Whenever I talk about our work, I get the impression I focus too much on the technical aspect of the instruction and the particularly nerdy details of the production process when the general public wants to hear a human story about cool kids being serious about their passions. I guess I feel obliged to justify how rigorous and STEM all this STEAM really is. Still, the guild is not the general public. I hope an abridged historic sketch of the primary tools and media, and our own evolving understanding of our own studio will be of interest to anyone trying to conceive a new transmedia program.
SAY Sí (San Antonio Youth Yes) was an established youth arts organization of 20 years when it decided to start a video game design program. They hired me fortuitously a few weeks before the planned beginning of programming. When I walked in, there was a computer lab that they were gonna call the HIVE (Home for Innovation & Video Ecology), they told me they heard about this thing called Scratch, shrugged, and wished me good luck.
When I joined SAY Sí, I had a degree in fine arts with a focus on painting and a career in design and web development which had honed my coding, production, and project management skills. I made a few weird comics. I had broad technical art knowledge and I was good at reverse-engineering widgets, but I knew nothing about teaching kids. How hard could it be?
SAY Sí has three other studios: Visual Arts (painting, sculpture, classic studio arts), Media Arts (film, photography, design), and ALAS (devised theater). The 2nd youngest studio is 7 years older. It was beneficial for the HIVE to have the overall pedagogy, structure and methods of the other studios to graft onto.
With the exception of summer camps and the like, all SAY Sí programming is long term. Each studio has its own high school and middle school component. There are two recruitment periods in the year. A number of students stay in the program from 6th grade until they graduate from high school. In a school year there is time for about 4 major projects and a month of practica.
In high school, students apply to one particular studio and participate in an open studio fashion. They commit to making at least 8 hours a week and it is up to them to figure out when exactly they’re gonna make those hours. Students often put in more hours during openings, installs, crunch, shoots, cons, fests, or tech weeks. Particular demos, presentations and rehearsals are scheduled, but there are no formal class times.
SAY Sí's middle school program WAM (Working Artists & Mentors) meets only on Saturdays for a more structured day with more structured projects.
HIVE started in the fall of 2014 as a WAM-only program with students who previously took the Media Arts WAM class. They were primed and purportedly excited about the new video game design program that was replacing film and photography for them.
My support in the studio consisted of a volunteer retired teacher (Paul Gates provided an invaluable teaching crash course) and of mentors. Mentor is the official title of high schoolers in the program who are hired to teach the WAMmers alongside the primary teaching artists. Peer-to-peer is a big deal. It works. Since the high school studios are all mixed grade levels and proficiencies, this happens organically. In WAM some high schoolers are given formal job and teaching experience. Since I didn’t have a high school HIVE to draw mentors from, my mentors were veteran media arts students.
We started with Scratch because it was right there. We made music and animatics and small arcade games. Some kids were really into coding new systems and the form of expression that offered, others were more into reskinning provided templates. A number of students made cute and fun and exciting things. While there was a lot of creativity on display and kids had fun, there was a bit of a chasm between the little demos we were making and what audiences and students themselves expected from the promise of getting to produce video games.
Snapping code blocks together is all the rage in teaching basic CS concepts, but games are complex machines needing a lot of advanced understanding to implement seemingly simple behaviors. We were spending a large portion of the class time in rote recreation of boilerplate code and troubleshooting transcription sloppiness. When I provided templates, hoping to free students to make more interesting decisions at a higher level of design, the complexity of the templates made it more likely students would opt to merely reskin things that were there instead of designing a game.
The constructivist project-based nature of SAY Sí’s programming necessitates projects that culminate in some kind of showcase. If the HIVE spent the time it needed scaffolding all the competence with tunnel vision on making games, we would have one project a year, a bunch of school-like exercises and 60 bummed out WAMmers who made stuff all the time but never seemed to finish anything.
Scratch is pretty powerful but it also has some major things going against it. There is no way to extract a game out of the website and there is little we can do to help it look polished for a gallery setting. Group projects were a struggle as it was impossible for multiple students to work on the same project at the same time.
One takeaway from the early days and a bit of a specter that continues to loom over most HIVE projects is that coding is complex and requires one kind of focus and engineering rigor—while deeper conversations about themes, truth, ideas, communication require a whole different kind of headspace. When the conversation starts to include questions like whether a given mechanic or system is the best way to convey the theme and mood one is going for, the complexity spreads squarely to both proverbial sides of the proverbial brain.
