Gram's House is a game designed to encourage middle school girls to see computer science in a new, positive light as well as learn real computer science skills through puzzle-based gameplay.
Computer science is still a gender-imbalanced field. Outreach efforts in the form of classroom visits, summer camps, and more appear to be helping. Inspired by this, we designed Gram’s House to reach an even larger audience of middle school girls than is possible in person.
In Gram’s House, the player takes on the role of a computer scientist. Her grandmother very much wants stay in the house she and her late husband built from the ground up, but her ability to live safely on her own diminishes as she ages. Gram’s social workers believe it would be better for Gram if she moved to a retirement home. Thus the player decides to use her skills to outfit the place with technology Gram can use to remain independent, and strikes a deal with the social workers: if Gram’s house is sufficiently equipped within one month, she can continue to live there.
The player collects technology by visiting various locations in the game’s world. Each piece of technology must be activated by solving a computer science related puzzle with topics ranging from binary numbers to theorems to algorithm design.
Research has shown that middle school-aged girls have a preference for puzzle games and that they do indeed care about making a social difference. These two factors are addressed in the game without excluding other audiences (particularly male students).
Preliminary Research Questions
Will playing a fully featured video game positively change the perception that middle school girls have of the field of computer science?
Will the players see the opportunity for making real social impact with computer science after playing the game?
Will players be willing to share their experiences (what they like about the game, what they have learned) through social media, such as Facebook?
Learning Computer Science
Will the players learn real computer science concepts through the puzzle mini-games?
Will players pursue further understanding of these concepts, particularly if we provide them with content appropriate to their age?
Creating Effective Puzzles
How can we procedurally generate our puzzles so that they remain fresh to the player no matter how many times they play?
How can we ensure procedurally generated puzzles have a difficulty level that is appropriate for when the player encounters them?
How can we design procedurally generated puzzles to ensure effective transfer of knowledge?
Current State of the Project
A pilot project lead by Carolee Stewart at Kean University was funded for Summer - Fall 2012. The research team developed a new set of mini-games using Game Maker, to be compared with the game demo described below. Both versions were tested with middle school students to see how effective the game concept is at putting CS in a positive light and teaching CS skills. The study showed that girls both improved their perception of computer science and increased their skills after playing the games, and that they particularly enjoyed being able to customize the Game Maker version to their own liking.
Future plans include obtaining a grant through the National Science Foundation or similar programs so the game can be professionally developed and evaluated.
I and three other team members (Jacob Agar, Jamie Madill, and Matthew Shelley) originally designed Gram's House for Microsoft's Imagine Cup game design competition.
Original Game Demo Installer
Download the demo program (zipped) and play the demo version of the game for yourself (Windows only). You may need to download and install the XNA Framework and .NET Framework. Please let me know if you have problems running it and I will try to help.
Original artwork by Jonathan Demers and Nicole Will, used with permission.
Original background music by Shannon Cressman, used with permission.
Personal (non-commercial) sound effects from The Recordist.
Stewart-Gardiner, C., Carmichael, G., Latham, J., Lozano, N., Greene, J. Influencing Middle School Girls to Study Computer Science Through Educational Computer Games. In Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, 2013.