Pittsburgh kids set out to change the world through video game designs

Ever since Pac-Man fever took America by storm in the eighties, video games have gotten a bad rap as technological junk food. But what if a video game could change the world?

This spring, students and teachers from several Pittsburgh-area middle and high schools set out to answer that question at the Games for Change Student Challenge. Hosted for the first time in Pittsburgh by the Sprout Fund, the contest invited local teens to design and code games based on real-world issues. The winning teams were honored this month at an awards ceremony at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

Founded in 2004, New York City-based Games for Change provides a curriculum and resources to help make a positive social impact through video games.

“The Games for Change Student Challenge asks students to combine research, creativity, teamwork and technical skills to complete a complex problem,” says Ryan Coon, program officer at the Sprout Fund. “Many of the finalists and winning games went really deep into their topic areas and used the framework of the game to share how these issues are affecting people’s lives.”

Trinity Area High School physics teacher Brandon Botzer led his team to victory with Reflections, its submission for the theme of Local Stories & Immigrant Voices. The team placed first among high schoolers in the category and received the competition’s grand prize.

At a Moveable Game Jam, where students worked with local data scientists, Botzer and his students met Melissa Marinaro, director of the History Center’s Italian American Program. They drew from Marinaro’s extensive historical knowledge and artifacts including authentic passports and draft notices to complete their game, which follows a “choose-your-own-adventure” format to guide the player through the life of an Italian immigrant.

“The biggest thing my students took away from this experience is the common idea that games are just made by people sitting at computers is wrong,” says Botzer, who sponsors the school’s gaming club. “Nearly all of the design that was done this year was done using note cards, Post-It notes, and a whiteboard.”

He adds: “There were so many times during the design of the game where an idea failed, the code did not work or the story needed changing, that most people would have just called it quits. But the students learned from their failures, pivoted in a new direction and went back to work.”

Josh Tobin was impressed by his students’ dedication to their projects — from coming to school early and working on the games at home, to self-selecting their roles on the team. Tobin supervised two winning teams from Fort Couch Middle School, where he teaches seventh-grade social studies.

“The students learned a lot about programming and game design, but even more than that, I think they learned a lot about the kind of collaboration and group effort required to complete a complex task,” Tobin says.

One of his students, Trinity Murphy, enjoyed collaborating with her peers on Global Warming Adventures — their winning entry in the Climate Change category — in an environment that allowed their individual strengths to shine.

“If you like music, you can create sound effects or background music, or if you like art, you can do graphic design,” Murphy says. “You can research, or you can program the game or do a little bit of everything.”

Tobin also coached the winning middle school team that created City Sim in the Future Communities category.

Mohit Saggi’s son Sambhav was part of that team. As a parent, Saggi appreciates how the program generated awareness of pressing social issues among the participants, while his son enjoyed the challenge.

“It forces you to think outside the box,” Sambhav says.

With 14 years of experience teaching game design at the Pittsburgh Gifted Center, Susan McCoy has worked with teens who later forged successful careers in gaming and computer science. McCoy’s students were finalists in the Climate Change category with their game, Global Epidemic.

“Even though every student doesn’t become a game designer, they get to create a product that they can be proud of,” McCoy says. “The takeaway for my students would be that cooperation and communication are essential skills to work in the world.”