As it turns out, you aren’t the only one worried that today’s touchscreen-raised kids are sterilizing their critical thinking and social skills. Enter the after school program teaching elementary school kids the benefits of competition, cooperation, revision, and back-stabbing.
Brooklyn Game Lab, created by Robert Hewitt over four years ago, sits between two public school in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Every afternoon, students grab pen-and-paper board games and swarm the rectangular tables, read the rules to each other, and play something new. The opportunities for gaming also extends outdoors. Welcome to Quest Lab, a chance to get outside, beat “monsters” in real time with foam weapons, and complete tasks to rack up athletic merits. Those merits become the store’s social currency in a long-form game, turning the retail store front of Brooklyn Game Lab into its own immersive gaming experience.
Store manager and Vassar College graduate, Leland Masek, combined his studies of economics and theater into Live-Action Role-Playing. After college, he ran escape rooms in the New York area, learning how groups of strangers were willing to come together in imaginary settings much faster than in normal settings. Eventually, Leland found himself directing kids to play along with the ultimate role play: an adult managing a store front.
When Leland introduces kids to a new board game, they are told from the beginning that “nothing is sacred.” Even after learning a new game, the kids are rewarded for questioning the game’s design, critiquing it, and making suggestions on how to improve gameplay. “Sometimes they’re right,” he said thoughtfully. One of the golden rules is that the players only do what they want. “You have the right to remove yourself and respectfully challenge every little bit” of the store’s environment, a huge responsibility and social ability most kids do not know they have outside of the store’s setting.
When kids put a certain amount of hours into running, learning, improving and designing games, they achieve the mysterious and awe-inspiring Level 7, where they then take a written test. “I feed that test to the basilisk in the basement,” Leland says plainly, “and based upon the choices they make, viewpoints they have, it stares straight in the child’s soul.” Based on how the player has interacted within the store and among their peers, the kids are then sorted into one of five major kingdoms, and welcomed into the largest youth mega game in the world, The Immortal Wars. Joining these five kingdoms shapes their social groups and “becomes a big, anticipatory moment” for players. Students are now committed to that team’s yearly team and its goals “for life,” from the Irongate Order to the RedMoon Riders.
The Immortal Wars is displayed on a digital screen against the largest wall in the space, showing a hexagonal grid of a fantasy world. Each of the five kingdoms makes a move, and the other four kingdoms, a total of 600 other players, take turns reacting to this. Imagine Settlers of Catan, Risk, and A Song of Fire and Ice but played by elementary school kids. One team will win at the end of every year, and next season a new environment or setting will be introduced, but the five kingdoms remain, as may the grudges. Kids can even negotiate and introduce new attacks and maneuvers into the ever-developing fantasy world on conquest, alliances and betrayal. Thankfully, this behavior only bleeds into daily school life…less than half the time.
During an afternoon at the Brooklyn Game Lab, it was apparent that the kids were ravenous to jump into new games, read the rules, and comprehend them rather than be shown the rules by an adult. That kind of social agency surprised me, so I asked Leland about the effects of gaming for kids with anxiety or limited social exposure.
Leland talked about the benefits of abstracting “risk and vulnerability.” “[Within a board game or role-playing game] social rules are very explicit. What [the players] are allowed to do is very coded.” He has dealt with children from many depths of the autism spectrum, and found the Game Lab helpful in creating a matrix of social interaction. Gaming takes away the fear and shame of failure because players will always get another turn, another chance. “[The student thinks] ‘I could fail this. Realistically,” Leland continued, “you are not to blame for your character rolling [well or poorly],” Leland further explained.
Exposure to games and options gives the students agency at home as well. Brooklyn Game Labs proves that the family that nerds together herds together. The store promotes a “wonderful family gaming program,” Leland described, the “biggest direct effect is bringing the culture of board games at home. Kids [leave the store having developed] complicated and nuanced tastes in games.”
Most importantly, the kids have enough digital interaction at school and at home; when they come to Brooklyn Game Lab, they find their place at the gaming table, and then sculpt the game to fit their interests, ultimately laying out the board, and pieces of their brains, their relationships, and futures.
You can learn more at www.brooklyngamelab.com