Kids use Scratch program developed by MIT to create and code original games.

By: John Balash

In current times, we have been fortunate to have access to a significant number of resources that allow us to express our creativity – whether it be through apps, games, or connected play experiences. The list is lofty, and only naturally, some tools surface to the top. This month’s installment will focus on various creation tools and their creators – from the world renowned to the just-off-the-ground.

To kickoff the list, there’s all the great work done through MIT and their partners (Google and LEGO to name a few). Scratch, Scratch Jr., and App Inventor are all robust, well documented, and available for free. Chances are we’re all familiar with the Scratch family – the visual programming environment, but less so its developers, the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Media Lab. If you have not heard about or seen Mitch Resnick’s work, a wealth of intrigue around education is just a few friendly internet clicks away. App-Inventor is targeted towards mobile development on the Android platform and also is an example of visual programming.  With or without an android device, anyone can use this tool through an emulator.

Similar to other visual programming environments, Carnegie Mellon University adds its unique flavor through ALICE.  Originally developed as a prototyping tool for virtual reality, ALICE invites creators to develop virtual worlds in the 3D space. ALICE also provides an extensive catalog of 3D models already rigged and ready. ALICE is truly near and dear to my heart as it was created by Randy Pausch who also co-founded my alma mater, the Entertainment Technology Center here at CMU. Tech aside for a second, it’s always worth a (re)watch or (re)read of Randy’s Last Lecture.

Moving dramatically up the complexity scale, we venture into the full-fledged engines like Unity and Unreal. Both are free, well documented, and professional grade. Even though these tools are extremely powerful, I’ve had success in integrating them with high school age students over a number of game related projects.  

Isette Engine created by students at Carnegie Mellon.

Then there’s the Wild Wild West of developing your own creation tool. For those who are interested in that type of challenge, I invite you to become involved with Isetta Engine (check it out here!), a semester long project currently running here at the ETC. The Isetta Engine team is taking on the task of building a new game engine from scratch (note: not in Scratch). They will document and open-source everything along the way as well as interview game engineers who are in the thick of it – stay tuned!  

TLDR; There is an abundance of free tools to express ourselves and make the world a better place – including through storytelling and play – so get creating! Also, there are plenty of other people excited to share our creative journey through the communities formed around the tech. There are the legends and pioneers… and there are the eager rookies. Everyone has to start somewhere and with such powerful tools at our fingertips, why not?

Digital Dragon offers classes, camps, and private instruction in Mindstorms Robotics, Unity, Scratch, Scratch Jr., and App Inventor in the Santa Monica studio. Digital Dragon also offers instruction in schools in southern California cities, as an in-school elective or after school class. Call to learn more, 424-280-4654.

John Balash was instrumental in Digital Dragon’s launch in 2013 as its first Curriculum Director and is now back in the fold as a consultant on all the latest and greatest in tech education. This is John’s latest contribution to a monthly blog series we’ve launched, Tech News from the Frontier. John is the Director of Educational Engagement at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. John has worked on educationally focused initiatives with clients ranging from D.A.R.P.A. to Disney. Working from both sides of the desk, you can find John in classrooms and conferences around the world exploring new uses for technologies in learning environments.