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On Youth Mentorship and the Code Wars! Game: Jacob Mooney


Our daily development blog series for the alternate reality game, The Source, continues with the perspective of Jacob Mooney, a youth mentor for “Team Bat.” Jacob received his BA from Columbia College in May 2013 with a major in Game Design and a minor in Fiction Writing. He has created both board games and computer games.


Whether you’re a writer, a dancer, an actor, or a painter, there’s a lot of effort that goes into watching and analyzing other people’s work. You watch their process, you watch their problems, and you watch their solutions - and then you compare them to your own. It’s one of the best and most fundamental ways we get better at what we do. So you can imagine how interesting it’s been for me, a game designer, to be here, mentoring nearly a dozen high schoolers through a gamut of games designed by Game Changer Chicago. I feel like a reporter on the street, right at the heart of the action just as it’s happening.

Each day I’m watching the gears turn as a new game is introduced - watching our mentees’ faces go from confused, to interested, then to understanding. Some games are received better than others - but with the best games, it isn’t long before they’ve totally internalized the rules. That’s when the game is no longer a barrier for them, but instead an environment for self-expression. They’ve gone from trying to learn how to play a game about competing power companies, to trying to raise the funds to buy more sustainable solar farms. It might not seem like it, but that’s an important expression of who you are in such a game. That player felt it was important to go green at that time, and that tells us something about them as a person. The best games allow us to make choices that tell us something about one another.

 The mentors, of course, need to know how to play the games we’re introducing to our mentees - and that means practicing the games beforehand. Thursday afternoon we practiced a game called Code Wars!, where a group of people are secretly assigned to teams and split up into two rooms. The object of the game is to discretely figure out what teams everyone is on, and exchange people with the other room until everyone on your team is together.

What surprised me was how huge the difference was between how we played the game and how the youth played the game. Each team has a specific identifying catchphrase, like, “The Watermelon Lands at Midnight.” When we played Code Wars!, we might enter a room and say something like, “I hear the ocean is great this time of year,” hinting that we’re a member of the blue team. Then, after finding someone we think is an ally, we might let slip the line about the watermelons. Our high schoolers, however, often blurted out their catchphrases as soon as they walked into the room. They were way more brazen than any of us! I don’t know if they lacked subtlety, or just flat out refused to use it, but just about everyone knew all the catchphrases by the end of the game. To be sure, there were still some questions (which catchphrase is which team?) still some subterfuge (Who had lied about their catchphrases?), but it all played out on a completely different stage compared to when we had tested the game.

 I’ve always known that the age of the players changes the nature of the game, and I’ve always known that the best games are ones which allow us to express ourselves - but I’ve never been able to observe these things as closely as I have been able to here.