For a few short hours Saturday, aliens, dragons, cyborgs and one Giant Hairy Sandwich Beast convened, battling for supremacy in a universe created by a handful of kids.
“Oh my gosh, I can tell this game is going to be awesome,” said 12-year-old Mechai Meadows as he and his fellow No Name Random Awesomeness team members bent over a table littered with sticky notes, markers, cookie wrappers and slips of paper.
Mechai and 11 other middle and high schoolers were participating in the Oregon Game Project Challenge jam, introducing them to the possibilities of video game design with the help of industry mentors and Deschutes County 4-H, which sponsored the event at the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center.
“Not many of these kids are on the track or football team,” said Laura Cuthbert, a 4-H after-school program coordinator who leads a Game Project Challenge team in Bend. “But they think about these kind of innovative things all the time, and this gives them a chance to work with other kids to understand the value working together as a team.”
During the game jam, kids brainstorm and work out their concepts on paper; it’s a day-long introduction to the program. Kids who join an Oregon Game Project Challenge team then learn basic computer programming skills and can ultimately compete in May against teams from across the state, taking their paper concepts and turning them into computer games.
Oregon Game Project Challenge is sponsored by TechStart, a nonprofit with a focus on increasing technology education for grades K-12.
At the Deschutes County Fairgrounds 4-H building on Saturday, the Random Awesomeness team was having trouble corralling all of its ideas.
Thirteen-year-old Katie Slough tried to ride herd.
“OK, guys — what’s the point of this game going to be?”
A long pause followed.
“To fight each other until one side loses,” said Jason Cuthbert, 13, with a shrug. The dragons, elves, robots and mice populating their game were providing challenges.
“I’m concerned we’re making it too complicated,” Katie said.
“At least we’re going to be here a long time,” offered Mechai.
“Not that long,” Katie countered with a frown of concentration.
Cuthbert walked from table to table, offering occasional suggestions to help teams progress. Initially, they resisted focusing, instead throwing out ideas: What if the dragon was afraid of the mice? What if the weapons could change their properties? What if you had to collect points to win?
Twelve-year-old George Cutter was a bit overwhelmed. Experienced in LEGO robotics, where kids are given a specific mission to accomplish, George didn’t know what to do with all the ideas and possibilities.
“We all have so many ideas, it’s so hard to bring it down to one,” he said. Eventually, his team voted, choosing the game concept of its youngest member, 11-year-old Jack Sorlie.
Random Awesomeness decided the fantasy creatures wouldn’t just be fighting the robots and cyborgs, but the mice too, which would be a common enemy.
“Imagine if during the Cold War the U.S. and Russia had to team up to fight aliens?” Jason Cuthbert asked. “How well would that go over? They have to fight together for a greater cause.”
The goal of the program, according to Jason’s mother Laura, is to help the kids learn basics of team communication and the translation of abstract ideas into concrete plans. The teams even give short presentations, “elevator pitches,” to convince the others why the game is worth playing.
Despite the frustration of combining so many varied ideas, most of the kids seemed to enjoy working together.
“I’d much rather be on a team than work alone, because you get interesting perspectives,” Jason said. “With me, when I latch onto an idea, I tend to ignore other possibilities. But when my team challenges, it gives me pause and makes me reconsider.”
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