On a steamy August day in New York, a group of 19 kids, aged 8-12 years old, are excitedly talking with their parents, their summer arts camp teachers, and each other about their latest favorite video games. In a makeshift “arcade” at the Children’s Museum of Art (CMA) in Manhattan, each child is eager to demonstrate the games—with titles such as “Three Rooms of Doom” and “Fall of the Parasites.” It’s clear from their body language and bubbling voices that they can’t wait to share the details of how to play them. One enthusiastically describes a digital image of a black button, which propels a player into a time warp; another is animatedly talking about a house built of mazes and how to navigate through it effectively. The biggest reason these kids love these games? They designed them.
This scene is the culmination of a weeklong, intensive video-game design workshop created by frog for CMA, the first of its kind. The museum offers a wide range of classes in traditional art making, such as painting, collage, and sculpture, as well as media courses on filmmaking. But the organization hadn’t hosted workshops on one of the most contemporary art forms: the video game. At the same time, frog hadn’t created a curriculum on game design for kids before—although the firm has been consulting with clients on incorporating video-game dynamics into interactive experiences to engage users. So both CMA and frog were up for the task—and its challenges.
The partnership came about when frog creative director J Grossen simply stopped by the CMA building when it opened about a year ago. The museum is located one block from frog’s New York studio in an up-and-coming area nestled between the SoHo and TriBeCa neighborhoods. It’s home to such creative companies as the TED conferences (which frog partners with) and ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi. Grossen was simply being a friendly neighbor, and proposed that frog and CMA, two very different but very imaginative organizations, collaborate.
A team of New York-based frogs, Adam Brodowski, Brandy Bora, Jonas Damon, Ron Rosenman, Aleks Gryczon, and Thomas White, with the guidance of New York General Manager Sabah Ashraf, worked with Grossen (who has since been working in Amsterdam) and CMA. However, the frogs needed to figure out a way to devote their collective time to developing the class while balancing other business deadlines. Inspired by the non-profit educational mission of CMA, as well as the urgent creativity of the quick-deadline culture of hackathon-style-thinking, the group decided to try a new experiment. Every frog employee is allotted one full, paid workday per calendar year to devote to community service. The team planned to alot their “frog cares” day collectively to design the video game course. The group began working on the project an hour here and there, keeping planning focused because of the constraint of staying within the one-day boundary, or a total of 8-12 hours of work.
The results were well worth it. The class was enrolled to capacity. The frog team put together a presentation of the history of video games as a starting point, sharing with the kids the basic design concepts that were born with the classic, and basic, game “Pong,” up to current, more complex games appropriate for their age on the market today, such as “Little Big Planet.” In addition to frog’s presentation, Syed Salahuddin from Babycastles, a collective based in Brooklyn that curates temporary installations of games from independent developers around the world, demo’d several games to provide additional inspiration. The kids worked with Scratch, a software program that allows users to upload their own artwork and fashion a simple computer game.
“It really was amazing to watch the kids settle in. Honestly, we were surprised that this age group kept themselves so busy,” says Joe Vena, Media Lab Manager at CMA. “We really wound up addressing a medium that they really love.”
“It was incredible to see some of the kids actively debugging code,” says Adam Brodowski, one of the frogs involved, echoing Vena’s enthusiasm and awe. “We handed them a neat, but not super complex framework of how to design a basic game, and they just ran with it. We offered the smallest droplet of guidance, and they expanded this into giant ideas.”
The frog and CMA instruction team presented the kids with templates for games, and helped the kids learn how to add sound files. They also hand-drew the pictures that they uploaded, to be incorporated into the games. Some participants figured out how to represent characters from different angles onscreen, not an easy feat given the flat nature of most Scratch games. Some figured out they had to draw side-profile, head-on, and back view versions of characters to achieve this effect. Other kids created games with numerous environments, rather than provide players with merely one simple backdrop for action.
And the kids weren’t the only ones learning. The frog team realized that by observing the workshop, they had new sets of questions and practices they could apply in their own work.
“At frog, we often have the same discussion that we had when working with the kids at CMA. We ask, what makes a game a game? What are the right obstacles, challenges, and goals?” says frog’s Brandy Bora. “How do you work with the software available in the context of what it is capable of doing?”
Bora also points out that as the team observed the kids’ games, frogs also wondered why they made their design choices—were they structural or social? “It seemed that most choices were structurally based. But we also noticed the kids looking at each other’s work, and wondering out loud, ‘should my game have some of the same designs as other kids’ games?’” Bora says. “So that made us wonder, maybe designers do the same thing when we look at other Web and software projects. Why do we just assume a convention is necessary? Maybe we should always take another look at why we want to apply a convention before we do.”
Finally, the frog team was fascinated by the very young game designers’ perceptions of space, and how it is manifested in games. “They had a real understanding of how to port physical space into the virtual world,” Bora observes. “We left thinking, ‘How can we explore this more in our own work in the future?’”
Photos: Adam Brodowski
Reena Jana is frog's Executive Editor. Based in New York, Reena is the former innovation department editor at BusinessWeek, and has contributed to a variety of publications including Wired, the New York Times, Harvard Business Review online, Fortune.com, and numerous others.