I should be in bed, but I just realized that I haven’t yet posted about the last two days of what I’ve been calling Jessica’s Teaching Adventure. The short version is that my students are rocking out with games, and yet again defying my expectations.
We’ve fallen into a pattern of class, which is good (or at least stress-reducing for me). We start the day by talking for an hour about some game-related issue. Tuesday it was what makes a good game; Wednesday it was alternate interfaces and virtual reality, which they were really excited about; today we talked about what ethical questions game designers and game players have to face, including the media-violence bugbear but also discussing the value of play in a world full of problems, and why making play might be something worthwhile to do with one’s life either professionally or as a hobby. We also got into a long discussion about school, and Gus would be proud - I gave them some perspective about why the educational system is set up the way it is, and why change is hard, and tomorrow we’re going to talk about the difference between being educated and being in school, and go through some stuff they’ve taught themselves because of their play practices. This is stuff they wanted to get into. These kids are so cool.
Anyhow, we’ve got access to the arcade room for ninety minutes after that, so I send half the group down to play while I do some activity with the other half. Wednesday this meant more role-playing, since the group that played on Tuesday told all their friends how cool it was. I ran a super-simple-system pirates game, where the group was trying to steal a treasure map from a rival pirate crew. I made the bad guys reeeeeally bad, let them go for plenty of blood and guts, and ended with a climactic battle with the other pirate captain - and they were begging for more, so I may run it again for the same group tomorrow. Today I showed them how to analyze and take apart a simple web-game, and how they could go about designing the same kind of game, but they seemed a little disappointed; I think they’d rather have been role-playing.
After arcade time, we have lunch, which is basically me hanging out with them and talking about things that they are dealing with in their lives. Yesterday I had a long talk with six or seven of them about how they relate to alcohol and drugs, and we got into a discussion about the pro-anorexia movement, and we talked about how to deal with parents who have serious issues, and you know? I remember that at this age, my biggest worry was whether my crush knew I existed or not. Sometimes I forget how grateful I should be for growing up in what was effectively the nineteenth century. But these kids are smart and tough, even if they’re having trouble in school, and I’m blown away by what they handle every day and how they do it with grace.
The afternoons tend to be a long block of time, so I try to break it up by doing a design exercise, playing a game, and having some kind of discussion. Unfortunately Wednesday afternoon was mostly spent dealing with technical problems on my end, so I set them up with single-player games and a list of “game designer questions” to think about as they played. They seemed pretty content with that, though some of them ended up just watching others play, and one girl actually decided to go off on her own and design her own game, which rocked out. Today I had about half the kids playing - including the group on World of Warcraft, who are really getting into the social aspects of play - and the other half working on making their own games in Gamemaker. Most of them had a hard time with it at first, but within an hour or two they were all able to put together some kind of simple game. I sent the design group home with a copy of it on a CD, which they were totally thrilled about, and I’m going to get the other half designing tomorrow while this group can either play or work further on their games.
The Gamemaker exercise was actually really fruitful in many ways, but I’m too tired to go into it in much more detail. Suffice it to say that it was instructive to talk to these kids about breaking problems down, experimentation, setting goals, and the like. I’ve been worried that I’m not teaching these kids skills that are concrete enough - I don’t want their parents saying, “Why are they just playing games all day?” - but seeing them with Gamemaker reassured me that yes, I am teaching them concrete things. I doubt they could have looked at it this way at the beginning of the week, and they’ll make better games for having played games that they didn’t know about before, and played them critically. I shouldn’t feel bad just because they’re enjoying the learning so much that it all feels playful to them … right?