Computer games as liberal arts?
Educators who teach kids to make their own video games are on education's cutting edge.
(Fortune) -- Though many adults imagine the frightening Grand Theft Auto when they think of video games, kids appear to be subtler thinkers on the subject. Not only do many of them intuitively realize that games can embody any values and be on any subject, many want to make games themselves.
That was my big takeaway from the fourth annual Games For Change conference held in New York. I moderated a session there on Youth-Created Games for Change, something I confess I knew next to nothing about before this week.
Educators around the country are recognizing that it isn't intrinsically bad that kids want to spend so much time staring at a screen playing video games. Instead of demonizing them for doing so, they're redirecting the kids' attention to more beneficial things on the screen - creating games that help kids learn. The conference highlighted a dizzying array of games on environmental, political, scientific, human rights and other topics. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor gave the event's closing keynote, in which she described a computer game she is helping create to teach students about the court system.
But some educators are going a step further, teaching kids to make the games themselves. It turns out to be perhaps the ultimate form of liberal arts. In order to create a computer game you have to think about the content. You have to write a script. The programming involves logic, math and science. And to understand how you distribute a game you have to get into issues of marketing, sociology, and Internet culture. Panelist Rafael Fajardo, a professor at the University of Denver, says that his program, which teaches teachers how to teach kids to make games, is working to "change the culture of education." The National Science Foundation has contributed funding.
Barry Joseph, another panelist, directs a program for a New York-based group called Global Kids. "When we started doing this the idea of using games as a way to work with kids wasn't accepted," he says, with understatement. Numerous speakers at the conference told me they still frequently encounter educators and other adults who are appalled at the very notion of using games in education. One speaker said game partisans were treated almost as if they were bringing porn into the classroom.
Joseph has been fighting that prejudice for years. Often working against the educational infrastructure, his program, Playing 4 Keeps, has nonetheless orchestrated groups of Brooklyn high school students and professional game designers to create a number of polished games. One, about poverty in the developing world, is called Ayiti: The Cost of Life. The group built another called Consent, focusing on discrimination in medical care faced by African-Americans in jail. It was created in the teenager-only virtual world Teen Second Life.
Playing 4 Keeps' newest student-created game, Tempest in Crescent City, about the struggles New Orleans residents faced after Hurricane Katrina, debuted at Games for Change. Joseph says the games created by his program have been played more than 1.5 million times, carrying their message well beyond the students who created them.
Panelist Zakiyyah Kareem, from a program called Girlstart in Austin, Texas, directed a program called Project IT Girl which last year brought together 44 high school girls there. It was jointly funded by the NSF and chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD, Fortune 500), which has begun its own nonprofit Changing the Game initiative to fund socially-conscious gaming.
The Girlstart girls conceived, wrote, designed, programmed, and produced their own games using the Python programming language and entirely open source and non-copyrighted materials. The games were intended for the XO computers created by the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which itself has been devoted from the beginning to the notion that its machines should be used by children not only to view media but also to create it themselves.
These games are much simpler than the professionally-assisted ones created by Playing 4 Keeps. You can see some here. One is called How to Save a Life. To work your way through a maze you have to correctly answer a variety of questions about first aid techniques.
"We hope this may lead more girls to pursue computer science as a class or as a career," says Kareem. There is evidence that these programs can make a difference in a kids' life. One Playing 4 Keeps member was in the audience at Games For Change, and says that his work with that group made him decide to go to college. The program has mostly operated in the worst-performing schools in the New York City system, but 90% of its students have gone on to higher education, Joseph says.
After the panel, I spoke to my old friend Idit Harel Caperton, a longtime entrepreneur and innovator in technology for kids. It turns out she has recently formed a new nonprofit called the World Wide Workshop Foundation, which has designed an online template for teaching kids to design their own games. It takes a lot of hands-on help from educators on the ground, but a recent pilot project in several West Virginia high schools showed that it works. A very simple game that some Elkins, WV students created incorporating a few history questions can be found here.
"We're helping kids make their own media," says Caperton. Her organization aims "to teach youth how to take control of their new-media world." It's a lofty and complicated goal, but one that more and more educators are starting to share.