Turning Fifth Graders into Game Designers and Mobile Learners

Take 40 precocious fifth graders, a box full of iPhones, and a group of game designers and educators, stir, and release onto the busy streets of New York City. What may sound like chaos is actually Mobile Quest, a mobile game design camp in its third year. The camp is hosted by Institute of Play at the New York City public school it co-designed and developed, Quest to Learn, and supported by the New Learning Institute, a program operated by the Pearson Foundation.   

A highlight of the week is the trip out to High Line Park, a narrow garden environment built on the remains of a raised railroad structure in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. There, the campers play a location-based game on iPhones, called “Picnic at Quicnic.” The game was designed and built by Institute of Play game designers Chloe Varelidi, Claudio Midolo, and Shula Ponet on ARIS, a GPS-enabled mobile game design platform. Through play-testing this relatively simple game, campers develop an understanding of the basic principles of game design – goals, rules, core mechanics, and play to name a few. The game also requires them to be handy with cell phones – know how to upload a picture, tag an image or record a video. In teams of two, the campers work their way through the game while troubleshooting to overcome obstacles. Later in the week, they’ll use this same platform to design their own location-based games. Leah Gilliam, the Institute of Play’s Program Manager for Informal Learning and Director of Mobile Quest, loves to see the campers learn how to work together and how quickly they pick up and begin using the lingo of game design like pros. 

Later in the day, seventh and eighth grade Quest to Learn students show up like they own the place. Less than two years prior, they were the Mobile Quest campers – naïve and wide-eyed – the proverbial gaming “noobs.” Now at Design Art Code—another week-long camp hosted by Institute of Play—they hone and apply their advanced skills in design and coding. The camp is led by Brendon Trombley, a game designer at the Institute of Play, and Marisa Glick, a visual designer from Boston, with assistance from Alex Pong, a high school student and “Java geek.” Talk among mentors and campers reads more like the chatter of coworkers than the traditional adult-child dynamic. According to Gilliam, the whole program is centered on youth-led learning, and the informal environment is reflective of that.

At Design Art Code, each student can choose the type of activity they’d like to work on for the day. In one room, a group gleefully recreates their favorite fictional characters and celebrities in type-form, using Aviary, a digital design toolset. One student, absorbed in his rendition of Snape (infamous of Harry Potter fame) perks up with wide eyes when Glick informs him she had a professor in college who was a dead-ringer for Dumbledore.

Meanwhile, in another room, another group enthusiastically shoots processing and coding questions at Trombley and picks his brain for ways to push the code further. On their own computers, they’re able to recreate what they’ve learned, and the room echoes with excitement. In both activities, campers are completing tasks their mentors learned in college! Both programs wrap up with an expo to display their ingenious creations.

Guest blogger Elisabeth Jacknis is an intern at the Institute of Play and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is studying communications and history.

Banner image credit: Claudio Midolo, courtesy Institute of Play