Activate! uses the lens of game design and the related tools of iterative design and programming to strengthen Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) skills and develop stronger issue literacy on environmental and energy-related topics. Activate! is targeted for youth between the ages of 13 and 18. The Activate! site enables youth to play, make and share games using the game development tool "Game Maker." While Activate! can be used online by youth individually, it can also form the core of classroom and/or after-school programs. Download the Facilitator's Guide for more information on how to run the Activate! curriculum in your school or program.


Activate! uses active-learning methods to provide participants hands-on exposure to making, playing and thinking about social issue games. The curriculum encourages participants to engage in four key activities: PLAY games; LEARN/THINK about games and environmental and energy issues; MAKE games; then repeat the cycle by PLAYING the games they have created.

Through this process, participants will be exposed to new technologies that will broaden their technical skills; use the iterative design process to strengthen their problem solving skills; learn about environmental and energy issues in order to develop more acute issue literacy; and share and play games with other Activate! participants.


There are four dimensions to the kinds of learning Activate! makes possible: Game Design; Technical Literacy; Environmental Awareness; and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

A. Game Design

Game design is the focal point of the program, and the "tent" under which technical literacy, civic engagement and STEM skills are considered and applied. From understanding how games operate as dynamic systems made up of rules resulting in strategy and emergent play, to learning about design thinking and problem solving through iterative prototyping and testing, to writing narratives for the world of the game and creating multiple forms of media, game design itself is a window into many forms of thinking, acting and learning about things in the world.

B. Technical Literacy

From programming to the skills needed to craft various forms of media such as images, sounds, and interface elements, technology is a baseline for most of the work youth will engage in as they create games to express the issues. Understanding the possibilities and limitations of game creation tools and platforms will be a significant aspect of the learning as well. Sharing, commenting and helping other game creators online is a third layer to understanding technology, and in this case links the work to collaboration and awareness.

C. Environmental Awareness

In the 21st Century, learning how to understand complicated issues is increasingly linked to how well one can navigate and use systems, which games are exceptional at representing, to persuade, illuminate, and learn. In Activate!, youth learn how to use design thinking as a form of research and problem solving. Games are a persuasive and compelling medium; by placing one's designs out there to share, youth participate in a dialogue with their peers about issues important to them.


Instead of focusing on STEM as content, STEM skills-building is embedded and inherent in the curriculum through multiple activities in the game design process. One one level, game design is logical and operates on many mathematical principles (the realm of "Game Theory" is one good example of this). On another, the curriculum will focus on environmental issues, implicating scientific literacy as a key competency to make games about these issues. For example, to make a game about climate change, one needs to learn the "mechanics" behind the issue, how carbon cycles contribute to the greenhouse effect, for instance. The iterative design process and user (player) testing mirrors elements of the engineering process and the scientific method. Technology is addressed through the emphasis on programming and digital technology as a platform for video games.


To supplement the digital challenges, we have produced a series of non-digital challenges that focus on important skills and concepts used by game designers.

Introduction to Game Maker and the Activate! Website

This challenge introduces participants to the Game Maker development environment. Participants will learn how to use the basic tools available in Game Maker as well as how to use the Activate! website to support their learning.

Sportmaker Rookie Challenge

This challenge introduces the concepts of game design including key vocabulary including players, rules, goals, actions, decisions, play pieces and play space. Participants will design a new sport or schoolyard game using a set of materials. Emphasis should be placed on identifying the properties of the materials, and then designing a game that takes advantage of the properties.

Iterate Rookie Challenge

This challenge more formally introduces the iterative process used in “Sportmaker.” It also expands the game design vocabulary. Participants are exposed to the four-part iterative design cycle of think, design, play test and change that is used to design and develop games. Participants will playtest and modify their game from the Sportmaker exercise to make it work for four players with a different win condition.

Rookie Systems Thinking Challenge

This challenge introduces the idea of systems thinking, the core skill set necessary to create serious games. Participants will learn about the four elements of a formal system: objects, attributes, relationships and environment. Participants will think about a common activity like going to the library or buying a snack and identify the formal system operating within this phenomenon.

Rookie Physical Computing Challenge

This challenge introduces the core concepts of Game Maker, the development environment used to create games in the Activate! curriculum. Participants will learn the key concepts of programming in Game Maker (Sprites, Room, Object, Actions, Collisions, and Event). They will then create another physical instruction set using these terms that creates a physical version of the game Pong.

Apprentice Cooperative Physical Game Challenge

This challenge further expands on game design concepts while introducing the idea of making a game about the hydroelectric power. Participants will make a schoolyard game based on their hydroelectric power concepts in which players cooperate to achieve a goal.

Apprentice Systems Thinking Challenge

This challenge expands upon the Rookie Systems Thinking Challenge by adding an environmental issue as the subject: hydroelectric power. Participants will continue to explore the four elements of a formal system: objects, attributes, relationships and environment.

Master Choices, Choices, Choices Challenge

This challenge is the final game design concepts activity. Participants will explore the importance of creating meaningful decisions for players in games and develop more nuanced understanding of win and lose conditions. They will modify a game with limited player choices to create more meaningful player decisions.