Tag Team Tech June 2017

Building with Bloxels

Kelly Czarnecki

For the generation raised on smartphones and tablets, Bloxels game design toolkit might be the next best thing! Maybe you’ve used video game design products in the past and the teens are looking for something else to try. This two-year-old product from Pixel Press allows users to create video game content. Because of the unique approach of starting by designing the game with a physical board, users can get a real feel for what is involved in the design process. Not only are programmers needed to make a video game but there’s also a role for artists and storytellers. Bloxels helps make this process more concrete and understandable by how users can interact with it. This may be just what you are looking for in your classroom or library.

Get Started

The way Bloxels work is to start with the 13 by 13 plastic game board that is a grid of squares. Small color-coded blocks that represent an in-game item (i.e. blue blocks intuitively translate as water while green is terrain, red is a hazard, and so forth). The blocks are arranged on the board to create a panel for the game. A picture is snapped using the Bloxels app and a tablet or smartphone. The photo is uploaded to a screen where it becomes playable in the way many youths are familiar. In other words, the character you just created on the plastic board is now walking around on the screen. The combination of the physical world meeting the digital with the click of a button makes for a pretty amazing and seamless product.

Most video games have a character of some sort that is in the action in the game. When using Bloxels, users begin by arranging the physical plastic blocks on the grid in such a way to build their character. Think of the popular 1960’s Lite-Brite which displayed pictures made with the arrangement of colored plastic pegs. In the Bloxels tutorials, for example, the “ugly sweater kitty” which is blue with yellow eyes and wears a purple and magenta striped sweater, is the default example used as a starting place for a character. If users want to develop their character, they can animate it by slightly adjusting the placement of the blocks on the grid and then take a new photo. This is a fun and easy way for teens to explore how animation works. Users also have access to characters that others have created and uploaded to the gallery and they can be added to a game; this is aptly known as the Infinity Wall. As a side note, not only characters, but games, backgrounds, and animations are shared as well.

Program with Bloxels

The first time my coworker and I had a program using the Bloxels with the teens at our library, we were just learning how to interact with it ourselves. We set up a low barrier to success and followed the tutorial available through the Bloxels app on our library’s iPad. Several teens stopped by to check out what we were doing. We started by building a character on the game board and using the default background provided for a platform game (think Super Mario Bros where Mario and Luigi travel through the Mushroom Kingdom). Once the magic happened with uploading the character to the screen, my coworker used her previous game playing knowledge to guide the character through the obstacles in the default backdrop.

In subsequent programs, it was clear that teens and tweens picked up on it pretty quickly and did so by working collaboratively. The second time my coworker ran the program, she connected the iPad to our Aquos Board. This, of course, drew in more participants as they could visually see what was taking place from across the room and it added an element of participating in something bigger than just what was on the tablet. Adding projection as part of the program is really helpful to draw in more participants. Also, for our initial programs, we started with one Bloxels kit and while several youths can play on it at once, especially with assigning roles for each step of the process, it’s more conducive for a program or group to have at least two or three. Each Bloxels toolkit retails for around an affordable $25. It is recommended for ages eight and up, which has played out to be an accurate recommendation. Because of the wide age range compatibility and appeal, engaging families or teens working with younger library visitors or students can be a great leadership opportunity as well.

What Teens Are Learning

The physical aspect of game design through using the tactile color-coated blocks and game board will likely resonate well with youth that have an interest in the design process in a more traditional way. It’s a great educational tool for the classroom and the skills youth gain in video game design programs; critical thinking, collaboration, decision making, strategizing, and the revision process are all present. You’re not able to sell the game that you create, but it can be accessed within the Bloxels community which also keeps the educational intent in the forefront.

Bloxels also easily lends itself to assigning various roles to participants because of the physical and digital aspect. Perhaps some youths will decorate the game by creating backgrounds for each room while others might gravitate to engineering the playable elements in the game. There’s also a place for the storytellers to create a narrative throughout the game which is represented by the white blocks in the toolkit. We can’t forget about the soundtrack. What great video game doesn’t have one? Teens who are more interested in the music aspect of gaming have access to the library of music choices through the app to add sound to their game.

The possibilities are rather endless with Bloxels. If you’ve been looking for another game design experience to introduce to teens in the library this is definitely one to try out!

Bloxels. http://www.bloxelsbuilder.com/home

Kelly Czarnecki is the manager of the Teen Loft at ImaginOn, Charlotte, North Carolina. She has written extensively on teens and technology in libraries and teaches online classes for the American Library Association. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, running, and exploring the city.

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