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Teaching Through Gamification a Winning Strategy

Mainframe Mike: The Game teaches school-aged children about IBM Z hardware and software

6/3/2019 12:00:01 AM |

The task seems difficult—save the world—but the message is simple: Learn how the IBM Z platform works and is part of our daily life. Mainframe Mike: The Game debuted this spring to teach young people about the system through gamification, and has received positive response.

Sudharsana Srinivasan, program coordinator, IBM, was looking for a way to introduce school-aged children to IBM Z at the Destination Imagination State Championship in Fresno, CA, this April.

Hearing about this, fellow IBM team member Andrii Vasylchenko suggested they teach the students through gamification. He tried adapting an architecture puzzle he was already working on, but said it wasn’t quite right for the goals of the event. Instead, his wife suggested he make a Super Mario Bros.-type 8-bit game reminiscent of the 1980s and ’90s.

Mainframe Mike: A Hero

In the game, which is available to play on any device, players are tasked with helping Mainframe Mike and his robotic friend Watson save the world from the evil robot Sara. Players navigate through two levels where they collect hardware and software before challenging Sara. Along the way, Watson provides words of advice and information about IBM Z hardware and software.

The name Mainframe Mike originated from a costumed mascot introduced at IBM Think this year. Vasylchenko, an IBM Z community technical content developer, decided to build on the buzz the mascot created by using the name in the game.

Mainframe-Mike-Sudharsana-Srinivasan.jpg

Mainframe Mike and Sudharsana Srinivasan gather at the Destination Imagination State Championship in Fresno, CA, in April. There, they taught students about the mainframe through a game, prizes and outreach. Photo courtesy of Sudharsana Srinivasan.

Although Mainframe Mike: The Game was built for school-aged children for the Destination Imagination event, Vasylchenko decided to broaden its appeal by adding the retro style to appeal to older generations as well.

“We all are kids somewhere deep inside, aren't we?” he asks. “I tried to make the game interesting for any player. For older generations, the graphics bring them back to childhood.”

Players will find technology reminiscent of the 1980s and ’90s, including diskette drives and old PCs, throughout the game. Older players will like the nod to the era, and younger players, who may not have seen that technology before, might think they are fun objects, Vasylchenko suspects.

The game is available on IBM Bluemix. “The IBM Cloud was the fastest and most convenient way for me to bring the game to life,” Vasylchenko says. Although the game may seem simple to put together at 8-bit and two levels, it requires infrastructure, including:

  • Its own back end on Node.js
  • A test environment
  • Analytics with an IBM Cloudant database underneath to capture player scores
The game runs on top of multiple instances of Node.js, and took Vasylchenko about 90 hours to put together.

Teaching Students About IBM Z Through the Game

The game wouldn’t have been made had it not been for Srinivasan noticing that IBM was a sponsor of the Destination Imagination event. She was already planning to attend with her son’s team, serving as a team appraiser and coordinator. Once she spotted the IBM logo, she looked into how she could represent her workplace, and in a planning meeting, the game idea was born.

“At the school age, these kids don’t know much about mainframes or IBM,” Srinivasan says. “Since I was going to the state championship anyway, it was an opportunity to talk to children about it.” Although her position at IBM doesn’t require her to work with students, educating them about the platform is something she feels strongly about.

“The reality is, these kids touch the mainframe a lot, they just don’t realize it,” Srinivasan notes. At the Destination Imagination event, which included elementary, middle and high school students, Srinivasan gave them examples of how they or their parents use the IBM Z platform throughout the day, including when buying groceries or when making ATM transactions.

Depending on their age, students’ reactions varied in degree of understanding, she says. “I would ask what their perception of a mainframe was. For a lot of them it was a motherboard of a computer. I would tell them about what it is. It was eye-opening for me, too, what they thought a mainframe was.”

Having the game at the event was a big draw for the children, Srinivasan says, noting that when they completed the game, they were excited that they won and received a prize.

A Winning Strategy

Mainframe Mike the mascot was at Destination Imagination, directing people to the booth. That day, about 300 people played Mainframe Mike: The Game. “In my mind, that’s a huge win. They went home thinking about the mainframe,” Srinivasan explains. “The game was a very easy way to introduce the concepts of the platform.”

Being “out-of-the box creative” by explaining the platform to the students through gamification worked well, Srinivasan says, and she would encourage using that method for future projects.

While the game was designed for one specific event, it’s found continued success through digital promotion, reaching 1,000 people playing it in three weeks. “It clearly shows that the gamification approach is working and we should continue investing in it,” Vasylchenko says.

As for his IBM Z architecture puzzle game, Vasylchenko plans to debut it later this year.

Play Mainframe Mike: The Game for yourself.

Valerie Dennis Craven is a Minneapolis-based writer.

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