June 27, 2017

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Kids Create Video Games with Bloxels, no Coding Required | SLJ Review

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There’s a new game in town and it’s been making headlines. It’s the latest in a wave of tools such as Scratch, Tynker, Minecraft, and Gamestar Mechanic that turn gamers into game designers.

Bloxels, by Pixel Press, pairs an app with a physical board to give students the tools they need to create their own arcade-style video games. Like other similar platforms, Bloxels is both a game and a community in which users can share their creations. What it brings to the world of video game development is a means for children and teens to physically interact with what they’re making, merging the real-world hands-on creation with digital design.

The program consists of the Bloxels Builder Starter Kit and the (free) Bloxels Builder app (compatible with iOS, Android, and Kindle). The kit includes a 13×13 game board and 40 blocks in each of eight colors (for a total 320 blocks). It’s possible to create games using the app without the kit, but some aspects of the design process are reserved for those with a game board.

The app and board work together in several ways. One way is to use the game board to render a character (or other game element), using the blocks as pixels. Placing the app directly over a character on a board allows users to capture it digitally. Having migrated to the app, the character can be edited and animated. While the blocks come in a limited number of colors, there are 64 colors to choose from in the app. (Since only the eight colors can be used on any one board, it helps to choose a palette ahead of time.)

Sample Game

The game board and blocks also work together to create rooms (single square frames). One game can contain up to 169 rooms, allowing the game to scroll in every direction (much like a Super Mario Brothers world). When creating rooms, the eight colors take on new roles: green=terrain, yellow=coins, purple=enemies, pink=power-ups, blue=water, red=hazards, white=narrative boxes, and orange=exploding blocks. Each block placed on the board is translated into that element when captured in the app. Once captured, the blocks become those elements in the game. From there, users can go about editing, filling in the room design with what they have created. Available only to game board owners is the ability to create a “brain” for enemies, i.e., to program them with unique behaviors that manifest themselves when attacked.

With Bloxels, the focus is on designing the look and feel of a video game. There is no coding, such as that found in Scratch and Hopscotch, and none of the game strategy scaffolding of Gamestar Mechanic. Instead, the Bloxels app walks users through the process of creating game elements pixel-by-pixel and animating characters and enemies for a game that is both lively and colorful. However, there is no formal instruction on what makes a good game. Game design will grow with the users’ skills and imaginations.

The Bloxels community resides in the Infinity Wall. The wall is full of bubbling chemical beakers, pulsing stars, and at least one exploding TARDIS, displaying the range of possibilities available to creators. There are also daily featured games, characters, animations, backgrounds, and boards (terrain, hazard, water, and exploding blocks). Exploring and rating the featured elements can earn players gems with which to unlock useful items for their own games. Registered users may also share their work here for others to rate.

The most powerful aspect of Bloxels is the freedom users have to design their worlds. Terrain blocks can be a simple green block or an intricate park bench. Each room can be designed with a background and a floating middle ground. Gamers can’t create music, but there are six delightfully nostalgic Chiptune options to choose from.

Bloxels is intended for ages 8 and up. Older players will enjoy the challenge of creating more complex games, while young children will enjoy having the ability to make characters and domains of their own. Single kit prices begin at $15.95 and classroom sets are available, as is a “Brainstorming Kit” and an educator’s handbook.

Verdict Because of the minimal explanation and limited guided scaffolding, the learning curve for the Bloxels Builder app is a bit steep. However, the online tutorials linked directly to the “Help” option within the app are well-paced and informative. Gamers who are familiar with Scratch or other coding games will understand the step-by-step animation process, and Minecraft users will feel at home using blocks to create a 3-D world. Don’t be surprised if adult gamers, nostalgic for the eight-bit arcade games of their youth, end up borrowing the game board. Bloxels has the potential to bring a range of users together.

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Addie Matteson About Addie Matteson

Addie Matteson is a middle school librarian at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA.

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