Don’t just play videogames: why you should hack them to make your own

A few months back Mark Surman wrote a blog post about the potential of HTML5 & the browser as the new platform for hackable games; "These games will let you pull assets and data from across the web into your game world. And, they will let you remix, fork and share to your heart’s content. The result will be fun for people who like games — and huge potential for webmaking and learning.”

Sketch by Mark Surman

I am *very* excited to say that we have kicked off this initiative here at Mozilla under the headline Hackable Games Lab; A virtual lab to create, tinker, and play with games that use the web as a platform and like the web itself, are hackable by design. 

Photo by MozillaEU

But before we go deeper into what we will be doing in the Hackable Games Lab at Mozilla, let’s take a step back and talk about why you should not just play video-games; why you should hack them to make your own.

Growing up I used to spend my afternoon playing with my friends in the (car-free at the time) streets of our Athenian neighborhood.  We would all meet when done with homework (or pretending to anyway) and play different versions of hide and seek, capture the flag and hopscotch. The one game though that we all loved to play again and again was tag, especially customized for different times of the day and seasons. There was the after dark version of tag, an especially adventurous game played in the one empty lot of the neighborhood, that looked especially creepy at the age of seven. Then there was my personal favorite; water tag, the perfect game for a hot summer day (which was practically EVERY day, during the Greek summer).

And then it was Christmas of 1989 and everyone in my neighborhood got a Gameboy as a gift.  Thank god I got one too, otherwise it would have been a struggle to fit into what was our new daily routine; still meeting after school but this time to play endless hours of Tetris, Super Mario Land and Final Fantasy Legend. Final Fantasy was definitely my favorite one that year, since I loved the role playing aspect of it and the fact that you had choices in the game. Also there was a forbidden love story involved which I could relate to as a teenager. I remember wishing I could customize my character or add new worlds to the game. This seemed impossible at the time; sure making my own version of tag was a nobrainer, but making my own version of Final Fantasy Legend? oh god no! In my mind that was a sacred task left to god like Japanese Legends- indeed-. 

Photo by Claudio Midolo

Fast forward years later, and I was working at Institute of Play in NYC teaching 6th graders game design at Quest to Learn; one of the first activities we did together at the time was to draw a storyboard that would answer the question; “What are the steps a game designer takes to make a new game? “. The goal of the activity was for the kids to theorize on the process of game creation, preparing them to go through it themselves. Looking at their storyboards at the end of the activity, I remember that what hit me was the way the students depicted the game designers; like me at their age, most of them had drawn this image of a game designer being something close to a god looking character. Also in all 60 drawings of them, the game designer was a guy.

Unlike my 8 year old self though who would have never even conceived as possible or even *real* the career of a game designer; the Quest to Learn kids took on the identity of game creators throughout the year - boys and girls with equal passion- by eventually making their own full fleshed games. However, for the majority of youth who has never taken a game design class or has met an actual game designer (do they really exist?) moving from players of games to actual makers of games seems like a giant leap. So giant it remains inconceivable.

I will make the argument at this point, that we are at a pivotal point were this perception of game development being something immensely hard to achieve as a young person is  changing; and there are many reasons for this shift:

One is that more and more mainstream games include mods and level editors, such as the giga hits Little Big Planet and Minecraft that only prove how much players like to be creators of their own game world.

Screenshot of the Little Big Planet 2 editor by @kirkhamilton

Then languages like Flash and Python make it really easy to build your own simple mini games. Even the public perception of videogames as an evil medium, a waste of time as it is often put, is seeming to change; a whole new movement of using games for learning, involving many policy makers has put front and center the 21st century skills youth has to gain by making their own games.

Finally, projects like Scratch, PlaymyCode, and Mozilla’s BrowserQuest, Gladius and Bananabread open up a whole lot of potential in terms of re-imagining play as an open system and the web as a platform in its own means.

Building on this momentum we are introducing the Mozilla Hackable Games Lab to:

Empower more people involved in digital making and building on our Webmaker initiative move them from players to makers of games.

Introduce the web as the new game platform; a space that allows us to develop new, innovative games and mechanics that we cannot even imagine yet.

Level up the programming skills we are currently teaching with Thimble and introduce languages like Javascript, as well as support the development of systems and design thinking skills that game design so nicely embraces. We also want to provide more interest-based intro points into webmaking, that is accessible and appealing to a broader audience; everyone loves games!

Build a community of teachers and grassroots instructors advancing the work around web and game literacies.

Foster diversity in games for different audiences. Although the audience for gaming has expanded out significantly, the  diversity of those actually making the games has yet to follow. What we want is to give that audience the power to make games that represent who THEY are and what THEY like.


And finally create consumer-grade tools and applications that make it easier for anyone to create games on the web.

I am flying to Toronto this week for the Mozilla All Hands and I am sure I will be writing plenty of updates soon about all the Hackable Games Lab soon-to-be-launched quests; including a Game Arcade at Mozfest and the sequel of the successful Game On competition that Mozilla Labs run in 2010.  Meanwhile here is the full prezi that I plan to give at All Hands and you should feel free to drop in our next Hackable Games Call on the 19th of September at this Etherpad.

And since today is the 46th anniversary of Star Trek, I leave you with an appropriate group picture of the Hackable Games Lab crew.

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