Scratch ON!

A few weeks ago, Ryan and I had the opportunity to attend and run a workshop at the Scratch conference at the MIT Media Lab in Boston…it was awesome. Educators from across the world participated to deliver workshops, give ignite talks and engage in a massive knowledge exchange about one of the most powerful platforms to engage youth in computational thinking and programming.


We had to get a photo opp with the Scratch cat himself.

Mitch Resnick’s keynote address, a tribute to Seymour Papert touched on 5 of his most powerful ideas from “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas”. One idea that has resonated with me is Epistemological Pluralism, “accepting the validity of multiple ways of knowing and thinking.” If we can continue to promote Many paths, Many styles (the theme of this year’s Scratch conference) throughout our formal and informal learning institutions, I think we’ll see many more faces at the CS table.

Good Narrative, Good Game

This was written with my colleague Sarah Giffin from Global Kids for The National STEM Video Game Challenge. REPOST!

Games-based learning is fun, effective and powerful, but it doesn’t come without its challenges. At Global Kids we run a few different game design programs which address social and global issues. One obstacle we’ve faced across programs is immersing our youth in developing comprehensive narratives to support the mechanics, goals and other elements of their games. There’s a ton to cover with the principles of game design and computational thinking alone, how does the art of narrative storytelling fit into all of this and is it a priority?

Powerful games usually have powerful narratives, which can take players on an unforgettable journey. The graphics of a maze game which depict the gradual degradation of a forest from level to level, the tools a sprite is equipped with to bounce back from attack and how the clock counts down with every life lost are all elements which support pieces of a story. It’s these small details, particularly in social impact games, which can engross players in the issues and a call to action. So the question remains, how do we teach youth to tell good stories that are then represented in games? What does that process look like?

At Global Kids, our most successful learning experiences for our youth have begun with deconstructing popular games and exposing them to the array of people and skills who create them, united by one vision. This includes the writer, artist, engineer, product designer, etc. and how they leverage character development, animation, coding and marketing to produce one comprehensive game. This can help educators reveal how games are embodied narrative, where the authors have worked together to construct a world, a series of experiences, and empathized with the game player to prepare a journey for them. Over the last six months, we’ve redesigned pieces of our curriculum to incorporate more time for creative writing, storyboarding and other exercises focused on developing compelling narratives and the vision that everyone on the team is working toward. To support the development of a common vision, like a literature or film class, we facilitate workshops on the hero’s journey before youth start coding sprites or enemies so that they have a foundation to build on. Once they have a clear understanding of their hero’s journey, youth are prepared to determine what the game character (and therefore the game player) knows, what choices the player has available to them, what abilities they have, and what will motivate and challenge them along their journey to the winning goal. We’ve discovered great tools like Storybird to help youth exercise these underused skills in an interactive, collaborative and fun way to support this framework. Equipping our students with robust storytelling skills ensures that they don’t produce games which are lost in mechanics.

For the all the games-based educators out there, what are your tools/techniques for weaving narrative into the game design process?

Designing for Development: How to leverage games for social impact

Games have been a point of contention in the education technology field for well over a decade, but thanks to the raw determination of Henry Jenkins, James Gee, Katie Salen and other game enthusiasts, the deconstruction of the games paradox has made space for games with social impact. This week I had the opportunity to participate in the latest DC Tech Salon, “How Can Serious Online Games Improve Development Impact”, and I must admit that the conversation felt a bit top-down.

At this roundtable discussion, folks from the World Bank, USAID, the Woodrow Wilson Center and Zenimax spoke of their successes and failures, and it was evident everyone believed the development community is making significant strides. Many salon participants were concerned with how games could be more fun and how to ensure youth were engaged with game play vs game mechanics. Deep learning was the key objective, but I couldn’t help but feel that we were focused on a singular approach. From my own personal experience with youth, I’ve witnessed the deepest learning emerge from youth expressing their ideas and thoughts through making. Why not pilot more programs centered on game design?

Don’t just play…make

Over the last few years there’s been an explosion in maker culture, and the rise of DIY has been global. Technology, a key component of the maker movement, has significantly aided African-led development, and as an African youth myself, it’s the type of development I’d like to see unfold across the continent.

Maker Faire Lagos
Maker Faire Lagos

Solomon King, a Ugandan entrepreneur and tinkerer, has introduced robotics to the country’s youth through Fundi Bots, an initiative to foster creativity, productivity and homemade solutions. Youth and adults are not just consuming products or knowledge, but designing and making, which is incredibly empowering.

In the United States, the Obama administration’s National Stem Video Game challenge has picked up meaningful traction since its inception in 2010. According to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, this year 46% of youth designed educational games. When asked why, many youth said they wished they could teach their peers about their interests and use games in the classroom.  Youth and adults can learn quite a bit from mastering game design and mechanics, including storytelling, logic, problem solving and of course computer programming. I want to point out that game design can and should be taught to anyone, regardless of age because of course, adults play games too (the recent release of GTA5 reminds us all too well). My reflections on international development experts designing games is not to say that these efforts are not appreciated or unwanted. It’s important that critical issues in the development field are deployed in an interactive, local and engaging way. At the same time, participation, co-creation and ownership are at the core of social impact, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.