When I was a kid I used to love hitting the arcades down at Southend (where I was born) and something that I always enjoyed was a good pinball table. Pinball was unlike any other game you got to play in the arcade. It combined the physical with the digital and if you were half decent, you got a good amount of game time for your money. Another thing that I always liked about pinball tables was that there were always so many different challenges to complete, so many different ways to approach a new high score and no two games were ever alike.
It's a shame that you don't really see pinball much any more. You're more likely to find an arcade version of Flappy Birds, Plants vs Zombies or some other game that started on a phone than you are a pinball machine. Which is ironic as the mobile devices are where the pinball tables have found a new home and lease on life.
I recently rekindled my love of pinball thanks to the iPad. Hundreds of pinball tables are available on iOS - some are faithful recreations of classic tables, whilst others are new concepts that harness the digital platform in ways the physical tables never could.
Zen Studios are the masters and they have a huge selection of tables. Many are linked to established pop culture franchises and some can even be accessed for free. Personal favourites include the Star Wars set (naturally) and The Avengers table is also a lot of fun (with each ball representing a different hero and thus possessing different abilities and bonuses!)
So what has any of this got to do with education? Well pinball is actually pretty relevant to three key areas of STEM based learning -
The very nature of the game is physics, from the way the forces are exerted on the ball by the flippers, bumpers etc to the way a ball can be maneuvered around the table and into specific paths and lanes. A screencast of a game on iOS (or even a video of an actual table in use - if you can find one) could be taken into an annotation tool like Explain Everything and analysed in terms of the forces at play. More complex concepts like inertia or velocity could also be discussed.
Pinball is all about numbers. Everything you do on a table from hitting a bumper to shooting a lane earns you points. There are multipliers and bonuses and jackpots that grow exponentially. The numbers involved are also big and kids love playing with big numbers. Whether it's simply reading and writing scores in words, ordering a set of scores or calculating differences, averages or totals, pinball provides a wealth of opportunities for statistics and data handling. For example: you could let each student have a single turn on a table to generate a shared set of scores (which could be collated via a shared document. This data could then be analysed in a wide range of ways and even converted to graph form using something like Numbers.
I'm a fan of unplugged programming as a bedrock for building computational thinking. Check out my piece on building physical mazes as a lead in to Kodable if you haven't already. Ok so using a pinball app is not truly "unplugged" but we're not actually coding here, just developing a better understanding of concepts like sequencing, algorithms and crucially the idea of conditionals. Everything about a pinball game is built on conditional logic - you hit that ramp three times, the bonus is unlocked, lose a ball whilst the ball save is lit and you get another chance, hit that bumper and you score 1000 points. An app like Annotable could be used to annotate a screenshot of a table to highlight some of these conditional principles.
Another idea would be to write out the series of steps to actually play a game of pinball. This concept will be common to many CS teachers and I have seen a similar idea from Lee Parkinson in which he has had students write out the instructions for playing Angry Birds. It's a great segway into the world of algorithm design and sure beats something mundane like "steps to make a cup of tea." If you wanted to do this on the iPad, something quick and easy like the wonderful Bear notetaking app would be perfect.
Full Game Design
Anyone who knows me or reads my stuff on here regularly will know that I'm a big fan of game design as a learning concept. To clarify - I don't necessarily mean coding a game but the actual process of designing a working, engaging, challenging game. Game design marries all of the previously mentioned concepts together and can embellish them with narrative, structure and even marketing ideas. I've worked on several projects around the concept of game design using platforms like Kodu, Pixel Press and notably the outstanding Bloxels Builder (read an article on that here.)
I wondered if something was available for designing pinball games, so I began hunting around online and in the App Store. It needed to be accessible to students and at first it seemed that my little quest was in vain as the only thing I was finding were professional design platforms that needed a lot of CPU power and had a steep learning curve. Then I came across a little gem of an app on iOS called Chalkboard Pinball from Pangea Software.
Chalkboard allows users to sketch out a table as if using chalk then drag and drop elements like bumpers, paddles and targets to any position they like to build a virtual table. It also features a host of built in sample levels which showcase the varied approaches to game design that are possible with the platform - these tables can be VERY different to a traditional pinball game since the table shape can be customised beyond a standard rectangular design and elements like the ball launcher can be positioned anywhere you like -
The app is incredibly easy to use and any element can be repositioned as the game is designed. A eraser tool also makes it quick and easy to erase and correct drawn elements. This is essential as it allows students to focus on iteration (another fundamental concept of computational thinking) as they test their designs and rework them. For example , if the flippers are too far apart or misaligned, the game can become impossible. If the bumpers are placed awkwardly, the ball may never hit them, or always rebound at an unwanted angle - ruining the game.
You also have target boards which can be added to a table and can be tweaked to open up a range of bonuses e.g. 2x points. These can be individual or grouped into sets of targets which would require multiple boards to be hit/lit before the bonus is released. This is a little more advanced but therefore allows you to differentiate the design process by only allowing those that design working, tested tables to use them.
Pangea are currently taking submissions for their next major game update and are seeking levels to be showcased directly within the app. Levels can be exported via email and sent directly to them via firstname.lastname@example.org More information on the submission details can be found within the app's information menu. They also showcase levels via their website. Both offer great ways for students to share their designs with a global audience!
Of course you could also use the levels designed by the students and apply the concepts listed above in terms of maths, physics and computational thinking. Perhaps have students calculate the value of points available on their table (since you cannot alter the points for hitting objects manually.)
You could also have students build a larger project around their creation that encompasses entrepreneurship and marketing ideas. I'm a fan of using fake letters to frame a project as a real world assignment and have done this before with game design projects. Provide students with differentiated instructions and objectives via a letter from a pretend company asking them to design a new pinball table. They are to use Chalkboard Pinball to create their prototype game but then have to build a broader presentation around it.
Students could use Keynote or Explain Everything to present the game and how it works as well as pitch a concept for the design theme that would be overlaid onto the table. This could be an open choice and personalized to each student's interests or something guided that relates to a topic being covered in your curriculum e.g. an Ancient Rome table or a WW2 themed table.
How would they incorporate elements of the theme into the mechanics of the game? What would the bumpers be designed to look like? What colour scheme would they use? The more able could even use an artistic application to sketch out ideas for the table's head where the points are displayed.
Hopefully you've found some inspiration in all of this. The next pinball wizard could be one of your students. Do get in touch and share any designs that you make with your class.