Gamer League Visits Redmond Washington
CamasIt was 8:01am. We were late, but only by one minute so things were mostly off to a good start. It was T-minus three hours until we met our guide at Microsoft and while the drive was doable the fourth graders in the van, hydrated by our ample drink supply, jeopardized our timely arrival.
Every generation wants more for their kids then they had. That’s bad news for these kids, because on that day, we were going to tour two of the most amazing centers for game development (and mixed reality) in the world: Microsoft and DigiPen, a journey that will be hard to outdo.
Gamer League, the sponsor of the trip is building a youth esports league that focuses on competitive play but also reinforces the idea that games should be balanced with other parts of life. With that in mind, the kids played for a hour in the van, but then we asked them to take a break.
Surprisingly, they didn’t grumble too much. Some drew pictures and some played cards. You might classify Bop-It as technology, but I didn’t check the batteries and so it died after the first “twist it”. We were full analog and the kids had a great time hanging out together.
We made it to Redmond. Our timing so far was spot on and we arrived at the Microsoft Visitor Center around 11:03. As they say though, “if you aren’t ten minutes early you are then minutes late”…so we were late. The parking lot was jam packed and my van was quite large so Matt, the co-chaperone and eighth grade math teacher, ushered the kids into the center to find the bathroom, and to a lesser extent, our guide (whose name is Dave and is a former co-worker of mine).
A glint of sun shone from the sky and landed upon a large pickup that was pulling out of a rock star parking space. I’d like to say I swiftly pulled into the parking spot but I hit the curb many times as I shoehorned the van into the glove-fitting spot. Now to find the kids, Matt and Dave.
When I got inside, the boys were almost done getting their badges. We toured the visitor center, played some games and experimented with an AI tool that guesses your age. The boys figured out that they could trick the AI and make it think they were older. It looks like AI isn’t ready to help us win the war on underage alcohol purchasing just yet.
Next, we headed to Studio C to talk with an animator. He had just been a part of the team that released the recent updates for Xbox’s new avatars. He was great -and so incredibly passionate- both in his job and in sharing with the kids. It was clear that he saw the conversation with the boys as a chance to have a discussion with a younger version of himself. The boys mostly listened which is what I’m sure the animator’s former self would have done as well. He was great and hopefully the boys absorbed a decent percentage of the “gold” he was sharing with them.
Next was lunch in Studio D. An old friend of mine stopped by and we caught up on our lives while the kids ate and listened. It turns out we both have kids around the same age. He is now on the Minecraft team and so I took the opportunity to put him on the spot. I asked the kids to ask him Minecraft trivia, a game I named “Stump the Minecraft Developer”. They slayed him. In his defense, he’s been focused primarily on the “esoteric intricacies of the memory management system” (his words).
Back again to the visitor center. This time, to a secret (well, it felt secret) area below the visitor center. We met two researchers who perform usability testing along with other research types. We had a Q&A session about VR and usability. The researchers were exactly what you might think -only better. Their bedside manor was amazing, and the kids instantly took to them. They were memorized, then delighted when asked, “would you boys like to try some VR?”.
They split us into two groups and we funneled into two observation rooms. Now…what we saw in there…I’m just going to keep it a secret. We were working with prototypes and the researchers asked me to not take any pictures. If you would like to imagine that we passed into the Matrix you can think that…but I can safely say we are at least a few years away from that…and I still don’t know Kung Fu.
We ran upstairs to the gift shop and then on to our next destination: DigiPen.
By the time we arrived we were running a bit late. Again, Matt took the boys inside and I parked the van -this time a lot further away. When I got to the front desk there was no sign of the kids, but a security guard helped me track down their location. The boys were already sitting behind laptops and the instructor had already started.
Mind you, I didn’t know what they had planned for us, but they nailed it. The instructor was amazing and completely understood how to be on the same level with the kids. He walked the kids through some legit game development topics: components, rigid bodies, and more. Having been a game developer for many years I can say they got an accurate, yet condensed, window into the basics of game development. The kids were proud of their creations, so I captured them on video.
For our last part of our day, DigiPen gave us a tour of the campus. This was the most exciting part of my day. We rounded a corner and in front of us was a giant studio of game developers. 200+ people in tight quarters, making games -being creative. It was inspiring; I wanted to quit my job (note to my boss: not really, I love my job), shirk my responsibilities, and build some games with them.
The ride home was fraught with traffic. We were already running late when we were in a standstill due to an accident. I again asked the boys to take a break from video games. This time, the van got so loud with laughter and giggles as the boys realized how much fun they can be together when they look up from their screen. The remaining 2.5 hours was game free and full of comradery between the boys.
Grant, my son, said that he loved the trip but that the ride was his favorite part. There’s something about him saying this that I love. I hope everyone had a great trip. I did, and I can’t wait for the next one.
A huge thanks to Dave and the other folks at Microsoft and Digipen. You helped us create a truly incredible day. Thank you also to Lisa for the road trip snacks (enough in case we marooned on Mt. Rainier) and to Matt for herding the cats.