How we used 3D printing to gamify our stories and inspire kids to tinker

by Don Bosco (Super Cool Books)

Photo by Inkbox 3D

If you believe what you read these days, 3D printing is a wonderful new technology that empowers people to make and share and innovate in every way you can possibly imagine. Somewhere in the world already, people are enjoying: 3D printed homes, cars, body parts, clothes, gadgets, food, and more. Even the most staid business publications do not shy from running euphoric headlines like: “3-D Printing Will Change the World”.

While this does appear inevitable, much of the current enthusiasm still comes from academics, futurists, hobbyists and fringe entrepreneurs working in unique contexts who have somehow found a productive fit for the technology. Most businesses, on the other hand, are still a long way from being transformed by this, because for them, 3D printing machines are still too slow, expensive and primitive to be deployed in the competitive marketplace.

And even when you do get access to the hardware, it still takes the right creativity, talent and an appetite for entrepreneurial risk to come up with an engaging concept and validate this with customers.

What will we print today?

My first encounter with the 3D printing community came at a Singapore Maker Meetup last year, when I was invited to talk about how I’ve been applying lean startup techniques to run a publishing and learning venture called Super Cool Books.

The audience included Hanyang Leong, co-founder of Funbie Studios and one of Singapore’s active 3D printing evangelists. From him I learnt that it was a common pastime for makers to design and print 3D figurines based on their favourite stories, and we talked about doing the same for some of my books.

That was an exciting idea indeed. No other local publisher had tried to engage their readers through 3D printed collectibles. And I found myself wondering if we could make this more than a novelty project and actually create a campaign that inspired readers, teachers, parents and publishing partners to build on our stories and make their own original content and experiences. But how?

From story to product

At that time, our book Diary of Young Justice Bao was just gaining traction among younger readers and educators. The young ones loved the main character, loosely based on a folk hero in China who lived a thousand years ago. He was a hardworking official who went to great lengths to catch criminals and protect the innocent. Educators appreciated how the story highlighted the value of ethical behaviour and made this accessible to children. Win-win, as they say.

The first 3D model created by Funbie Studios

With this insight, we came up with a rulebook for kids to make their own board games based on the lessons in the story, and we also developed a 3D-printed stencil that they could use to create their game boards and playing pieces. We called the project, Kingdom. Besides getting kids to read the book, it would also expose them to game design, prototyping technologies and collaborative play. Neat idea, but could it actually work?

In the real world

We introduced the first 3D printed prototypes at the Singapore Mini Maker Faire last year, during a forum on 3D printing, and invited educators and boardgamers to join this open source initiative. William Hooi of Hyperflow Group, a local organiser of events for makers, gave us his feedback as an educator and invited us to demo the kit at the HacKidemia workshop that he was hosting.

Follow the development process on the KINGDOM project page.

On that day, we watched the kids get absolutely engrossed in experimenting with the 3D printed stencils and making their own games. The magical moment came after they were finished, when they hurriedly rounded up their friends and family members to help playtest the prototypes. That was when we really appreciated Kingdom’s learning value as well as authentic viral potential.

Since then, this project has led to significant engagement opportunities, and it remains a popular resource for the 3D printing and education community. Educators can now order a learning pack, consisting of a Diary of Young Justice Bao paperback and custom printed stencil, through the online store set up by Inkbox 3D, a local 3D printing supplies company. And Brain Bytes, our partner in Malaysia, recently organised a Diary of Young Justice Bao reading carnival in Sentul (Kuala Lumpur), with role-playing activities similar to those introduced in the Kingdom game design kit.

3D printing the KINGDOM game stencil. Photo by Inkbox 3D

Printing the future in 3D

All throughout, people are always interested in finding out how 3D printing played such a critical role in making this project possible. There’s also a page on our website with photos, illustrations and video clips to explain the entire process, from brainstorming to concept sketches to 3D model to final print, and this still draws a healthy number of visitors. But after that initial curiosity is satisfied, what actually keeps readers engaged is the gung ho creative spirit behind the project: the sense that change is possible, that imagination matters, and that tinkering pays off.