Eight-year-old Dario Alvarado-Steele huddled with his mother, Alisha, looking at a laptop screen.
“We should write the introduction to the game,” Alisha said, clicking through a set of tasks on the computer and nodding at her son.
Dario and Alisha, who were in the process of building a computer game centered on finding a lost puppy, were two of a couple dozen participants in the “Madison basecamp” for a global computer game building event held in 22 cities around the world on Friday and Saturday.
“I love the energy of it,” said Sarah Gagnon, arts and communications director of the Field Day Lab at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, which hosted the event.
The Field Day Lab comprises an interdisciplinary team of educational researchers, software engineers, artists, and storytellers who build educational computer games for the classroom.
The Global Game Jam was intended to promote ARIS, a tool created at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that’s used to create games and stories, and foster idea sharing and inspiration between members of the educational gaming community.
“It’s neat to see everyone fired up,” said Eric Lang, a Field Day Lab developer.
Lang used his time at the event to build a game that helps students learn how to indentify plants. The game involves saving a king and killing a basilisk, too – just to keep things interesting.
“ARIS lends itself to that arena, to blurring the line between fun and education,” he said.
According to Gagnon, the Field Day Lab hopes to complete about 10 games this year, three of which are scheduled to launch in January.
“We want to give teachers something they can have in their back pocket,” she said.
The lab is focusing on what they’re calling “mini games” right now: games that aren’t meant to be played for hours on end, so teachers can feel like they’re not giving away the entirety of class time to game play.
“We’re all about getting kids on and off screens – screens are just one part of the tool kit,” Gagnon said.
The three games scheduled to launch from the lab early next year teach concepts like sound waves, weather and bacteria. The games are meant for “upper elementary to beginning of middle school” students, Gagnon said.
David Gagnon, director of the Field Day Lab, said he was surprised by the turnout for this year’s Game Jam. The first Game Jam, held in 2011, attracted a plethora of UW-Madison students and tech community members. This year, families were turning up to try their hand at creating video games.
The audience was becoming the creator.
Gagnon thought the turnout of a different demographic may be due to the Game Jam’s affiliation with the Wisconsin Science Festival this year. And, indeed, that’s how Alisha and Dario Alvarado-Steele found out about it: looking through the festival program.
“We were looking to take advantage of what was going on at the festival, and for a while he’s been saying he wants to be a computer programmer and build games when he grows up,” Alvarado-Steele said.
The choice of the event was clear – and Alvarado-Steele was quite pleased with how it turned out. At the end of the two-day extravaganza, Dario was walking away with much more than a game involving running at coins and lost puppies for prizes (and avoiding “scary dogs” that make you drop your coins and puppies).
“I think he gets so much out of seeing how people have different ideas, and how people go through program solving,” she said. “And I think it’s really building his confidence, too.”