ROBLOX STUDIO : inquiry and learning through play

Cultivating an inquiry based community around Roblox Studio in the elementary library has been demanding but in every way extremely rewarding. Our first focus was to find  ways for students to have frequent access to laptops. This sounds simple but access and the freedom to play have been essential to establishing a student-led Roblox Studio game design community. For adults – parents, teachers and guardians – who are rightly concerned about student welfare in gaming environments, it has also been important to provide clear information so they can understand their role in ensuring student safety.

A significant challenge to embrace as a result of providing open access and room to play in Roblox Studio is that “inquiry can be messy” (Kath Murdoch, “The Power of Inquiry” Pg 16). This has meant keeping  our planning for Roblox Studio sessions open-ended. The only requirements have been that students need to create and find ways to contribute toward building a collaborative community of practice around game building. This means that any plan for instruction can at any moment be adapted or discarded in response to student inquiries. We avoid predicting and aiming for specific predefined outcomes because students will always surprise us with a new discovery, a new thought, a new Roblox feature, a new way of working or a new way of collaborating. Some students try Roblox Studio and decide it is not for them – participation is entirely voluntary. Our obligation in the library has been to give them the opportunity to explore video game design in various ways so they have the opportunity to make an informed choice.

Learning through Play

Central to creating and protecting a space for student video game inquiry has been the knowledge that learning through play “is one of the most important ways in which young children gain essential knowledge and skills” (UNICEF, 2018). Play is by definition pleasurable and enjoyable. This is not to be confused with easy or comfortable. Students engaged in play push their skills to the limit and attempt feats at the edge of their capabilities. Play also has no extrinsic outcome or goal. Play is spontaneous and voluntary. One reason we continue to explore Roblox Studio design in the library is because the students are choosing to be there. The pleasure and community they build is enough to sustain their engagement. Our challenge has been to keep up with their excitement and active engagement.

Removing obstacles to the integrity of play (Page 14) has therefore been central to the success of Roblox Studio in our library.

Complexity in student thinking

Inquiry is complex, nuanced and collaborative. Many times I see a student on the verge of a new path in Roblox Studio design and my first instinct is to jump in and show them some tips. I soon discover, however, that my response is based on many assumptions and my projected ideas for that student’s design do not match what the student was actually thinking. My well meaning assistance interrupts the student’s flow. Looking from an adult perspective, a student’s choices in the Roblox Studio flow can appear to be confusing, difficult to interpret, often obscure or directionless. They are often laughing or yelling at the computer, debating with a friend, but they are always deeply engaged. Discussing their designs reveals just how complex each student’s thinking is, how individual their experience has been and how divergent their hopes can be. Yet, in a group they will often converge on common aims and shared skills. Sometimes they will use the “team create” feature of Roblox Studio to collaborate on a project while at other times they are deep in their own design. Trying to make sense of the path for each student is like trying to find the end of a Mandelbrot fractal – there is no end and the complexity only deepens.

Complexity in Game Design

Browsing through the 555 pages of Jesse Schell’s book “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses” leaves us with no doubt to the vast complexities of game design. Schell avoids a linear approach to video game design choosing to apply different lenses to examine the creative process. There is clearly no single recipe to building a successful video game so there is no point in applying a recipe for teaching it. In the realm of video games, students come with a vast array of prior experience and a wide range of knowledge, skills and thinking so it is impossible to define what a student at any year level “should” know or be able to do at that level. Schell says that “game design is not a set of principles, it is an activity” (Pg xlii). The only path to game design is to “build the game, play it yourself, and let others play it. When it doesn’t satisfy (and it won’t), you must change it. And change it. And change it again, dozens of times, until you have created a game that people actually enjoy playing” (pg xlii-xliv). There are many different ways to look at game design illustrated by the 112 lenses Schell applies throughout his book. For example, Lens #9 is the “tetrad of game design elements” – Aesthetics, Mechanics, Story and Technology (Pg 51-56). None of these can be considered separate and none of these are more important than any other. The “lens of the elemental tetrad” helps game designers to consider different aspects of their game leading to new ways to enhance the player experience. And there are 111 more lenses!

Inquiry as collaboration

This journey into the depths of game design in Roblox Studio has been one without a known destination. The learning has revealed itself along the way. The opportunities to learn new skills, to try different methods of scripting, to explore different features and to expand our understanding of the possibilities in Roblox Studio have come about through exploring these together as a community of practice. Very rarely would I directly teach a student. Instead, they usually have something they want to be able to do and we test options out together to find a solution. More often than not, students do this together without my participation. I may dip into these conversations occasionally to ensure they remain respectful but usually I end up learning something new myself. Keeping Roblox sessions open and student driven has led to a very wide range of discoveries because while there are common experiences, each student manages to extend our shared understanding in different ways. This is messy. The outcomes are in many ways intangible but thrilling for everyone.

It has been a challenge to keep up with this diversity in student experience. Empowered students are expectant and demand a high level of nuanced engagement. They expect to be able to lead. This is usually self regulated within the group because, in a community of practice, it becomes evident that while some students do have high levels of ability, there is always more for them to learn. Coding is very humbling in this way. A few lines of Lua code can create some wonderful player experiences but quite explicit in this coding experience is the awareness that coding possibilities are infinite.

Inquiry is the beginning, middle and end

Working with Roblox Studio in the library and classroom has been a journey. Constantly a work in progress. Constantly requiring refinement to ensure equity of access, fairness, freedom to play and the openness to try new things.

We make computers available in the library during every lunchtime. Using a laptop projected to a large screen, students are able to provide a masterclass for their peers during morning break and lunch. An after school activity has provided additional time for students to explore Roblox Studio. We have often started or finished these sessions with a game design lens or featured a student’s game creation to build community and share game design ideas. There have also been opportunities during classes to connect game design in Roblox Studio to mathematics, writing units and other areas of the curriculum. We have also recently added a HTC Vive to the library which has allowed us to explore our Roblox Studio creations in Virtual Reality with elementary and secondary students.

To be truly educated from this point of view means to be in a position to inquire and to create on the basis of the resources available to you which you’ve come to appreciate and comprehend. To know where to look, to know how to formulate serious questions, to question a standard doctrine if that’s appropriate, to find your own way, to shape the questions that are worth pursuing, and to develop the path to pursue them. That means knowing, understanding many things but also, much more important than what you have stored in your mind, to know where to look, how to look, how to question, how to challenge, how to proceed independently, to deal with the challenges that the world presents to you and that you develop in the course of your self-education and inquiry and investigations, in cooperation and solidarity with others. – NOAM CHOMSKY

Other posts about Roblox Studio:
What is Roblox Studio?

Why use Roblox Studio?
Getting started with Roblox Studio in the classroom or library.
What about child safety?

Further reading:

“The Power of Inquiry” by Kath Murdoch

The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell

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