Giant, comfy beanbags lay side by side in one of the Adler Planetarium’s spacious theaters. Super Smash Bros., one of the hottest video game releases in the past few months, is being played on the biggest screen I’ve ever seen it on. The atmosphere is one of friendship, celebration, and just a touch of the sadness you feel when something great is ending. This is the scene I walked into when attending Adler Arcade, an end of year showcase for young game designers interested in creating both tabletop and video games.
Kids and their families gathered in this theater for the final speech from their mentor here, Josh Deshaies. Deshaies is passionate about tabletop games, video games, coding and helping kids see their full potential, and he brought his passion all the way from San Francisco to Chicago and the Adler three years ago, where he instituted a program that helps young people learn to code and learn to create games that express who and what they love and are.
Each year, the Adler Arcade event marks the end of a semester’s work on the part of local students who share Deshaies passion for game design. These students work hard, and have gone through an arduous application process, been selected for a handful of spots available in the program, and then taken on what, according to Deshaies “is essentially at least a part time job,” getting experience using programs like GameDesigner, Twine, and, for more advanced students, the Unity engine that some commercial games use.The students put in at least two nights a week, with the option to attend labs on Fridays, bringing their concept to life with the help of Deshaies and even the Adler’s design team, in the case of a particularly interesting escape room game we saw in motion at the event.
Games vary greatly, with some being turn based strategy games a la X-COM, and others, like the one 18 year old high school senior Ines is working on, involving more of a narrative journey. The game she’s working on is, in its current state, a throwback to the MUDS, or text based adventures, of the past, and tells the story of a non-binary eighteen year old who’s graduating and trying to find their way forward in life. Ines has an immediate look of passion for what she’s doing and the games that inspired her, like the narrative adventure Doki Doki Literature Club, and in fact is designing her game with its style in mind.
Ines is enthusiastic and welcoming and sits down with me at her laptop to show me what she’s been working on.
“So this game is a choose-your-own-adventure interactive visual novel” she explains. “It’s just missing all the visual elements at the moment. Right now, it’s just a text based game.” She clicks her screen and music begins playing. “There’s gonna be a bit of music” she says with a laugh. “I actually designed all the music myself too.” She continues, “To get through the game, you have to click on all the blue text, and then it tells a story. You’ll get to these choices, and the choices influence how you see the story. I could choose something that would change completely what I’ll see in the next paragraph. It was kind of a challenge to make this, but it was really interesting to see how to choose these different paths. I learned how to do this last year, and I also made a space game, which is influenced by The Martian and 100 and stuff.”
These are simply the mechanics of the game. At the heart of what Ines has created is something much more personal and complex.
“I wanted this game to be representative of America and society. What happens in the game is these kids, when they turn 18, have to go through these trials to see what the path of their life will be–whether or not they can succeed or if they have to stay where they are and live a life that’s mediocre. This character isn’t one of those–because their family would be in shambles without them–but there are people in the process who want them to go through it for their own purposes. I want it to be a tug of war between societal expectations and personal expectations–and add little nuances too. 18 year olds deciding their futures–the game is about internal conflicts in external situations.”
I mention it sounds a lot like what an 18 year old senior in high school might be going through and Ines breaks into a huge smile. “Yeah, definitely.” Once her game is finished, she says, she plans to publish it via indie game platform Itch.Io, where people can pay what they wish or simply download it for free.
Her game echoes the spirit of the community of game developers we’ve come to know in Chicago–one that truly celebrates diversity, that is passionate about games, and that treats them as art–art which tells stories in a way no other medium can. It’s no wonder then, that this is where Josh Deshaies, Adler Arcade’s director, ended up.
For three years he’s helmed this ship and helped these kids tell their unique, diverse stories. Deshaies moved from San Francisco, where he developed games in an indie game dev collective, to take the job at Adler, which was initially an attempt to engage kids in coding, using games as a medium to draw their interest.
“The Adler was looking for a way to interest kids in coding and computers, and they thought developing games was a great way to do that. When we started, we were using one game engine, GameMaker: Studio–it’s professional software that games like Undertale were made on. Kids know these games and are like ‘Cool. I can make something like that?’ Now, we use a couple of different engines, including Twine (the open source interactive storytelling program Ines is using for her game) and Ren’Py, which is visual novel software. A few use Unity–those students are some of the really advanced ones.”
We talk a little about Ines and her game, Tribulations, and how well thought out and inclusive it is, and Deshaies interjects. “A lot of this class has been a personal identity thing for the students. The first year, this was getting kids to care about coding because they were making games. Now, it’s sort of like getting kids to care about coding, which allows them to demonstrate some kind of personal narrative. That’s true of a lot of the games the students are publishing.”
As the night winds down, a raffle for gift cards is called, there are a few last matches of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which had just released (and which Deshaies had gamely played through enough to unlock all the characters for everyone to use at the party that night), and the students receive the stipend checks as a reward for the hard work they put in over 12 weeks. Many of them will continue working on their games, well beyond this program and even beyond graduation from high school, and continue to work with Josh. Students have already or will publish these games, either on Itch.Io’s indie platform, where they’ll stand amongst other amazing games that have become huge successes, or perhaps find success in game development other places. More importantly, they’ll have gotten the chance to dive into the deep end of coding and game development, and to use these mediums as a way to express themselves and tell great stories.
If you’d like to know more about Adler Arcade, or if you’re a student who’d like to go through the application process to be chosen for next year’s Game Making Workshop, look for applications to be available in September 2019. If you want to get started sooner, you’re in luck. High school students interested in game design can also apply for a summer internship to work on specific game design projects, and applications for becoming one of the 2 to 3 chosen interns will be available beginning February 4th. You can find these apps and more info about the program on the Adler Planetarium website’s teen opportunities section. If you’d like even more information, email the Adler’s youth programs department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many of the games that students from this year’s workshop worked on are being published using itch.io, a platform for indie game developers. We recommend checking out the AdlerTeens page to see everyone’s games, including Medobots, by Nate Bacchus, a 2D arcade style shooter, and Failed Experiment by Jordan Green, a zombie shooter with a great style and simple controls.
We were incredibly impressed and inspired by the collaborative spirit, hard work and camaraderie we saw at the Adler Arcade event. Both Josh DeShaies and the students in his program share a real understanding of games as art and use them as tools to express things about their lives. They are motivated, talented and fun, and we can’t wait to see where they go in the future.