Volume 7 Number 2 - Spring 1999

Computer Games for Kids, by Kids

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Getting Started

At Spence the game project began with Madlibs. At Computer School II we started with Mazes. In short order we introduced other types of games: puzzles, adventure games, and board games. Many projects were mixtures of these kinds of games.

Madlibs at Spence

Our work has been heavily influenced by Exploring Language with Logo3 by Paul Goldenberg and Wally Feurzeig. The authors examine natural language structure through Logo programming. In the past we have tried some of the projects explored by the authors, including Gossip, a program that randomly generates noun phrases and verb phrases to create sentences; Plural Nouns, which takes a singular noun as input and reports its plural; Conversations, and Madlibs.

We begin the fifth grade class with a Madlibs starter. By fifth grade the girls at Spence have had plenty of Logo experience, but have done little with the English language itself in computer class. Madlibs is a good project choice. It is an interactive game familiar to kids, usually has a funny outcome, is a rich English grammar activity and provides a great introduction to the use of variables and to Logo grammar.

Many of us played Madlibs as children. The game consists of a story that has some missing words. For each blank space there is the name of a part of speech. One player reads off these parts of speech and the other player, who does not see the story, supplies a word that fits the category. For example one might say "table" for a noun and "quickly' for an adverb not knowing the context that these words will end up in. When all the blanks are filled in the player with the pad reads the story with the other player's words plugged in.

With Madlibs pad and pencil in hand we were occupied for hours. However, we don't ever remember making our own Madlibs. It's not that you can't do it without a computer - but it never occurred to us to try. An Internet search will find many sites where people can play Madlibs by typing in the parts of speech. There are even some sites that let you "create your own" Madlibs story. But in this context, creating your own requires no programming skills. The website takes care of that for you. Creating Madlibs with Logo puts the students in total control as both programmers and players and enhances the activity in so many ways. The computer environment fosters a collaborative atmosphere and Logo provides immediate feedback and helpful error messages. Students realize the need for testing programs over and over again, debugging as they go along, offering and accepting constructive criticism from their peers.

Madlibs is a fun activity that reinforces one's understanding of parts of speech, pluralization and conjugation of verbs. By the fifth grade, the parts of speech have already been taught, but their labels - adjective, noun, verb, and adverb - are not yet internalized. Many kids have to talk it out loud: What kind of word is "happy?" What's an adverb? The students do have a good sense that words play different roles in sentences, but they can't always express rules of grammar in a formal way. This is where programming is crucial. When students test their Madlibs they are testing them for programming bugs as well as for English language bugs.

The Starter

Students begin with the Madlib starter. It is simple and short. It introduces question, the concept of creating variables, and putting together words and sentences.

We use color to emphasize where the variables are.

to madlibs
announce [Hi there.]
question [Please type in a noun.]
name answer "noun1
         question [Type in an adjective.]
name answer "adj1
         question [Please type in a plural noun.]
name answer "noun2
         pr (se [The] :noun1 [is] (word  :adj1 ".) [I really like]
         (word :noun2 ".))

We ask students to play the starter a few times, each time typing in different responses, until they get the hang of it. We look at the procedures and discuss the role of variables.

We suggest that the students first write an entire story. Then we give them some tips for turning it into a Madlib:

  1. Use brackets to surround the text that should remain part the story.
  2. Substitute variable names such as noun1 or adj1 for the words that will be entered by the person playing the game.
  3. Write the prompts using question, for example question [Please type in a noun.]
  4. Use name answer to set the value of the variable to the words that the player types in, for example name answer "noun1.

Students tackle the Logo bugs first. They must rely on their inferencing skills every time they get an error message. The most common types of errors that arise include missing brackets and colons, misplaced parentheses, and putting a space before a colon or after quotes. They know enough to make their Madlibs work. Using our starters and other students' programs, even if there is only a partial understanding of the code, supports the learning of Logo ideas. In time, with lots of exploration and project building, students will deepen their understanding of how Logo works.

Once the Logo code is bug free, students may think they are finished. However, the hard work begins when they engage with language at a deeper level. The ultimate goal of a successful Madlib is to end up with a funny story. There is a fine line between a silly story, and a story that just doesn't make sense because of the misuse of adjectives, nouns, verbs or adverbs.

Debugging English may be more difficult than debugging Logo. The computer only reports Logo errors, not English errors. It takes some sophistication to zero in on the troublesome places: when to call for a plural noun rather than a singular noun or what verb tense should be used.

Here's an example of a Madlib that works.

Olivia's Madlib

to madlibs
question [Hello, my name is Olivia, what's your name?]
announce [That is a very pretty name.]
question [Would you like to play my game now?]
announce [Okay.]
question [Please type in a food.]
name answer "food
question [Please type in a color.]
name answer "color1
question [Please type in another color.]
name answer "color2
question [ Are you starting to get the hang of it?]
announce [Good!]
question [Please type in a shape.]
name answer "shape
question [Please type in a noun.]
name answer "noun
announce [ We're all done, you did great!]
announce [Goodbye!]
pr (se [There once was a cow who lived on a farm, her name was Spot.
  Spot liked to eat] (word :food ".)  [Spot was definitely not an ordinary
  cow, she was] :color1 [and] (word :color2 ",) [her head was in the shape 
  of a] (word :shape ",) [she slept on a] (word :noun ",) [and took baths
  in a bathtub.  Spot was one of a kind.])

Click here to play Olivia's Madlib right now

This example is the product of a Madlib that was still under development. The Logo program works, but the Madlib isn't quite free of English bugs. The words in italics are the responses typed in by the user.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Chafiian,
Your daughter has been a big problem. She has cheated on all her shoe and
is mean to all her desk . Half of the grade has complained about Hope . 
On her record it says that she was suspended from 45 grade for biting 
someone's knee . Also her teachers have some bad reports about her. 
She has rudely drink back to them. Please get your daughter under control. 
If you can't you are pretty parents.
Mrs. smith principal

By programming Madlibs in Logo students are working with the English and Logo languages in parallel. They are simultaneously focusing on Logo syntax and English syntax. The fact that the students are learning about the rules of Logo grammar by doing English grammar, suggests that they are engaged in abstract parallel thinking. We have observed over the years that the greater the understanding of English grammar, the more clever and witty the Madlibs.

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3 Goldenberg, E. Paul, and Feurzeig, Wallace , Exploring Langauge with Logo, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987