Last week, IndieCade festival organizers invited us to run additional games of Fire Tag on the Friday morning of IndieCade to help inform and inspire a visiting group of about a hundred 8th-10th graders. Of course, we said yes! After working out a few small issues of time and materials, we’re now confirmed for Friday morning. This will be a great opportunity to promote the understanding and appreciation of science, nature, and life through play!
For the second time in two years – which is twice in a row – one of our games has been chosen as an official selection for IndieCade! This means that Fire Tag, our live-action game/simulation of California fire ecology, will be featured at this year’s IndieCade!
Fire Tag is one of nine games that will be featured in the Big Games part of the festival. Our timeslot is on Saturday October 15, 11AM – 1:30 PM. A game of Fire Tag generally takes 20-30 minutes, so we’ll aim to run five games across that timeslot, every half-hour on the 0’s and 30’s.
This is again a big honor, and a great opportunity. We’ll get serious face time with both publishers and with the public, helping us to improve our visibility. More importantly, IndieCade will be a great opportunity to advance our mission – to promote the understanding and appreciation of science, nature, and life – by sharing Fire Tag with the world!
A week ago Sunday, I brought The Puzzle of Life to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (a.k.a. SAMO). The end result was fun, smiles, and several useful lessons learned. On my end, there were three useful take-home messages:
1) That The Puzzle of Life is a great outreach tool. I knew this, but confirmation is always nice.
2) Permanent Crayola markers aren’t actually that permanent. This is an unwelcome surprise when you’re trying to help kids create fun and lasting take-home science-art.
3) Marketing is (almost) everything. This is a very, very harsh truth. It hurts every time I’m reminded of it, but that hurt is a useful discomfort.
A little more detail:
The morning program took place at the Satwiwa Native American Cultural Center in the western end of SAMO (map). We had three participants: two kids and one adult. After a quick intro, I offered them each a choice of three challenges: coloring in our Yellowstone Coloringbook (here), searching out solutions to The Puzzle, or crafting brand-new Puzzle pieces to tell the story of Otters, Urchins, and Hidden Forests (here).
One young person chose the coloring book, worked on it for a while with some success, then headed out for a walk with her father. Kudos to them both for their adventurous spirit!
The other young person chose the storycrafting. He very thoughtfully followed the instructions in our guide, created the necessary storytelling-pieces, then told the story twice: once to me, and once to the rangers. Which was awesome!
Watching him work, I noticed that the ink from his markers was beading up on the surface of the blank Puzzle pieces. We set them aside, but even after 20 min of drying time, the marker colors would wipe right off the pieces. There was no way that his artwork would survive a trip home in a pocket or a bag. I felt terrible, and apologized to him for this. He replied, “No problem, I can always remake them at home.” With those words, he proved himself to be far more even-keeled than I. Wow.
His mother chose to work with The Puzzle. She rather quickly and easily found the first solution, so I offered her the silver-level pieces, and challenged her to find a more difficult solution. This was indeed a challenging challenge, but with a little help, she was successful in that too.
Later in the afternoon, I moved east to the King Gillette Ranch Visitor center, smack-dab in the center of SAMO. On the way over, I stopped at the craft store to find some better markers. Experiments showed that Sharpie markers had wonderfully bright colors, and had ink that stuck quickly and tightly to the surface of our blank Puzzle pieces. The Sharpie markers were also three times the price of the Crayola ones. While the price was unfortunate, the Sharpies were obviously necessary, so I traded in my Crayolas for Sharpies.
Arriving at KGR, I found that the outside temperature was well over 100 °F, so the rangers and I decided to hold the afternoon program inside the Visitor Center. We setup in their media room – tables, chairs, markers, and Puzzles. To our small, sad surprise, when 2:30 rolled around, the VC was empty. So we sat down to talk.
About a month ago, SAMO switched to a new calendar system. They ditched their printed quarterly magazine, and moved to an all-online format. This new system has two calendars. The first was easy-to find, but unattractive, and missing most of the events from the past month (including the two Puzzle events). The second calendar was beautiful and complete, but hidden, and only roughly in chronological order. As the rangers and I talked, some visitors walked in, asked about getting a paper copy of the now-extinct Outdoors, and walked out sad.