Interactive fiction (IF) with Twine was the first “next thing” and it partially solved that problem. Twine is easy and fun and puts creative choices game design is made of into the kids’ hands. There is also a ginormous indie IF community that makes some of the wokest games around.
Downside to Twine games is that embedding pictures and other media requires some hacky HTML maneuvers and a lot of awkward file wrangling. There is only so much writing and flowchart management you can expect from a WAMmer before they revolt. We needed to mix it up again.
Starting small and growing things is an important tenet of the SAY Sí way. We pilot initiatives, reflect on projects, and adjust course. You don't have to overplan and freak yourself out—just make a really good sketch, try it out, and take good notes. It is a process. Build in opportunities for feedback and critique. It is as important to commit and focus, yet not be afraid to change it up drastically if it makes sense. None of this should be foreign to artists, yet it seems a revelation to a lot of OST practitioners.
As we were drawing to the end of the first year in the video game design studio, we looked back and saw our accomplishments as lacking. Maybe it was just a matter of perspective and ambition, while there was actually plenty there to unequivocally celebrate. We were probably too hard on ourselves and asking too much from middle schoolers who were new at this. One thing was certain, the video game design studio was having a hard time designing games.
While we could use Scratch as training wheels and graduate advanced students to pro tools, all projects would have multiple tracks where we would effectively have to teach multiple classes at once. This was untenable.
Files turned out to be a non-trivial issue. As soon as you start making digital art of any complexity, you have to deal with files. And files are shifty magical things: they are lost, corrupted and wrong, and either just don’t save themselves or save themselves all over the place. WAMmers needed more hands-on file experience before we could throw asset management at them.
It also became starkly apparent that video games are a bunch of different media that happen to coexist. There is creative coding, game design, UX, interactive storytelling, digital art, graphic design, 3D modeling, animation, sound design, music, and so on. Maybe the best solution would be to explode all that and shift project focus, such that we could do a bunch of different complete projects that all together help students bone up on the skills needed to make games. And not everyone needed to be into all parts of the production, students could focus more on some things and work symbiotically in flexible pairings.
Honoring the youth voice is a successful part of SAY Si's mission. It's the thing that keeps them coming back. So we polled the WAMmers about their feels and not everybody was into all the things, but everyone liked something we were doing. A lot of them really missed digital painting and photography and the more intuitive processes.
In the fall of 2015, with the start of the program’s second year, high school HIVE became a thing. We hired Daniel Jackson to be the HIVE’s other teaching artist. Older teens with more time, commitment, focus, geometry, and capacity for abstraction joined the studio.
So now that we are no longer game design, what are we? New media! Ok, alright, but what the heck is that? “New media” means many different things to a number of people and nothing to most. Some art authorities consider film and photography to be new media and video games novelty toys wholly outside of the realm of artistic inquiry. Clearly this is unhelpful for SAY Sí.
Led by student consensus as to what to do next, we went through projects ticking off media available to us on the path to video games. We became the studio that made all things you did with computers—and then every summer, with the extended hours, made video games!
As we unpacked video games into all this new media, we used a lot of Adobe software and did a lot of prep and finishing on paper. We discovered that comics fit at the intersection of narrative and animation. We were making storyboards already, comics are a way to showcase those. Plus, even when hand-drawn, they’re largely assembled and read digitally. With comics came zines and book arts. At the intersection of book arts and 3D modeling were papercraft figurines. Desire to work on game design without the complexity of programming led us to card and board games. Those are designed digitally anyway and we have paper skills. Sound design gave us soundscapes, radio dramas, and podcasts. Graphic design and all our work on paper led us to posters and tiled wheat paste murals.
For a few years there, the HIVE didn’t repeat any projects. Getting lost in the weeds of breadth, we were anxious about finding a way to let students go deep on any one thing.
