Students at work on games (Courtesy of Plug-In Studio)
Students at work on games (Courtesy of Plug-In Studio)

This Wednesday evening, the walls of the Hyde Park Art Center will be transformed into a retro video game arcade.

But these aren’t your classic Pac Man or Donkey Kong games. Instead, 13 teenagers spent the summer creating 8-bit-style video games that focus on social issues such as immigration and bullying, in order to create a high tech art installation called “The Street Arcade” that connects to and reflects their community. In the process, they gained skills at the intersection of technology and art that are lacking in their schools’ curriculum.

The program is a part of Plug-In Studio, an organization run by partners Kerry Richardson, an adjunct SAIC media professor, and Steve Ciampaglia, an assistant art professor at Northern Illinois University. The Plug-In Studio hosts one-off workshops and classes at community centers across the Chicago, including in Evanston, Little Village, Pilsen, and Garfield Park. Previously they’ve hosted video game design courses and maker studios where students create kinetic art, and in the fall they are planning a course that delves into augmented reality and graffiti.

The inspiration for Plug-In Studio came from personal experience. Ciampaglia and Richardson’s son is currently in school, and it was difficult to find curriculum that suited his interest in tech and art, something that both his parents have a strong background in. “There wasn’t enough curriculum on the synthesis of art and technology,” Ciampaglia said. “That’s not a unique or isolated case. Many students aren’t getting any tech programming at all.”

This is the first summer they have hosted the video game design summer program, funded by Northern Illinois University and A Blade of Grass, which asked teens to consider how to repurpose the video game genre to comment on society.

“We wanted to make games that do not highlight [negative] aspects of commercial gaming, and produce messages that are very personal to the kids and counter those mainstream video games,” said Ciampaglia.

Screen shot of one of the students' games (Courtesy of Plug-In Studio)
Screen shot of one of the students’ games (Courtesy of Plug-In Studio)

While commercial video games tend to promote misogyny, racist tropes, and gratuitous violence, these students’ gamify social issues they face in their own lives. One game challenges the player to navigate to the US border from Mexico, in search of a better life. Another game asks students to choose between getting to school or defending a nerd from bullies. A zombie game offers a different conclusion depending on the race of the character that the player chooses.

Since video games are already a part of most students’ lives, Ciampaglia said, it was an easy way into discussing tougher issues, and providing incentive for kids to learn code. Teens coded using Scratch, with Richardson, Ciampaglia and other instructors assisting as their ideas grew more ambitious.

The program ran once per week throughout the entire summer, starting the week CPS let out and culminating at the installation this Wednesday. The installation will project the games on the walls of the Hyde Park Art Center, adding to the interactive nature of the installation: community members can pick up a red joystick and start playing, and students will be on hand to talk about their work.

“We wanted to bring back the physical, communal aspect of the arcade,” said Ciampaglia. “These days a lot of games are played online…we’re trying to evoke the physical social aspect of the old arcade.”

The Street Arcade will run from 7 to 9:30 on Wednesday September 2 at the Hyde Park Art Center (5020 S Cornell Ave).

Note: The story has been updated to correct the organization title for A Blade Of Grass.