Game Jams and Why You Should Be Running Them with Every Kid You Know Right Now

When I was a kid, I remember watching movies and TV and genuinely being upset that there was a media monopoly: I had to watch the stations’ programs because I couldn’t produce my own. They could reach millions of people. I never could. Well those days are long, long over, aren’t they?

I remember that frustration and think of what a much, much better world we live in today, where kids can build music, movies, games, art- anything- without having to be the child of a media producer. Even things that ARE hard to build: metal sculptures, machines, robots, wooden structures, 3-D printing aren’t out of our reach. Organizations like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Peabody Essex are creating quality maker spaces to ensure that anyone can build anything they feel like building with just a little chutzpah and the necessary time. So maker stuff is HAPPENING! What about games? Well- we can make those too.

People ask me all the time: “what language should my kid learn to program to build games?” The easy answer, right now, is Unity. But I’d like people to think of game building the way they think of a maker space: “What machines does my kid have to learn how to use to build a robot?” Well… the machines aren’t really the barrier to building, the process is. Even if you know how to weld and use a lathe, you still might not build much of a robot. I’d love to see people learn more about the process of building games than the machines to build them: How do you tell an interactive story? Where do you start? What do you need? The only way to learn is to do it – and that’s where Game Jams come in.

A Game Jam is when people get together with lots of pizza and coffee, form teams and then have 48 hours to build anything that’s playable. Usually there are some sort of game parameters like “It has a heart” or “It’s a game for change”. The goal is more like NanoWrimo, not to build a perfect game, just to build A GAME from start to finish- and one that can be played.

The catch with Game Jams is that often you need to have a programmer of some sort- and I think that’s bunk. Programming means kids, teachers and museum educators don’t have access to the awesome process of building games- that’s why this weekend we’ll be running our very first Kids’ Museums Game Jam with the Field Museum and Green Apple Camps. The kids have 48 hours to build a mobile game for the Field Museum in Chicago (and then in two weeks, at the Harvard Museum of Natural History).

I’m so proud and so excited that this Jam will run off of our very own Edventure Builder: no programming required- focus on the storytelling. And I suspect the kids will be building some weird and very cool things. (I’ll share them next week.)

So what are you waiting for?! There are things for kids to build and you can be the one to make that happen right now. Run your own Game Jam for kids! Don’t fall victim to the falsehood that you need special programming technology to build games. You can do card games, board games, ball games, guessing games- games need nothing but people with a willingness to play. Here’s a quickstep list of the steps that I use to run a lightning Game Jam.

  • Choose a theme and a medium. You can have kids build paper scavenger hunts, field games, ball games, interactive stories, trading games, role plays… whatever you want. It helps when you set some content parameters like “sweet”, “red” or “historical”. Remember that parameters help people to be more creative. Say “build a game” and people clam up. Say “build a card-trading game with three people about blueberries” and you get some stuff.
  • Find a location… have your kids show up there Friday night, form teams and choose roles. You’ll want a Producer, a Writer, an Artist, possibly a techie/logic person and of course, playtesters.
  • Let the kids loose. Worksheets are a good place to start. Always have them build a paper prototype and have the kids from other teams play it while they take notes. We always say “no game survives its first player”.
  • Have them build out the final version and go crazy with the art assets
  • Have a launch evening where families come in to play the kids’ newly minted games!

So don’t delay! There are games to be made and kids to be inspired! And if you happen to live in Boston or Chicago, join us for our Green Apple/Green Door Museum Games Jam!

April 12th: Chicago’s Field Museum

April 26th: Harvard’s Museum of Natural History

Read more about it (and sign up!) here:



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