Coding with blocks gets old. There comes a point where you just want the thing to let you paste in some code from a website. PICO-8 emerged as our favorite alternative to Scratch. It is a beautiful development platform. The 16-color palette, 128px square screen and other “fantasy hardware” limits are quirky but perfect enabling constraints for coders of all levels. Lua is an excellent choice of programming language for intro to CS concepts. There is a large community designing for PICO-8 and source code and assets of any game can be explored. Teaching animation in PICO-8 is a joy. It looks sharp in an arcade cabinet, can run on a Raspberry Pi or in a browser, and can be managed from the command line. We stitch group projects together with Git.
SAY Síers always get a kick out of getting to make real things. SAY Sí in general is widely lauded for its commitment to solid presentation. When new students join the program, they’re not quite aware of the level of finish they will regularly bring to their creations. It will set in a couple of projects later when they exclaim in critique, “We just made a real <thing>!”—be it a video game, a play, a film, a gallery show, or an interactive transmedia installation. It is important for projects to be real—in contrast to Scratch which is clearly for kids.
In 2016, a year into high school HIVE, we got an opportunity to share a corner of the San Antonio Game Devs booth at PAX South (Penny Arcade Expo South). It was quite a maiden convention voyage for the students. We wanted to have something special to show off. We felt that after a year of smaller projects the studio was ready, and 14 students seemed like a good team size for one big group project.
At the onset, during a week of consensus brainstorming we churned through half-a-dozen different ideas and settled on Date Me Super Senpai, an open-world, inclusive, dating sim RPG set in a high school for superhumans. It was very important to all HIVElings that this dating sim be inclusive. The idea belonged to Chabriely Rivera Roldan and so she was our lead. That meant she was in charge of the vision and keeper of the project’s soul.
We programmed it in LÖVE because it uses Lua like PICO-8. There was a healthy community and a number of libraries out there, plus any found Lua scripts could be repurposed.
There was a fairly robust RPG system under the hood, allocating points for actions on two axes of personality. Exploring the school, making choices, and advancing the story actually affected how people responded to you and who you would match up with. A core story group wrote out the most interesting characters into fully dateable senpai. Other characters thrown around in the brainstorming made it in as regular NPCs.
The instructors were the producers on the project. Daniel Jackson left right before to do other cool things, and Rick Stemm replaced him as second TA, himself coming from game design and interactive playwriting background. Ned Meneses moved to be the HIVE’s 3rd TA after teaching in the Media Arts Studio for a dozen years.
Senpai ended up being SAY Si’s longest project ever. We eventually had something resembling a working production pipeline, but in the early stages we hoped that we would fill leadership roles and allocate tasks through initiative.
People who reluctantly stepped up for roles they didn’t fully understand were not best situated to decide how to delegate tasks. The pace was frenetic, it alienated most of the students who joined the studio as production was ramping up. There were large stretches in production where some students were bottlenecks and others had nothing to work on. We had a sweet demo for PAX, but needed six more months to wrap up the project.
We were probably not as ready as we thought we were. Important code organization patterns had to be grafted into the game late. The map-drawing plugin we found online never really sorted objects’ depth well, and most of my time on the project was spent debugging it. We ended up filling the game with physics-based chairs the player pushed around which provided enough grit to the sorting system that the more stubborn-to-debug flickering edge cases hardly ever crashed the game. The debugging itself was too esoteric and not a very interesting case study to more broadly help the studio level up its coding game. There was no way to divide the tasks so that everyone could get a real feel for the problem. By the time I explained the nature of the issue and reasoned my way out of it, we'd have a working solution, so what would be the point of having them redo all my typing while there is so much other work still to be done?
Date Me Super Senpai made it clear that there was a conflict between demands of production which require demonstrating competence on a tight schedule, and demands of teaching which require room for exploration and failure. It seemed at the onset that one big project with all hands on deck was HIVE in top form, but it turned out to be bad for learning. Perhaps it was only right to dip into industry crunch culture, what with SAY Sí’s commitment to being real.
At PAX professionals were impressed by how much of a game a bunch of teens had to show. Students mingled with designers they admired. We tabled at every convention in San Antonio and one in Austin that year. We launched the game at Video Games Live at the Tobin Center in 2017. Local queer magazine wrote a feature. I am proud of the game. Everyone who made it through the production was in some way wiser on the flipside. It might not have been the best opportunity to teach creative coding, but it leveled up our projects game, collaboration skills, and studio cohesion.
