The trick to working with children, I’ve learned, is to be excited about what you are doing. As long as you are constantly smiling and cheering them on, they will think whatever they are doing is incredibly important and they will give it all they have. No matter the objective, they will rush into it and try to accomplish it. Be that task running a race or trying to build a castle, if you enjoy it, they will enjoy it.
It doesn’t seem odd to me to reveal bits of my life in such a piecemeal fashion as I have. Honestly, I forget that I have done things or were a part of an organization. One of those memories resurfacing recently is that I had the title “Game Leader” for a children’s organization for just over five years.
It may seem odd to some people who have not heard me speak outside of my hosting role on podcasts, but I can drop into what I have jokingly called “crack happy” mode from time to time. It’s the mode when I take on the silly persona where I laugh and encourage people. It’s one part clown and two parts cheerleader. It’s what needed to get kids excited about what you are about to teach them. Because, as I learned quickly after a couple months teaching and running games, kids get bored very quickly.
Looking back, it makes sense that I would land into a position to talk about and code video games. Back then, I was doing the same thing in a physical space. I was in a position to invent new games and to twist the games I had on a weekly basis. We had to keep three groups of children engaged for thirty minutes at a time and I was, due to scheduling conflicts, often by myself in that task. The trick I came up with was to be both excited and to ready to make up a game on the spot.
One of my favorite games I “invented” was something I called the Building Castles game. Before the children would show up, I would set out two buckets of wooden blocks of various sizes and, as the kids ran in, I would point them one by one to the two buckets. By the time the last of the kids were in the room, there would be two groups ready for the game. I would then explain the rules.
“This is the Building Castles game.
Pick a block and then run to the end of the room. Place your block, run back and then sit down at the end of your line.
The team with the highest castle after everyone has gone wins.”
Most of the time, the game ran great. Each group would work together to create these wonderfully unique structures during each session. The children would generally have fun and I could run through the game a few times before moving on to something else. It was one of my favorite games that I “invented” and I used to run it once or twice a month.
I was thinking about that block game over the last couple weeks as I have been reading about the IGF “scene drama“. Maybe it was just my innocence about the process, but I thought most developers liked submitting games and that, while not everyone was happy, the general opinion was that the IGF was a great thing.
Turns out, I was wrong. There seems to be some deep seated anger over some developers being “overlooked” and their games going unplayed. And, while I can’t comment on the particulars since I wasn’t involved with it, I was reminded of those times that the Building Castle game failed when I was reading through the comments both there and on the original post.
Every once in a while, one kid wouldn’t want to be a part of the group they were in or even attempt to play the game at all. They would purposely place their block apart from the others. Or they would place their block in such a way that it would knock the others down.
I would always watch these kids closely because there would be a split second where, as the blocks started to fall, they would quickly shift from glee for having done something bad to shame to having knocked over all the pieces the other children had placed. I waited for this reaction because, in nearly all cases, they were upset about something else unrelated to what was going on and they chose this moment to act on that anger. I would then step in and start to fix it.
I would say something like “Oh no!”, laugh about it to show that everything was fine and the reach down to realign one block. I would then encourage that team to start over from there. One person might have acted out but that didn’t mean the game was over. They could keep going. They still had their blocks and there was still time. It was never about one person, it was about the group acting together to build something great.
That’s what I want for the IGF. I want us in the community, both developers and writers — two groups I overlap — to step in and start to pick up the pieces again. We can be better about this. If some games aren’t getting attention, why not telling bloggers about it or send links to different sites? Or even do like Mike Meyer did and just encourage people to use their skills to make strange new blocks?
Sure, yes, some games are going to get overlooked from time to time in both the IGF and in the community at large, but it’s not just about the single block. We have to build together. We have to pick, place and then position ourselves to rebuild when needed.
The secret to the Building Castles game, the one I would never tell the children and that they would learn if they watched closely was that, without people working on it and maintaining it, the ‘castles’ will always fall. There is a time to knock them down and start over again with a new game. There comes a moment when all the blocks, both big and small, are collected up and stored for the next session.
When the time rolls around again, we can all pick our places, get in line and wait to contribute again. As a developer and writer myself, I look forward to it. One day, I might get a chance to run across the room and place my block because of my code or writing. At that time, I can only hope that others can come behind me and build off of it towards something great.