March 14, 2014

I have been doing conferences and talks for two years now… I feel like I know how to talk to a large audience and how to explain things, even complex ones, about video games… but this time was different. I had to talk about video game development to kids. Even if they are tiny, they scared me as an audience… but believe it or not they were, in the end, way more awesome than scary!

I surely have already mentioned the Game Dev Party(fr)… you know… the small organization I helped to found few years ago and which deals with organizing game jams, conferences and workshops in my hometown. Well, the Game Dev Party was contacted by the Museum of Contemporary Arts(fr) of Lyon, France, to help them on a project they had. The idea was to mix art exhibition with video games for an audience composed of 11 to 14 years old kids. The people in charge of the exhibition are not fond of video games (but they seem to have absolutely no bias against video games which is, in a way, a very good thing) but they had the feeling that there was something to do. The exhibition was entitled “motopoetique” (or “motopoetic” in English) and was about how motorcycles and their accessories can become real pieces of art. They needed someone to explain to kids how things work in video games using art as an example.

The Game Dev Party asked me if I wanted to be this guy… and I said yes, because why not?!

I have to stop here for a moment. I told you that the people in charge of the exhibition were not gamers… I now have to admit that I am not the kind of guy who “understands” contemporary art. I have a weird perception of art… I like beautiful things but things I find beautiful are often pretty weird. I can spend hours looking at a tree while completely missing something that everyone considers marvelous. In other words, I am not a museum geek. That said, even if the exhibition contained weird crazy stuff (like motorbikes covered with grease), a lot of pieces were really nice and interesting.

They were too young to be allowed to play Just Cause. Too bad.
(Maro Michalakakos, Itineraire grave / Luc Mattenberger, Candidate. © photo Blaise Adilon)

Well that’s basically how I ended up in front of eleven kids among weird motorcycles trying to show them how the techniques used in video games are similar to some of the pieces that were there. For example, one artist took pictures directly on chromium parts of his bike during a travel. Pictures and landscapes are distorted but it gives an idea of “what my bike can see while we travel together”… using that material I showed them videos of environment mapping and explained them how it basically works. When we saw bikes made of wood or card boxes I showed them videos of character modeling on ZBrush. I was stunned to see how well informed about techniques youngsters are. They don’t know any exact terms but they clearly have a good idea of how things are done.

After visiting the exhibition, we were left alone and I was on my own to teach them new things. I explained them how a video game is made, what kind of people work on it, what they do and how long they usually work on it. They seem to have learnt a lot… and I was shocked when a little 11 year old girl, who seemed to be very shy, asked me very pointy questions about artificial intelligence. She started with very naive questions like “when I play a tennis game alone, who controls the opponent?”, but she quickly continued with “but why does the computer loses if it knows how to beat me?” and she finally asked me to explain to her, in detail, how programmers create an AI. I was so surprised to be questioned on such a complex subject by a 11 year old kid. At that moment I felt like with their help we could manage to make awesome things. I decided that we could make a game all together, but I needed to know more about what they knew about game mechanics.

Raphael Zarka, la Draisine de l'aerotrain.

I tried to show them only games that they haven’t played before. Everything started with GoScurry by Daniele Giardini and I asked them about mechanics, about gameplay, about UI and a lot more… they ended up answering correctly to almost every question and topic, and they also loved the game so much that they asked me where they could buy it. As GoScurry was a good start, I tried to push them a little bit harder. I showed them a minimalist game to see how they would react as they usually play AAA or games developed for mass-market (some of them even play Call of Duty… but shhh don’t tell their parents). I showed them Osmos of Hemisphere Games. Their reactions amazed me. Once again they loved the game, and they understood very quickly how simple game mechanics can lead to a way more complex game experience. After that, they were ready for some new tricks. It was time to question their knowledge about platformer games. They talked about Mario, Sonic, Rayman and Donkey Kong… so I wanted to show them that a platformer game is not only about running, jumping on things and throwing up fireballs because flowers are hard to swallow. We talked about Braid by Jonhatan Blow and Limbo by Playdead (yep, I showed them Limbo, but only the first 2 minutes with absolutely no death scene shown in order not to hurt their feelings). They quickly got my point about platformers and were stunned by the genius behind the time mechanic of Braid. They naively started with “but… if you can’t die the game is way too easy…” and what immediately follows was “oh! ok. I got it. It’s harder than it seems!”.

What they needed then was just a little push. I divided them in two groups, one for game design, rules and mechanics, and another one for art assets production. They all worked very hard with few tools, but they all acted as a real team (and sometimes even better than teams that I knew). I was impressed on how these 11 kids who didn’t know each other a few hours ago teamed-up to accept the challenge and finally make their very first video game together. Kids are very good at improvising. The next day, with a part of the assets ready and the rules written I asked them to record their own voice to add some sounds and music to the game… I have to warn you that once you play the game the music won’t let you sing something else for hours! It’s time to point out that I only did the programming part of the game, they did EVERYTHING else, I tried to guide them on the way but I didn’t forced them about anything.

ET VOILA (Play with left/right arrow and space to select - You need to download the Windows/MacOS Unity plugin for your browser).

I don’t know if you like what you see, but, man, I love it all. This is awesome! Not perfect at all, for sure, but for a first game, made in 3 hours with young game developers with no experience, I think they (we) did a great job. I’m really proud I gave them this opportunity. I love the idea that I have guided them on their very first game. They have learnt some things, and some of them discovered the job of programming and now want to know more about this profession. At the end of the last session I met their parents and showed them the game. They ended up standing and applauding with only proudness for their kids in their eyes. Great moment.

Kids, enjoying the first prototype.

Talking to these kids was scary at first, because it was the first time for me in that kind of situation… but it ended up being really refreshing. They have weird fresh ideas about games and they are the future of video game development so every part of this experience was new and very inspiring. I hope that they see video games they play a little bit different now. Once again I’d like to thank the Game Dev Party organization and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Lyon for this awesome opportunity who have definitely changed my way of talking to an audience.

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