Sitting in front of laptops, the students started in on their game-building, each one beginning with a blank screen. They created borders, paths and obstacles by dragging and dropping small cubes from a menu. They chose an animated sprite to serve as a game’s protagonist. They picked enemy sprites and set them marching in various patterns around the screen. They wrote the text that introduced the game and the text that flashed when a player reaches a new level. (“If the entrance to your cave is being guarded by a bear or a woolly mammoth,” said Doyle, sounding teacherly, “you have to tell us it’s a bear or a woolly mammoth.”) They added a variety of rewards and punishments. If the game seemed too easy, they made it harder. If the game seemed too hard, they made it easier. Earlier that day, I watched a girl named Maya make a game. She created a labyrinth, changed all the colors, swapped enemies in and out, changed the background, changed the music and finally set the game’s timer to 90 seconds. Then she played her game and finished it in 75. She adjusted the timer to 75 seconds and played again, this time losing. Finally, she set the timer at 80 and beat the game, but only just barely, at which point she declared the whole thing perfect.
The work appeared simple, but the challenge was evident. Twenty minutes in, the Sports for the Mind classroom was hushed but for the sound of keyboards being pounded and a faint arcadelike cacophony of poinging and bleeping over the syncopated pulse of game music. That night for homework, they would play one another’s games and write up constructive critiques.
The gold standard in class, I was told by nearly every student I spoke with, was to create a game that was hard to beat but harder still to quit. Kai was sitting in one corner working on a game he named What the Cave. It was teeming with robot enemies. “The whole point,” Kai said, “is you want your game to be hard, but you want it to be good.” He studied his screen for a moment. Then using his mouse, he deftly deleted a row of enemies. “What you want,” he said finally, “is good-hard.”
The language of gamers is, when you begin to decipher it, the language of strivers. People who play video games speak enthusiastically about “leveling up” and are always shooting for the epic win. Getting to the end of even a supposedly simple video game can take 15 or more hours of play time, and it almost always involves failure ”” lots and lots of failure.