Teen Designers and Some Out-of-this-World Clients | Mark Dzula

I recently worked at Pace University as a teaching artist, supporting a group of teens as they developed content for Exerblast, a kids’ gym in New York City. Exerblast enhances workout sessions for children with technology and video game savvy; it is essentially a tricked out obstacle course housed in Tribecca, NYC. Participants earn points on iPod utility belts as they move through stations, perform tasks, and play games. All these activities are designed to get heart rates up and give kids a workout.

We brought the teens in to experience the unique programming at Exerblast, and then challenged them to develop custom content for the space. Each station in the course has its own video-based content. We were able to create video for a rotating rock-climbing wall, a stacking puzzle game, as well as a motion sensor puzzle game (think systems like Wii or Kinect in this case). The youths became designers to Exerblast’s assumed role of a client.

The teens harnessed the capabilities of Photoshop and iMovie, motivated by the cultivated designer/client relationship. As an arts educator, I value educational experiences that are couched in real-world activity and meaningful work, doubly so in this case; our young designers at the Pace workshop all deal with degrees of autism. Questions of employment loom large for this community—not just jobs—where will these talented youths find engagement and social inclusion when they grow up?

In this respect, the beauty of the arts lies in their implicit invitation to engage with the world and to communicate with others. The young artists at Pace especially loved exploring Photoshop and eagerly built content to share. After the field trip to Exerblast, we all discussed our sense of the space, focusing on the three games that they were tasked with redesigning.  Most of Exerblast’s content seemed to be geared towards younger children; the designers decided that they wanted to make the games more challenging and appealing to a teen audience. Also, in order to fit the Exerblast brand, they wanted to maintain a futuristic sense of technology and adventure.

The designers scoured the Internet for images; I demonstrated how they could search for content that was legally safe to sample and re-use. Appropriation has incredible educational potential, but I thought it was important to acknowledge our situation: Exerblast, a corporate entity, wanted our content, potentially as their own. If our content violated copyright, then our client couldn’t use it.

After a period of focused development, some inevitable data loss, and subsequent restarts, the young artists were ready to share their work with each other and deliver it to Exerblast. I marveled at how the designers supported each other’s ideas as they asked constructively critical questions and acknowledged each other’s strengths.

When we presented our work to the clients back in Exerblast, the designers proved capable and confident speakers, demonstrating poise and exuding communicative enthusiasm. The delighted clients opined that the designers’ innovations made the games more motivating for participants. That is, new timers and directed tasks made the games easier to understand, presenting gamers with fun challenges.

This educational model should occur more often, in which young people are invited to work artfully and with purpose, in which pedagogical relationships don’t just assume student/teacher hierarchies but mirror those of practitioners in the field, and in which artists can see their ideas come alive. Besides presenting to the clients, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this model was watching the teens play each other’s games, flush with enjoyment and appreciation of each other’s work.

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