Build, Connect, Play

Case mockup with completed Piper Computer, 2020, courtesy of the author.

Recently, I had an opportunity to design a case layout for High Score, one of two new exhibition galleries in ESL Federal Credit Union Digital Worlds at The Strong museum. High Score will allow guests to explore the histories behind the video game industry and how video games have become historical artifacts with their own stories. Guests will be able to enjoy the expansion gallery firsthand in the summer of 2023. Until then, I wanted to share one of the playful projects I tackled to design the layout, part of a case that highlights video games in society. This group of artifacts represents the history of computer gaming in primary education and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) initiatives. Importantly, the entire genre of education games can be traced in significant part to women educators such as designer Jan Davidson, creator of the Math Blaster franchise, and Leslie Grimm, who created the Reader Rabbit series under The Learning Company.

Along with game examples by Davidson and Grimm, this mockup also includes the Piper Computer Kit, a do-it-yourself technology build intended to boost STEAM confidence in young people and encourage their learning. Co-founded in 2014 by Shree Bose, Piper, Inc. creates technology crafts for children and works with educators and school districts to enable hands-on learning for computer-related projects. I was excited to showcase their computer starter kit, which allows children to build their first working computer. Not only is this a great example of an educational computer toy, the hands-on process of building the kit harkens back to early computer game programming where curious enthusiasts tinkered with hardware and software commands to create fun adventures.

Piper Computer blueprint, 2020, courtesy of the author.

With kits like the Piper, young users can also gain invaluable hardware-building and programming skills. This computer kit uses the popular video game Minecraft, a 2020 World Video Game Hall of Fame inductee, to help users learn how to connect switches and lights to the Raspberry Pi microprocessor. As an artifact for the High Score case, all these qualities will help us better illustrate how video games can impact education in the real world. I did not, however, anticipate using these DIY skills myself.

Piper Computer pieces, 2020, courtesy of the author.

When the Piper Computer Kit purchase turned up unassembled, I was the lucky one who played the high-stakes game of patience and direction-following to make my very first DIY computer. It was easy to be overwhelmed by the oversized blueprint and many small plastic baggies of LEDs, buttons, resisters, cords, etc. Thank goodness for the pop-out laser-cut wooden pieces, which made it more like a three-dimensional puzzle with fancier parts and, therefore, relatively few hiccups. Though not intended to be challenging for its 8–10 age group, the kit proved plenty tricky for me to assemble without a helpful parent holding pieces together while I screwed in security holds. However, much like with my paper craft adventures, I felt myself slipping into “the zone” of play while I snapped connectors and clicked cords into place. Most importantly, it was fun to see pieces come together into an actual working object.

What’s brilliant about Piper’s design, and many computer kits for kids, is the assembly felt more like a craft project as opposed to an intimidating technological undertaking. Once I charged up the power bank and turned on the computer, I played the Story Mode, which continued the crafting mindset. I helped Piperbot and his mouse Pip repair a few machines by assembling the kit controller, which tied onscreen gameplay with real-life, tactile actions and hardware building. The now-assembled Piper Computer will be safely shelved in our Collections storage until we unveil the new expansion galleries. As for me, I was glad for the opportunity to gain new skills and cross “build my own computer” off my wish list.

Article by Racquel Gonzales, Research Historian at The Strong.

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