Gaming Through the Ages

Scratch Game

Each summer, the Digital Learning Team offers a series of workshops for tweens and teens which use digital tools to explore natural and social science content from the Museum’s collections. This summer, the Field Museum is opened of the Cyrus Tang Hall of China, a new permanent hall, and so all of our workshops will focus on China. In the first of three workshops, Gaming Through the Ages, 12 and 13 year old participants spent a week meeting with anthropologists, visiting the collections, and designing digital games inspired by the content using the free, online programming environment Scratch. Participants created projects covering a range of content from the new Hall of China and a variety of game genres from hunting games to scholar-official quizzes.

In planning for the program, I went back and forth on how much structure to provide for the final projects. The workshop could including a lot of specific instruction, leading to very similar projects or could be left more open so that participants could choose their own game mechanics and style, but risk not completing a game during the workshop. In the end, the program skewed towards less instruction from the front of the room and more open ended exploration with one-on-one support from instructors. This led to moments of frustration for both participants and instructors during the process, with some youth reporting that they worked on their project for many hours at home and others struggling to make their plans reality in the time we had together. It also led to a strong learning community and a wide range of finished projects that participants took pride in sharing with family, friends, and museum staff at the end of the workshop.

I approached the design as a balance of opposing forces: learner agency and structured instruction. In her dissertation, Professor Karen Brennan discusses the relationship between agency and structure in designing and implementing learning environments and says, “Agency and structure are not in opposition,” but rather, “they mutually constitute each other.” She concludes her writing with five strategies for designers to use structure to increase agency: “introduce possibilities, encourage experimentation, support access to resources, cultivate connections with others, and create opportunities for reflection.” Professor Brennan’s suggestions have helped me think about what went well and what needs to be more explicitly implemented in the rest of our programs this summer. So now I’ll jump back into preparations for next week, game design with high school aged participants.

You can read more about these strategies in the final chapter of Professor Brennan’s dissertation. Also, check out the all of the games developed in the workshop. Note that some of the games are still in beta, and may be updated by participants after the workshop so look for future updates!