By Matthew Farber
Kids are natural game designers. Our son, age 7, is constantly making games. At restaurants while waiting to order, he hacks the games on the placemats, adding rules to tic-tac-toe, sometimes changing the grid altogether.
He also likes to design games on his iPad, including on coding apps like ScratchJR and The Foos. He also builds mini-games in Minecraft’s Creative Mode for me and my wife to play (we join his “world” using our smartphones).
Some games on his iPad include level editors, enabling him to use a simple drag-and-drop interface to build on and share game levels. His favorite is the level editor in the popular arcade-style, side-scrolling Geometry Dash. It is fascinating and powerful to see him fast prototype, and then test and iterate. As a family, my wife and I playtest his levels, too, and then offer positive feedback.
Game Design as a Family Activity
At a games and education conference, I attended Sycamore School’s A.J. Webster and Christy Durham’s workshop on reskinning the commercial card game Fluxx, which has dozens of versions — from Batman Fluxx to Math Fluxx to Doctor Who Fluxx. To play, you collect “Keeper” cards, and play “Goal” cards, which is for the group. In Batman Fluxx, if you have collected the Batmobile and Joker Keeper cards, and the Goal card is “The Joker Got Away,” then you win! The caveat, though, is that there are 28 different Goal cards — hence, the game’s goal is always in flux!
Games have a design grammar. Reskinning means changing the “nouns” of games; modding and hacking often pertain to altering the “verbs” of games, like the rules or game actions. For example, Disney HedBanz is a reskinning of the reverse charades game HedBanz: the game is the same, just the theme on the cards change. Other reskinned games include all of the versions of Monopoly that are available, as well as the different LEGO video games, from LEGO Harry Potter to LEGO Star Wars games — each of which is essentially the same game, just with different storylines and characters. In fact, as Webster and Durham explained it, any game with multiple versions can be reskinned to fit educational content.
And, as it happened, when our son was 5, he saw me preparing blank Fluxx cards for a lesson. He then asked me for some blank cards so he could also make a deck. To this day he still prefers to play his Fluxx game to the original!
Badges and Patches
This year, my wife and I — like many — got our son involved in a local Cub Scout pack. Curious about the different possible badges available, I discovered that the Boy Scouts of America, for older children (typically, age 11), has a Game Design Badge (badge requirements here)!
I contacted veteran game designer David Mullich to learn more about the Boy Scout merit badge. Mullich had been part of the team that created the badge back in 2013. “With the Boy Scout Game Design Merit Badge, the goal is for scouts to understand certain terms like multiplayer, genre, play value,” he said. “Boy Scouts who pursue this badge learn the iterative process of game design, where they come up with a prototype, playtest it with peers, observe the session, analyze the results, then do it over again: prototype again, playtest, observe. This gets them used to the idea that game designers create not to satisfy themselves, but really to understand what makes a game fun for others to play.”
The Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles also has a program to engage girls who are interested in making games. I spoke with Amy Allison, Vice President of Women in Games International (WIGI), and cocreator of the Video Game Design Patch, about the requirements.
“It is a four-hour optional experience that kids sign up for, currently just in L.A.,” Allison explained. “It is for girls who are juniors and cadets, ages 9–12, and the instruction includes 2-hours of playful and physical instruction, including building games on Gamestar Mechanic, from E-Line Media. It is a cool option under their STEM curriculum.”
The second half of the girls’ day is devoted to a career element, where women video game professionals field questions from the scouts about the industry. “A lot of the ‘light bulb moments’ occur when these kids learn the complexities about making games. They just assume games are made by one person.” Attendees quickly learn about game animation, as well as the different platforms and engines. “It opens a lot of different career options. It’s not just, ‘Be a programmer and make games.’ No, you could be a lawyer for games, or an artist, or a story director, a narrative writer. The girls usually say, ‘Oh! I didn’t know so many people were involved, and ‘So pieces need to work together.’ That is the biggest ah-ha moment we often have.”
Youth-Focused Game Jams
Similar to the experiences of scouts, game jams are events where youth can gather to creatively design games based on given themes. Game jams are sometimes held on college campuses, as well as at informal learning spaces such as in libraries and museums, and in afterschool clubs.
Along with the nonprofit Games for Change, we ran a series of “moveable” game jams (hosted at several locations, therefore: moveable) on topics of immigration, climate change, and future cities. While there, many parents stuck around, watching their children design games, and then later played those games. In fact, at one event held at a branch of the New York Public Library, parents were brought to a separate room and were tasked with building an escape room breakout game for their children to play at the end of the day!
These sorts of youth-driven game jam events can be organized so anyone with little or no prior game design experience can engage in meaningful learning in just a few hours. While there, kids learn 21st century skills like systems thinking, design thinking, and creative problem solving. Coding is often taught as a means to an end, as participants bring their own interests and passions to making games. After all, good games may require artists and storytellers, as well as game coders!
All of our game jam resources are available for free here: http://bit.ly/GJGuide, and can be readily adapted to family time activities. Also, this summer, youth aged 12–17 can participate in the inaugural Global Game Jam Next. To learn more, visit: https://ggjnext.org.
Image courtesy pxhere.