Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Imagine Cup: Becoming a Computer Scientist

We all know there aren't enough women in computer science.  There have been several different approaches to encouraging them to consider it as a career, from fun webisodes to a variety of outreach activities.  But has anyone ever considered using games? Not just putting on courses on making them, but creating a real video game that puts players into the role of a computer scientist.  One that's still fun to play but that conveys how great computer science really is!

Enter Imagine Cup, Microsoft's challenge for students to solve the world's toughest problems through games, software, and other digital media.  While the UN's Millennium Goals are outlined as part of the competition's theme, entrants are not restricted to only those issues:
It might sound lofty. And perhaps a little ambitious. But when it comes down to it, this year's theme couldn't be more relevant. And while it's not a requirement to base your entry on one of these ambitious goals, you may want to use them as inspiration to promote change around the globe.
I decided that I wanted to create a game designed to get young women to see computer science as an interesting and attractive option.  Imagine Cup is the perfect place to get started.  When I first pitched the idea to some potential team mates, they weren't entirely convinced, but once I had a more concrete game concept, they got more and more excited.

The main idea of the game is to create a scenario that has a strong emotional tie for the player, where she learns computer science concepts in an effort to solve the problem presented.  I was really inspired by the movie Up, and in particular, the opening sequence showing the lives of the early childhood friends as they grow up, get married, attempt to have children, and grow old together.  It's hard not to cry at the end of it, yet not a single word is spoken.  I wanted a similar emotional tie for the players in my game.

Thus the story is that Grandma is at risk of having to leave her beloved home, similar to how Mr Fredrickson is at risk of losing his house in Up.  Social workers come and want to take her away to a group home, but you know how awful this would be for her, so you make an offer.  If you can equip Grandma's house with the necessary technology to make her independent according to the social workers' satisfaction, then she can stay.

You spend the game searching for the hardware you need, and each time you bring something back, you must solve a puzzle to activate it (loosely correlated to "programming" it).  These puzzles will actually centre on computer science topics that make sense for the technology (such as figuring out a sorting algorithm for arranging bottles of medication properly).  The player puts herself into the role of a computer scientist who is doing social good and helping someone dear to them. 

James Paul Gee talks in his work about how important roles are for learners, and explains how games can help put them in more positive roles.  Based on this, girls should have a much more positive outlook on the field of computer science.  Even if they don't end up choosing it for themselves, getting more people to see it as something other than nerdy will help prevent social barriers going up for girls who are interested in choosing it.

The best part? This isn't a girls-only game.  It's an everyone game that happens to be carefully designed to appeal to girls as well.  I can't wait to get started.


Jakov Duzevic said...

I would definitely love to see this idea come to life. Sounds interesting. I've seen quite a few ambitious ideas in past years (@Imagine Cup) but many where a "little to ambitious" and never got finished. Get on it as soon as you can, deadlines will come in no time.
Good luck!

Gail Carmichael said...

Definitely a concern! One of the things we're trying to plan for now is what the absolute minimum amount of stuff we can add in will be to convey the overall idea. I hope to do more with the game after the competition, including thinking of a place-based augmented reality version. ;)

@marylin_ad said...

its a really great idea, in fact you have inspired me to participate on the competition and promote this cause.

there are lots of women who have the potential to make this world a better place, but sometimes they're afraid to show those capabilities. this competition is a great oportunity to help change that.

Again: Great Post.

Regards from a tech girl of Colombia :)

Gail Carmichael said...

That's great Marylin! Are you thinking of doing a game as well, or entering the software competition?

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