More Than Just a Game
A group of students at Penn Alexander School are hacking parents’ classic warning that video games turn brains to mush.
In a course developed by Yasmin Kafai, a professor of teaching, learning, and leadership at Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE), a group of 12 sixth to eighth graders are working not only to understand how video games work, but to actually create the games themselves.
“The goal of the [coding] program is not to turn everyone into a programmer. It’s the same as teaching students to read and write—not everyone will become a great author or mathematician, but those are skills necessary to understand the world with which we interact,” Kafai says.
The project at Penn Alexander is part of an overarching series Kafai is developing on moving game design beyond the screen. In the course, students are involved in programming the game and incorporating physical extensions, reminiscent of Wii remote controllers and other tangible game components.
“All of these projects are part of a larger effort to extend how we can think about game design in a productive context,” Kafai says. “By moving into the physical world, we’re making it much more up-to-date, because ‘wearables’ are very much part of today’s digital media. Still, most kids know how to use them but hardly ever have the opportunity to make their own, understand the engineering and circuit design, as well as coding to connect to the physical world.”
The course is part of an elective series known as “choice activity” at Penn Alexander, in which students meet Tuesdays and Thursdays for roughly an hour. The coding course is led by Veena Vasudevan, a Ph.D. student at GSE with a focus on research.
Using Scratch—an educational programming tool originally developed by Kafai and now known as the YouTube of interactive media—Vasudevan has helped students develop games structured similarly to Flappy Bird, a popular side-scroller-style game in which users direct a bird through a series of pipes.
“For the most part, because kids are so immersed in game play in their everyday lives, they’re naturally curious about creating their own,” Vasudevan says. “Once they are using Scratch, there’s this realization of, ‘Wait—I can do this myself,’ and it’s immediately visual and aesthetic, and many notions they may have had of a programming environment is removed.”
Going forward, Kafai says she is working on developing a more elaborate version of the course for high school students that will involve more complex coding.
“Technology surrounds us in all aspects of our lives,” Kafai says. “But right now, the large majority of kids have no experience whatsoever with programming. [Students] need that kind of preparation so they can make an informed decision, whether it’s really a technical area they want to pursue, or go to community college or university later on—and so that they can understand not just how to use technology, but what’s behind it.”