Last fall the Baraboo (WI) Public Library purchased two Xbox consoles, eight controllers and two large TV screens and introduced a drop-in Minecraft program for our teens.  Not surprisingly, our consoles have been well used.  But we wanted to find other uses for our investment.  Our goal for Teen Tech Week this year was to utilize our Xbox One consoles to offer some sort of digital literacy program.  Research found Project Spark, free software that works on the Xbox One and Windows 8.1.

Project Spark is a digital canvas which can be used to make games, movies, and other experiences.  A player can use the Xbox controller, keyboard and mouse, touch devices and Kinect to create environments, characters, events and story arcs.  Using if-then programming logic, players can design and customize a game down to the minutiae of the in-game object actions, such as dictating the movement of a tree branch every time a specific character is nearby.

Worlds and the created items and objects in those worlds are shareable.  Games can be saved and shared with friends and the greater gaming community if desired.

We asked local video game designer Kent Dance to spearhead five weeks of video game design workshops using Project Spark.  Kent is the creative designer at Wizard Quest, a popular attraction at nearby tourist town Wisconsin Dells.  Wizard Quest is an interactive life-size fantasy experience based on video game designs.

We applied for the 2015 Teen Tech Week grant sponsored by YALSA and Best Buy, and happily our proposal was chosen. We used the grant funds to purchase three Windows tablets that, coupled with our two Xbox One consoles, gave us five work stations for the workshops.  We also purchased an Xbox Kinect sensor bar to give us custom animation and audio input possibilities.  Grant funds were also used to rent a school bus to take us to Wizard Quest for a behind-the-scenes tour, an extremely popular finale to our workshops.

Kent did an excellent job of discussing game design as a career path.  He described his decision to earn a bachelor’s degree in video game design and what teens should be doing now if they are interested in this career.  He highlighted the different skills needed to create a video game and the types of specialists found on each design team.  He also discussed the more serious uses of video games, such as simulation training for doctors, pilots and the military.

We had about twenty participants at our weekly workshops, predominantly male.  They divided into “creative teams” and worked on each week’s challenge.  Completing the Project Spark tutorials, designing a landscape, determining an objective and writing a story arc, and creating a hero and a villain are examples of challenges given during the month.  Participants could name and save their games on the tablets or consoles and build on them each week.

Now that the workshops are over, teens can check out a game controller or tablet anytime and continue to work on their game during library hours.  The Project Spark programmers are now competing with the Minecraft players for use of the Xbox consoles!

Penny Johnson is a teen specialist at the Baraboo Public Library in Baraboo, Wisconsin. 


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