Review by Mark Chen, Common Sense Education | Updated February 2017

Bloxels: Build Your Own Video Games

Making games using physical cubes is fun, despite execution issues

Common Sense Says:
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Grades
2-7 This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
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Pros: Interest, engagement, and creativity levels start very high as you draw with colorful cubes.

Cons: Capturing physical creations to the app is super finicky, and the games created are too similar.

Bottom Line: Designing games with physical manipulatives, while fun, can ultimately lead to frustration.

While Bloxels could be used to demonstrate knowledge and tell stories on almost any subject, be mindful of the steep learning curve and time it may take to create a truly meaningful game. Teachers can use Bloxels as a hands-on lesson in how pixel art is created for video games, or it may be a good way to first introduce game design, as it's immediately fun and engaging. However, assuming no technical issues occur (which is possibly a far-fetched assumption), it may be a quick lesson. Despite the availability of lots of teaching materials -- including lesson plans on the Bloxels website -- after a couple of days, moving onto a more robust game-making app and dedicated pixel-art apps could be the next step. Teachers would have to determine how much assistance their students need, but they can easily use Bloxels and its premade lessons as the scaffold. 

Be prepared for issues when transitioning from the physical blocks to the digital screen. Glare from overhead lights, glare from the sun, and glare from seemingly nowhere can interfere with the capture process, forcing attempt after attempt in different lighting conditions and during different times of day, with the constant need to fiddle with the calibration settings (with no instructions). Making this problem worse, with a Nexus phone, Bloxels would render the image on the screen upside down, making it very difficult to line up a shot.

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Opening the box for Bloxels is like opening a present during the holidays. It features a satisfyingly thick, smooth, board game-like lid that slides off the top to reveal its treasures inside: lots of little colorful cubes and a black slotted board to help arrange them into interesting creations. The box comes with a booklet with some quick lessons on what to draw and a very important note: Download the accompanying app!

The app plops players into one of its games first, asking them to choose an avatar and then letting them run, jump, and gun around, collecting coins and shooting enemies. After doing this for a while, they may notice that there are menus up at the top of the screen that go into game-creation mode, where the essential experiences for Bloxels exist. From here, players can choose to create new characters, new art for other objects on the screen, or new levels for the 2D platformer that they were initially plopped into. Creating a new level consists of drawing the terrain and marking where the coins and enemies are. Then it's possible to open a new screen to use the same drawing process to create the artwork for the terrain tiles and the various objects that were placed in the level. There's also a large library of user-submitted work that's fun to navigate and explore and then import to use locally.

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Ultimately, Bloxels is a very neat concept (making stuff in physical space is fun!) that's poorly executed: The games created are basically all the same, and capturing the physical art can be a pain. Lots of fun can be had in creating these physical "drawings" of pixelated characters or levels, but some of this activity can take quite a while -- easily half an hour if players are meticulous about their creations. Creating is satisfying, like building with Legos or arranging pegs on a Lite-Brite, but it seems to often lead to frustration when you're trying to capture the drawings to the app, using a smartphone or iPad camera.

Setting aside the physical-to-digital conversion issues, it's possible to just draw pixel art in the app itself. It's much less satisfying, though, as there's something immediate and (literally) tangible with the physical bits. Still, the process of designing new levels for a video game is pretty straightforward and fun. Each color for the blocks represents a different element on the game screen, from terrain tiles to power-ups and enemies; this part of the app is very engaging.

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Overall Rating
3

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?
4

It's fun just to "draw" with the physical blocks and board, but technical issues may lead to frustration.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?
3

Mostly open-ended, creative play; there are many ways for learners to access tutorials and challenges, but these seem to be semi-external to the main experience, and, thus, it can be disorienting at first.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?
3

The development team seems dedicated to providing help when needed, and lots of educational materials exist to help teachers get started.


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Mark Chen Researcher

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