Brix Are for Kids: Local Innovators Give Children Tools to Create Their Own Video Games

At DigitalBrix in Nashua, NH, husband-and-wife team Nanu and Naveena Swamy believe that video games are too important to leave to video game developers. They’re about to unveil the public beta version of a Web-based system that lets kids become game authors and even form their own virtual game studios, recruiting friends to design, build, test, and share 2-D video games similar to “Breakout,” “Bejewelled,” and other hits.

It’s increasingly common for college computer-science departments to offer courses in advanced video game development to 18-to-24-year-olds who were weaned on Nintendo and Playstation. But DigitalBrix’s system, called GameBrix, has a more democratic aim: to enable younger students who might otherwise simply be consuming games or watching television to put their talents to work in a medium that’s inherently interactive and social.

Using GameBrix, children can upload their own drawings or photographs into video-game objects—say, cartoon fish—and use simple drop-down menus to program those objects with certain behaviors or rules, such as “move in a random direction” and “when you bump into something, disappear.” A simple game might involve using the mouse to drag a shark object around the screen, scoring points as it collides with and “eats” each swimming fish. (You can watch YouTube videos of the Swamys’ daughter building a GameBrix game here and here.) Game builders can publish their games on the GameBrix portal site and invite others to comment on them and even modify them.

Title screen for a game developed using GameBrixGameBrix and cousins such as Scratch, a programming language developed at the MIT Media Lab that lets kids build interactive stories, art, and games, are designed to teach kids skills they’ll need in the 21st-century workforce, such as systematic thinking, clear communication, and effective collaboration.

But while GameBrix is already being used in educational settings such as computing classes at the Boston Museum of Science and the RoboTech Center in Nashua, a youth enrichment center founded by Naveena Swamy, the system isn’t purely pedagogical in purpose. It’s also part of a larger movement in the entertainment industry to unlock the power and fun of computer-game authoring for gamers themselves, the same way consumer videocams and video-sharing sites like YouTube are putting user-generated video into direct competition with network television and Hollywood movies.

Gamebrix was designed with kids in mind, but it’s sophisticated enough to be used by anyone with a concept for a new game, says Swamy. “There are 1.4 billion people playing video games and only a few thousand people creating them,” she says. In the future, she envisions whole Web portals full of user-generated games built using GameBrix, perhaps giving rise to the next Tetris. “It’s a nice platform for anyone who has a concept for a game. They can focus on the concept and not on where to place the semicolons and curly-brackets in the code.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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