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CGI leveling-up Arizona’s next generation impact game designers

Quest Atlantis Playable Stories student Anthony Ellerman (left) and camp co-instructor Joel Ayala (right) work together on Anthony's game that will teach players the importance of persistence and creative problem solving.

Quest Atlantis Playable Stories student Anthony Ellerman (left) and camp co-instructor Joel Ayala (right) work together on Anthony’s game that will teach players the importance of persistence and creative problem solving.

Summer Camp: Crafts… Glue… Game Design?

For many people summer time childhood memories conjure images of bike riding, swimming, cartoon marathons, or popsicle sticks and glue while doing crafts at summer camp. For a new generation of kids growing up with ubiquitous computing, summer also means playing videogames, and learning computer programming and game design. In fact, for the past two weeks a group of Arizona kids have participated in the Arizona State University (ASU) STEM College for Kids to learn game design for social change with the Quest Atlantis Playable Stories course, RemixPS.

The course’s designer and camp instructor, Adam Ingram-Goble, who is also the Innovations Director at the Center for Games and Impact  met with his group of students last Monday morning and immediately dropped them off in the main plaza of dystopian society, Sector 15, where residents have x-chip control devices implanted to ensure the community’s “peaceful” rules and regulations are strictly followed. Right away, Sector 15’s new residents are detected, the plaza gates slam shut, and alarms sound.

“Sector 15’s great leader, Magnus, controls the population with brain chips that affect the way the people think and feel about certain things,” said Joel Ayala, camp co-instructor, “[The students become] characters in the game that come into this society from the outside so they have an outsider’s perspective. Then, they meet the rebels, people who are trying to over-throw the order, and the thesis of the story is that to over-throw the order you have to create “dreamscapes,” or games, that have morals and stories to remind the citizens who’ve been brainwashed about what society is really about, and what it means to care about other people and accept diversity.”

Though some of it sounds like the opening for a sci-fi summer blockbuster, the scenario for the Quest Atlantis RemixPS video game course prepares students, aged 9-14, to learn video game design for social change in a matter of hours.

“We don’t give a lot of instruction upfront,” said Ingram-Goble, “because [in addition to teaching game design] the intent of this camp is to be a personal discovery and guided exploration about what matters to you.”

As the players meet Magnus’s right hand man and learn the social rules, “It really sets a bias for children to want to fix this. They feel like, ‘Oh gosh, this is horribly wrong. People shouldn’t be forced to do this.’ That sets them up to see computer science and programming as a way to change the future,” said Ingram-Goble.

A player in Sector 15's underground tunnel leading toward the rebel hideout.

A player in Sector 15’s underground tunnel leading toward the rebel hideout.

The kids are rescued by a team of rebels before the programming of their newly installed x-chip mind control devices. But, the chips allow for the player to participate in the city’s shared dream space where citizens have their nightly security and mind control updates. In terms of camp instruction, however, this dream space is also the place where the kids playing RemixPS learn game design and programming. Camp instructors lead them through creating new dreams for the residents of Sector 15, dreams that encourage social responsibility and action. The children in camp this week are working on games about decision making and consequences, breaking down large actions into smaller tasks, and working with others to solve mysteries.

Empowering a New Generation of Game Designers

Atlantis Remixed Playable Stories, or RemixPS, introduces children to computer programming and game design as prosocial behavior, that is behavior that intends to benefit others, and an important part of Ingram-Goble’s work is to create tools that are user-friendly across broad populations and technical skill sets.

“Playable stories summer camp… is driven in response to exclusion and lack of broad participation in programming and game design in America,” he said, “What this means from a human capital perspective is that significant portions of the population and types of people are excluded from participating in the practice. What that means from a human learning and creative practice perspective is that we are only hearing voices from a subset of our population. Which ultimately, because computer science is largely about building tools for addressing human experience and human problems, means that we’re not seeing and understanding different kinds of solutions.”

Ingram-Goble, Ayala and the rest of the team at CGI, look at how games serve as an entry point to important skills like computational thinking and creative problem solving. They design tools to draw children into developing these skills in a fun and engaging way. The Center’s goal, though, is to take “fun and engaging” and then raise the bar for players by designing initiatives that demonstrate the power of games to create sustainable solutions for society’s biggest social, cultural, scientific, economic and educational challenges. The Quest Atlantis Playable Stories summer camp advances this for the Center and teaches the next generation of Arizona’s social change-makers the skills they need to bring their ideas and solutions to the technological forefront.

Quest Atlantis Playable Stories STEM CFK Summer 2013

Arizona’s newest impact game designers from the summer 2013 Quest Atlantis Playable Stories STEM College for Kids.

“This figures into our theory of transformational play and learning,” said Ingram-Goble, “We position learners as someone with legitimacy and consequentiality in a problematic context with content knowledge. As they are introduced to the social context of the problem they also start to understand the components of games. At the end of the RemixPS scenario players earn their own toolkit and can go in and start creating stories. They are continually positioned to work on a story with a particular message, and it was one of the things from my earlier research that became a meaningful moment because kids struggled with “I know I want to make a game about a wizard, or a game about zombies, but how to I make that have a social message?” And the kids came up with wonderful things about how it’s heroic to help and be altruistic.”

Find out more about The Center for Games & Impact, Video Games and STEM in Arizona:

The Center for Games & Impact (CGI) mission is to investigate, innovate, and cultivate game-infused solutions to society’s biggest challenges with the goal of unleashing the unique power of videogames to create sustainable solutions for society’s biggest social, cultural, scientific, economic and educational challenges.