships with 11 year olds, many of whom were years away from their first serious boyfriend or girlfriend.

But research shows that when it comes to stopping dating violence, middle school does matter. In the United States, a quarter of all teens who are in relationships report being called names, harassed or put down by their partner. Teens who are involved in abusive relationships are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be victims or perpetrators of domestic violence as adults. The middle school years are when young people develop attitudes about what’s healthy and what’s when it comes to dating. This is the time when education and prevention can most effectively shape healthy attitudes. But how can educators get middle school students to listen and engage?

I got a chance to explore that question when Sojourner House of Rhode Island, where I was working at the time, received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop youth-driven approaches to preventing dating violence at the middle school level. We knew that young people love to play and make video games. So, we teamed up with E-Line Media, the makers of Gamestar Mechanic—where kids can play, create and publish their own video games. Could we use that interest in game design to help educators talk to kids about healthy relationships?

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E-Line Media and Sojourner House created The Real Robots of Robot Higha game that helps kids explore social systems—like friendships, groups and communities—through game play and design. We worked closely with a team of middle school students from Providence’s Highlander Charter School who provided daily feedback on character development, narrative and game design. In Fall 2012, E-Line and Sojourner House released The Real Robots in beta, and within three months, over 1,000 students and teachers in 27 schools tried out the game and generously offered feedback.

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As we poured over the results of the beta and got to know the teachers who used Real Robots in their classrooms, two things became clear:

1. Game design can be a powerful way for young people to talk about healthy relationships. Over the course of the beta, students created and published over 150 original video games to the Real Robots Game Alley. These student designers used game mechanics and dialog to explore issues like bullying, dating violence and rumors in original games that were played by hundreds of their peers from around the world.

2. In order to unlock this power, students need to learn the basics of digital designand that takes a lot of time and teacher support. In technology classes where game design is often part of the curriculum, students had the time and support to create games in Real Robots. But, students and teachers in other settings found that there simply was not enough time to master the design principles required to explore relationship systems through game design and this meant they couldn’t get the most out of The Real Robots experience.

We learned that Real Robots can create rich discussion about healthy relationships between educators and middle school students. This was especially true in learning environments that focus on technology as much as they do on social and emotional learning. We met a lot of medial specialists, health teachers and community educators who are bringing together the disciplines of technology and social and emotional learning in new and exciting ways.  We want to learn more about how schools are combining technology and social and emotional learning and how Real Robots could support this work.

So, E-Line Media and Sojourner House are pleased to announce that we will reopen the Real Robots beta. We encourage all interested teachers and community educators to sign up at realrobothigh.com. All beta testers will receive unlimited free licenses. We’ll be sharing what we learn with you here at E-Line Labs.

We appreciate your support, we believe deeply in this mission and we look forward to continuing on this journey with you.

Half the Sky Goes Mobile

Just as slavery was the defining struggle of the 19th century and totalitarianism that of the 20th, the fight to end the oppression of women and girls defines ours. In 2009, with the acclaimed bestselling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn took on this urgent challenge and encouraged readers to join a burgeoning movement for change.

Funded by USAID, E-Line Media joined Games for Change in support of this mission to create three mobile phone games that tackle key issues related to health and gender equity:

Family Choices – Family Choices enhances the perception of a girl’s value to her family by emphasizing the importance of keeping her and her peers in school. The ‘choose your own adventure’ game allows players to explore the outcomes of a family’s choices related to a girl’s education, early marriage and family planning. Players decide whether Anu (in India) or Mercy (in Kenya) will ultimately achieve their dream of becoming a financially independent nurse.

9-Minutes – Players experience the adventures of nine months of pregnancy in just nine minutes. The game aims to introduce players to the key dos and don’ts of pregnancy by presenting players with a series of life choices (physical, medical and social) against the clock. The player’s choices determine the health and well-being of both mother and baby.

Worm Attack! – Worm Attack! aims to keep girls and boys healthy by defeating the dangerous worms inside their stomachs. Young players, their teachers and families work to rid themselves and their communities of infestation with intestinal worms in this fast-paced game through the strategic use of deworming pills.

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The games were executive produced by Games for Change, developed by Mudlark and published by E-Line Media, with Hindi language solution provided by Reverie Language Technologies. They have been downloaded over 30,000 times (as of March 2013) around the world.

Early on, Games for Change and E-Line Media reached out to NGOs – Deworm the World, Breakthrough, FilmAid and CEDPA – to integrate them into the development process. These groups helped conceptualize, define goals and provide content expertise. They also connected us with local communities to solicit feedback on art, gameplay, language and instructional content.

The games were released as part of USAID’s continued support of gender and family issues and their commitment to increase global awareness to bring about social change in the areas of health, gender equality and empowerment. They have been disseminated for use in India and East Africa by NGOs and more widely through in-country app stores (Nokia, Safaricom, GetJar, and Appia). The games complement a series of 18 short educational and advocacy videos on health and gender-related topics that were launched in September 2012.

A recent evaluation of 9 Minutes shows measurable positive shifts in knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions toward promoted safe pregnancy and delivery actions following exposure to the game. 608 female and 308 men participated in the study, which was conducted in India. Learn more about the evaluation methods and results here.

Being able to demonstrate effectiveness is of great importance in the impact games sector, especially when budget restrictions frequently don’t allow for deep and meaningful assessment. Results can then be converted into best practices and guidelines for building successful games in the global developement context.

Here are some key learnings:

Define your Theory of Change early in the design process.

Having a defined Theory of Change before starting your design phase is critical, as this will help define your impact goals (behavior change, outreach, learning, partnerships, etc.) and heavily influence design decisions on what to include or exclude from your game, localization, technology to be used, and expected gameplay behavior.  

Identify key local partners and content experts early.

Understanding and identifying who they are will benefit your development process and ensure cultural appropriateness. Partners (like NGOs) act as content experts providing guidance on game content, subject matter expertise, capacity to support real-world activities and localization efforts around the game. Make them part of your team. 

Design with the technology platform in mind.

Recognizing challenges and limitations of the selected platform will allow you to better accommodate real-life necessities, game expectations, and how to get your game in the hands of hard-to-reach audiences.

Test early on, involve audience and content partners to inform and iterate on design.

Focus on your audience (they are your “fresh set of eyes”) and engage content partners throughout the iteration process. Foster a culture of iteration, were refining your ideas and testing them again is core to potentially avoid development mistakes.

Be creative when it comes to distribution channels and create in-country capacity.

Penetrate the market with multiple distribution channels and consider how cultural particularities will impact game use and accessibility. Sometimes the simplest low-tech solution is the most efficient one. Think about leveraging existing infrastructure and use your local partners (NGOs) as distribution channels.