Clearly, this new calendar system contributed to our disappointingly small attendance. Clearly, continuing resource shortages at the NPS are causing harm to everyone. The people at the NPS are generally highly-skilled, but skill only takes you so far. At some point, when the workload gets too far beyond the reasonable, important things fall through the cracks – things like this calendar system migration. And everyone suffers.
Of course, part of it was my fault too. Ranger Razsa and I reviewed some of the many events that she’d hosted over the past six months. What made them successful? What drew in visitors? We concluded that my small Puzzle even blurb was only adequate. With a different picture and a different title, we might have been able to catch more people.
The punchline was then that marketing matters. The Puzzle of Life is a great outreach tool, as are the Santa Monica Mountains themselves. However, to get people to engage with these ideas and these places, you first have to get people in the door. That first step is marketing, and it’s a problem for everyone in education and outreach – myself, the NPS … everyone.
Now available on the maker’s portion of our website – The Puzzle of Life Storycrafter’s Guide #1: Urchins, Otters, and Hidden Forests! Two of the most effective (and fun) outreach tools are storytelling and construction. This storycrafter’s guide combines the two. With step-by-step illustrations, this guide shows how to craft four new types of Puzzle pieces, and shows how to use those pieces to tell the terrifying true story of Urchins, Otters, and Hidden Forests! Pdf here.
Over time, we plan to slowly expand this series, publishing guides for true stories of science, nature, and life! Our current plans include stories about New Zealand Mudsnails, the history and development of cities, the possible zombie apocalypse, and more!
Two weeks from today, on Sunday August 14, we are partnering with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to host two outreach programs based on The Puzzle of Life. All are welcome, so gather your friends and family, then come and join us!
Our official event blurb:
Want to learn about nature, have some fun, and exercise your artistic skills? Then come and join us for some serious fun. We’ll start by getting hands-on with The Puzzle of Life, a beautiful tool for learning about the structure and function of ecosystems. Can you solve The Puzzle of Life? Next, we’ll show you how to use the Puzzle to tell true stories about real-world ecosystems. Lastly, and most importantly, we’ll give you the opportunity to create your own version of the Puzzle, one that you can take home and use to tell your own stories of science, nature, and life!
In the morning, from 10:00AM – 11:30 AM, we’ll be sharing this program in Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center at Rancho Sierra Vista (map), in the western end of the park. Later that afternoon, we’ll share that same program at the King Gillette Visitor Center (map), 2:30PM to 4:00 PM, for folks in the other end of the park.
Hope to see you there!
Wyrd Con is a place for stories, geekery, cosplay, creation, and the unexpected. This year, for the first time, it will also have science – courtesy of us!
Most of the Wyrd Con games and workshops are sci-fi or fantasy themed LARPs, so with our science-themed games and stories, we’re definitely the odd-folks out. Our events may be full-up, or we may have empty rooms all to ourselves. I have no idea. For sure, it will be a very fun weekend. With a little luck, it will also be a weekend spiced with ecological fun and insight. Cross your fingers, tell your friends, wish us luck, and come if you can!
Wyrd Con runs Thursday thru Sunday, September 29 through October 2 in the Costa Mesa Hilton. At 1PM on Friday, we’ll run a scientific storytelling workshop based on The Puzzle of Life. Later on that day, at 8PM, we’ll play Fire and Flora, and tell some true stories of California Chaparral. Finally, at 1PM on Sunday, we’ll host a live-action game of Fire Tag.
Last week I took a camping trip to Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks, where (among other things) I ran a Puzzle-based interpretive program at the Grant Grove Visitor Center. We had about a dozen people total, half of whom stayed around for 40 minutes (twice the scheduled program length) to better work on their Puzzle projects! Below are some pictures from that program.
Some happenings from the past four weeks:
This year, for the first time in a long time, Mindful Mammoth did not participate in the Santa Monica Mountains Science Fest. A sad deal. The 2013 SAMO Science Fest was a sort of coming-out for us, so the Science Fest always felt like a special event. It’s also been a consistently rewarding event, where we have been able to provide information and inspiration to hundreds kids, and also to do some useful networking with adults from other outreach organizations.