In 2018, with the start of the longer summer hours, we had HIVE’s first Game Jam. Studio had 24 students at the time, 4 of whom were Senpai veterans and 14 of whom had been in the HIVE WAM class.
Unity was on the table for Date Me Super Senpai but we didn’t go with it—mostly because we were tickled by the idea of making a dating sim in an engine called LÖVE. We also felt that an environment requiring more interaction with code would give us more opportunities to teach coding skills. In retrospect we should’ve used Unity and bought as many plugins as we needed.
Unity at first glance has an intimidating interface, but it is not hard to make a game with hardly any coding. It is one of the most widely-used professional game engines of the last decade and it exports to all platforms. There is an ecosystem of components that can be activated through a graphical interface and game design can happen while coding is deferred down the line for when one has internalized some of the jargon and abstractions related to building interactive spaces.
Before starting, we warmed up with a 3-week general Unity tutorial and talked over ideas. Students filled out brief proposals answering pertinent project questions and sketching out production calendars. We brainstormed down the ideas and organically created teams around the top five favorites.
To jumpstart production we invited guest artists with game jam experience to help us with coding and music (Sam Marcus and Ian Faleer). All groups used some quick scripts Sam wrote and all had to modify code at some point to extend their behavior, creating opportunities for students to explain to each other how these plugins worked. There was enough programming, writing and art roles to go around. We talked a lot about the standards of clear communication expected from everyone and team leads in particular. Graduating 8th graders who joined high school HIVE from WAM right before the summer break were the most passionate backbone of the project.
At the culmination of the three weeks, we had a big party with pizza and the wider SAY Sí student body. Judges picked five categories of achievement and The Best. Several games went on to receive national honors from Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, with one receiving the 2019 Electronic Software Association Foundation Award for Video Game Design.
A number of HIVE games can be downloaded from SAY Sí’s Itch page.
In the summer 2019 we took another stab at doing one large Senpai-like project with the whole HIVE participating (an alternate reality game played through QR codes on posters plastered around story-relevant landmarks), but it only reaffirmed that putting all our eggs into one project doesn’t leave the HIVE in the greatest shape.
Over the years we established some patterns that allow us to consistently scaffold our craftsmanship and artistry.
Some of our projects start with practica, where we spend several rapid fire back-to-back weeks on intros to different adjacent topics (PICO-8 + Twine + Unity, or character design + storyboarding + animation/comics), then allow a month for completion of one of the started projects. This allows us to create a variety of portfolio work as some students finish multiple projects.
Every year SAY Sí puts on the Stories Seldom Told exhibit on an important little-talked-about theme students select. We mix up all the studios, so everyone works together with artists they seldom interact with, and they make interactive installation art. The format allows us to pilot different exotic techniques. We usually make two or three installation pieces per studio, allowing each experiment to have a more manageable scope than were we to try to introduce whatever (electronics, augmented reality, data visualisation, barcode scanners) as a monolithic project that everyone in the studio needed to engage with at once, whether individually or in groups.
Senior thesis show is an opportunity for veteran students to apply their HIVEly skills and their last semester on either materializing any novel transmedia visions (transducers, automata, Kinect, lenticular art, etc), or on going deeper with any of our core media.
One project a year we take to conventions (games, zines).
All SAY Sí studios develop a unique culture of their own. HIVElings are good collaborators eager to support others’ projects as well as do the work of building support for their own ideas. They make great lists.
The cornerstone of HIVE’s work is creative coding and graphic design. While all other studios use computers in one way or another, embracing the media and tools native to the digital realm is where our practice starts. That is our litmus test for, “is it a HIVE project?” It is very easy to exclude things because they’re not 100% made on computers, but our threshold is more lenient. This is for the better, as tools shouldn’t be a tedious imposition but something that opens possibilities.
Similar to other SAY Sí studios, the HIVE challenges youth to reflect on the world around them, to do research and to critically analyze art, technology, and other contemporary topics important to them. Students use professional software, rely on technical documentation, learn to troubleshoot projects, and have opportunities to code in a number of different programming languages. Since technology is always evolving, the HIVE fosters a commitment to self-directed and peer-to-peer learning that is beneficial beyond the specific technical skills learned in the studio.
I imagine a world where people wake up feeling thoughtful and end the day trusting in themselves and the community they're in.