Designing 8-bit Learning Games for a $10 computer

Tom has been gracious enough to let me back in the door to blog my experience at the Gaming + Learning + Society conference this week.

Designing 8-bit Learning Games for a $10 Computer
Presented by Derek Lomas

Derek Lomas wants you to join his open-source educational software revolution.  Lomas, along with two other partners, founded Playpower when they realized educators was lacking a rich, open-source developer community.  He has fond memories of games like Lemonade Stand, Oregon Trail, and Math Munchers (and points out that some teachers are still using these game in their classrooms).  These games were simple, effective, and totally engaging.  Playpower would like to bring back the experience of trekking across the planes or building a neighborhood empire out of squeezed fruit.  “Teens love these indie games.  They get it.  And not simply because they are ‘retro’.”  It seems the field is ripe for educators to turn back to development:  An audience that loves the style;  A platform with restraints (limited graphics, RAM, etc.) that actually benefit the home developer.  The only piece missing is a central place where geeky teachers can go to solicit help, learn the language, and share their goods.  Playpower wants to develop that place.

Lomas’ first project is to pull together/create a set of tools for a “$10 computer“.  That computer, a platform that includes a keyboard with a cartridge slot, a mouse, and two game controllers, runs on an old Nintendo/AppleII processor (which is now in the public domain) and is sold all over the developing world.  With a little help from indie coders, Lomas and his partners hope to create an set of tools that would help educators, students, and programmers create new content that would be passed to distributors who would package the games in the computer kits.  Sick, I know.  So, with all the ingredients in the kitchen, it is just a matter of pulling them together to give new life to these simple machines.

I asked Lomas how the ed tech community could help with Playpower’s greater goal.  “I think it is important to know the history of educational games.”  He would like to create an archive of sorts that would include a catalog of ed. games over the past 30 years.  This resource would include snippets of game play and reviews from educators on the value of the game.  Ideally, the cream of the crop would be available to download and play.  You can help by suggesting great games from the past (and past would include yesterday) that should be included in this catalog.

Also, Lomas wants to see a rebirth of teens being taught programming that would be augmented with game design and development content.  This 8bit revival would be the perfect playground for this type of class or after school program.  Students who are hardcore gamers would get to know the entire process of developing a game in a manageable framework.  Look for a Playpower game design contest for students in the near future.

Comments on this post

  1. Zack Dowell said on June 11, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    I talked to these guys at Maker Faire – nice folks. Plus, any learning platform that also plays Super Mario Brothers is all kinds of win.

  2. Ralph Hyre said on November 26, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    To be fair, I don’t think Nintendo (or Apple) would claim their designs for 6502-based systems are “public domain”.

    However, Nintendo hasn’t sued anyone since 2005. There are freely-available Apple 2 emulators, however they require you to obtain Apple 2 ROM images from a legal source (like, the Apple 2 in your basement.)

    However, I totally agree that the project should go forward, and would love to see a way to store software something a bit more durable than the edge-card connectors used in the NES, C64, or Atari.

    The C64 DTV project was another project, which ended up being a $20 computer, but more importantly, you can hook a PC keyboard to it an d write a BASIC program in it (if you are handy with a soldering iron.)