This year, the Science Fest was scheduled for May. However, this May, I was teaching two wholly new classes – classes which I had designed over the previous two months, but which still needed quite a bit of on-the-spot tweaking: Rocket Science – a middle school class on Newtonian physics and model rocket construction; and Critical Game Studies – a class on media, messaging, and game design at the Los Angeles Film School. In combination, those two things were more than a full-time job, and there just wasn’t time left to organize and staff a Science Fest dealeo. Sad. Very sad. Hopefully we’ll return there next year.
Once those two classes were sorted out, I took the time to write up Fire Tag, an ecological experiment/game that I created for the 2012 Science Fest, back when I worked for the NPS. I’ve already shared that process, but what I haven’t shared is that I then submitted the game to IndieCade 2016. One of the great things about IndieCade is that they welcome games of all sorts – digital games, board games, card games, and playground games. Being a playground game, Fire Tag is totally within the scope of the festival. With a little luck, we’ll get a nod again, and have the opportunity to share Fire Tag with this year’s festival attendees. Keep your fingers crossed!
While all those things were going on, I was also plugging away at my quota of entries for the 2016 Serious Play Awards (a part of the 2016 Serious Play Conference). The entries were a very divided bunch. Some were playful but shallow, just games with a pinch of educational value. Others were deep but unfun, powerfully interesting simulations but with little imagination or whimsy. Very few entries were in that sweet spot of being both deep and fun. It was a little disappointing, but also intriguing.
Everything we know about game design, education, and learning says that learning happens most and best when people are 1) emotionally engaged, and when they are 2) as directly as possible practicing the things to be learned. Most of the SPC games did one or the other, providing either engaging play or opportunities to apply skills, but not both. For sure, it’s terribly hard to do both those things well at the same time, but we (the serious games community) know that this is the thing to do. What can we do to make that happen more often? To get more educators and designers to aim for the big prize instead of settling for the same-ole strategy, the strategy that has made ‘educational game’ into a phrase that evokes rolling eyes and disappointed sighs.
Well, we can have more things like the Serious Play Conference, like IndieCade, and like GLS. We can have people like me out in the world, beating the drum, sharing games/information/inspiration. Perhaps there are other things we can do too. It’s worth thinking on.
I developed Fire Tag back when I worked for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Being a product of the National Park Service, Fire Tag is firmly in the public domain. With this project, my goal was to create a fast, fun, and interesting activity for the 2012 Santa Monica Mountains Science Festival.
The good news is that 100+ kids enjoyed Fire Tag at the 2012 Science Festival. They didn’t learn quite as much as we’d hoped, but we’d always prioritized inspiration over information, so that was okay. On reflection, we found that the biggest obstacle to learning had nothing to do with the game design or the lesson design. Rather, it was our naïve logistics – we didn’t have enough people to organize waiting lines and play sessions. The resulting confusion made it hard to hold reflective discussions. However, the take home message from the day was that Fire Tag had lots of potential as a playful learning activity.
Unfortunately, after I left the NPS, Fire Tag got lost among the very many good ideas competing for very limited funds. This was a terrible shame, so I’ve updated the rules and materials, and published them online here.
As I expand the educational scope of Mindful Mammoth, I hope to begin using Fire Tag in some of our outreach programs with local groups. I also hope that other folks may find this game, and try it out with their kids or their friends. Maybe you will do this. I hope so!
The Solar System is a vast and complex place, where every object has it’s own story, or even multiple stories. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out how to even begin to learn about something so vast and complex. My suggestion: start with just one thing. Then learn one more thing. Then another. Eventually, you’ll find that you know quite a lot.
Each Solar System Dance card has a picture of an object, a fact about that object, and a suggested way to express that fact through dance. You shuffle the cards, hand them out to a bunch of people, then have them all orbit the ‘sun’ while dancing their object.
Last week, I roughed out 14 cards, enough for the 14 person Rocket Science class that I’m teaching. We tried it out, and it worked pretty well!
As always our focus remains on The Puzzle of Life, but it’s fun to think about other ideas, and useful to think about where we might go next, once the Puzzle is out. This is one possible ‘next.’