Despite their ubiquity, despite the vast sales and the increasing calls for the medium to be recognised as an artform, video games – that most obviously visual of media – still have an image problem.
And it is more than superficial, it goes to the heart of the home, where concerned parents worry about the deleterious effect on their sons and daughters. However, while the evils of gaming rhetoric may make the most noise, parents who have fears may be intrigued to know that it is not the only story in town.
Children themselves are now refuting the stereotype that gaming is a mindless, pointless hobby, as the flexibility of the medium allows them to grow from player to creator. And the game-makers agree: “Games as a medium always involve creativity on the player’s part,” says Benjamin Donoghue, creative director at Blackstaff Games. “Creativity is about exploring what you can do within a defined set of rules.” Blackstaff is currently working on DogBiscuit: The Quest for Crayons, a drawing game for mobile devices in which the player designs parts of the game world.
Then there is Joshua Davidson, founder and managing director at a company called Night Zookeeper, who says it’s important to include an element of creativity in games for children: “Night Zookeeper was set up to encourage children to stop just being the consumers of digital content and start becoming the creators,” he says. Like DogBiscuit, the Night Zookeeper apps and website encourage children to draw, in this case magical animals for the zoo. The team found that asking players for creative input increased their engagement: they were more likely to read stories if they could illustrate them themselves.
In time, children develop the patience for more involved creation. The LittleBigPlanet games are fun, and visually appealing platformers, but also include a set of accessible level-creation tools. More than nine million levels have been made so far and the studios at Sony has now employed creators from the LittleBigPlanet community. “The beauty of games like LittleBigPlanet is you don’t need to know how to code a language to make something,” says senior producer Tom O’Connor. Yet even programing languages needn’t be an insurmountable barrier for children. Independent developer Adriel Wallick ran classes at the GameCity festival last year teaching kids how to make games with a simplified language called Scratch. “The response was amazing,” she says, “Most days were fairly full and the kids were super into it.” Most memorable to Wallick was how excited her students were the first time they programed something and then again when they’d completed the introductory tasks and were told they could now create whatever they wanted. “Most kids at this point would quietly ask me if they could do something that they initially think is ridiculous,” she recalls, “And when I would say yes, their eyes would light up and they’d get to work.”
One child who has taken this creative urge to the bank is 12-year-old Sam Smith, who went from making levels in LittleBigPlanet and Lego Indiana Jones 2, to tinkering with variables in Starbound and Garry’s Mod, to using a program called GameMaker: Studio to develop a game called Spacepants, which is now available to buy on the App Store. “I make games instead of going to school,” says Sam. Thousands of children in the UK are home educated like Sam, but game development is one way to cover the basics: “It teaches mathematics, it teaches language. I learned a lot of spelling and especially maths, making the calculations in Spacepants.”
Literacy, numeracy and computer skills aren’t the only benefits. The EU has co-funded an initiative called No One Left Behind to get children as young as eight making games, with an adapted version of a free mobile tool called Pocket Code, to study other subjects such as science and history. GameCity’s organisers are also involved in the initiative. Sam’s father Jonathan Smith, co-director of GameCity and Nottingham’s new National Videogame Arcade, says his other son created a monastery simulator when learning about the dissolution of the monasteries. “He loves games, so that was a very natural form of expression for him.
“If your child can play games they can probably make games,” says Sam, “That’s one of the awesome things about video games in general.”
“This is all the bedrock of why we’re doing what we’re doing here,” Jonathan adds of the NVA, which hosts regular workshops for kids, “We’re building Hogwarts for the Minecraft generation.” For anyone with a child who would like to learn the magic of making games for themselves, a trip there is a good place to start.
ADVENTURE TIME: GAME WIZARD
This licensed mobile game lets players draw their own levels either in the app or on paper, a creative way to try out level design.
Like LittleBigPlanet, this Xbox/Windows game has a community of players who share their creations for others to play or adapt. Watch out for in-app purchases.
This free tool was developed by Massachustetts Institute of Technology and is used across the world. It’s accessible but provides a foundation to learn more complex programing languages.
MINECRAFT: PI EDITION
For Minecraft-obsessed kids with a Raspberry Pi, this version is a great way to learn how rewriting code can change things in a familiar game.
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