“We Came to Play”: Lessons on Connected Learning and Creativity from Caine’s Arcade
4.14.12 | Nine-year-old Caine Monroy spent last summer creating an elaborate cardboard arcade in his dad’s used auto parts store in east Los Angeles, armed with little more than packaging tape and whatever materials he could find. He developed a ticketing and pricing system ($1 for two turns; $2 for a Fun Pass with 500 turns), built prize displays, and ordered up a Caine’s Arcade shirt identifying himself as “staff.”
There was one problem: The arcade lacked players. The store is on an industrial stretch with little foot traffic, and the few customers who did stop in weren’t interested.
What happened next is a stroke of luck that has the aura of a turning point in a postmodern magical fairy tale.
Nirvan Mullick, a filmmaker and digital strategist for social good campaigns, dropped by Smart Parts Aftermarket in September, looking for a door handle for his ‘96 Corolla. Mullick met Caine and bought a Fun Pass. He later learned that he was Caine’s Arcade first—and only—paying customer. The idea for a film was born.
Determined to create a memorable day for Caine, Mullick used Facebook to invite “everyone” to visit the arcade on a Sunday afternoon. News spread, and on Oct. 2, an enthusiastic crowd lined the street outside the auto parts store, shouting, “We came to play!”
Caine, finally, was running his game world.
Mullick captures this all on video, a delightful 11-minute film that traces Caine’s single-minded determination and resourcefulness, his father’s laid-back “let him at it” support, and a flash mob’s fandom of a special kid.
A rough cut of “Caine’s Arcade” screened at DIY Days in Los Angeles on Oct. 28 (where, coincidentally, media scholar Henry Jenkins gave a keynote titled “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead”). The final edited version was released online April 9, complete with an original song by Juli Crockett that would make Woody Guthrie proud.
In less than six days, it has received almost 4 million views on Vimeo and YouTube combined. A college scholarship fund for Caine set a $100,000 goal; it has now exceeded $150,000. And parents are posting photos and videos of cardboard games their children have been inspired to build after learning about Caine’s Arcade.
As I’ve followed the groundswell of admiration for Caine, and Mullick’s film, I’ve been thinking about how this meshes with our conversations about digital literacy. The information obviously couldn’t have spread without digital tools and access, but Caine’s story also speaks to the type of creativity that can happen outside of the digital realm, and which needs to be respected wherever it emerges. (The folks involved in fundraising for Caine’s future seemed to acknowledge as much this week when they announced on Facebook the launch of Caine’s Arcade Foundation to help “discover, foster, and fund other creative kids.”)
Caine’s industrious use of available materials and tools situates him at the heart of maker culture and its celebration of hands-on creativity—both old-school and futuristic design—and community. The line between retro and cutting edge also invokes class issues, as access to and choice of material and medium is often dictated by socio-economics.
We can easily imagine Caine in a different environment picking up digital tools, and the college scholarship pitch invokes this as part of his future—“Imagine what this kid could build with an Engineering degree!”
Yet despite a growing understanding of the relevance and learning potential of computer programming and online gaming (see, for instance, Constance Steinkuehler; James Gee; and 10-year-old Dylan Viale, who built a video game for his blind grandmother), a number of the comments praising Caine focus on the absence of digital tools. He is lauded specifically for not being absorbed with screens and for choosing to spend hours building a tactile world out of simple materials.
“What kid his age thinks of building something this creative especially, with all the technology around nowadays?” a commenter wrote on the Caine’s Arcade Facebook page, adding, “Seriously, he’s a genius. It makes me so happy to watch this and his dad he just supports him and lets his imagination run freely.”
Other comments further underscore the notion that gaming culture is a waste of time and a drain on creative energies: “I just wanted to tell you that you are an inspiration to a lot of kids out there. Most kids your age are in doors playing on their game consoles and not being creative at all. But I think you have changed that for a lot of kids.”
Another said, “In this day of computers and video games, it’s refreshing to see a kid using his imagination.”
In the same spaces, some commenters proposed using a portion of the funds raised to provide Caine access to more formal learning and enrichment opportunties now—why wait until college? A Facebook commenter suggested sending Caine to “summer science camp, year-round tutoring, or getting him into gifted programs.” (Caine’s father, George, is in agreement, telling Yahoo’s Chris Morris that the money is a “big help” because though Caine is “very creative,” he ” lacks some skills and I hope he can get the help he needs through a tutor or a private school.”)
This dichotomy points to the gaps in our conversations about digital literacy and informal/formal learning while also making conversations about engagement and access all the more relevant.
The film is our only window into Caine’s world, but we can speculate as to what he learned from the process—the physics, math and engineering skills, for instance, along with problem solving and the satisfaction earned from building an arcade from the ground up. It’s a powerful example of connected learning, a relatively new model that recognizes the extent to which learning takes place outside the classroom and tries to bridge interests and peer culture with academic achievement. Cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito, research director of DMLcentral, describes it as “learning that is socially connected, interest-driven, and oriented towards educational and economic opportunity.”
“Connected learning is when you’re pursuing knowledge and expertise around something you care deeply about,” she adds, “and you’re supported by friends and institutions who share and recognize this common passion or purpose.”
Caine is definitely driven by his own passions, but it doesn’t seem (at least not via the window we’re provided) that he’s had the support of friends or mentors. Part of what draws us into his story is that he’s done all the work by himself, without support; his father notes that the kids at school don’t believe he’s really running an arcade.
A sudden explosion of community has likely turned Caine into both a mentor and mentee. And the kids who are building and sharing their own cardboard creations can instantly see themselves as part of a real movement.
Connected learning also promotes opportunities for cross-generational support. Caring adults and educators in a kid’s orbit—either in-person or via social media and online communities—can encourage curiosity and offer direction. Caine’s story lends itself exceptionally well to this kind of effort, given the video’s educational relevance and cross-generational appeal. Kids watch “Caine’s Arcade” on classroom TV’s, speculating what they can build with the boxes in the basement, and middle-aged columnists publicly acknowledge their own arcade fanaticism.
Like Forbes contributor Anthony Wing Kosner, I’m optimistic that the film “Caine’s Arcade” may experience a slow but continuous build with numerous viewing demographics, especially students and educators from, as he says, elementary to engineering schools.
And unlike “Kony 2012,” to which he compares it, there’s a real transparency and “who knows what will happen next” spirit to “Caine’s Arcade.” Want to go back to the beginning of the story? You can view Mullick’s cellphone video from when he first met Caine. Wondering how Caine was kept in the dark about the flashmob? Read Mullick’s comments on Boing Boing. Want to buy your own Fun Pass? Here are the hours and directions.
Many stories have the ability to enthrall; “Caine’s Arcade” invites you to join in—to, in fact, play.
And that’s no kid thing. Designer Laura Seargeant Richardson, who has called play “the greatest natural resource in a creative economy,” argues in The Atlantic that there’s a creativity crisis afoot. She predicts that future economies “won’t be driven by financial capital or even the more narrowly focused scientific capital, but by play capital as well.”
John Seely Brown, a visiting scholar at USC and co-author (with Douglas Thomas) of the new book “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change,” emphasizes that we need to value the importance of play throughout our lives.
“The reason for this,” he told Spotlight earlier this year, “is we’re now living in world with exponential and continuous change. We’re not just living through a transition; we have transitioned into always transitioning. So what’s really happening is we’re living in a world with some of the same basic properties as when we were first dropped here as babies. That is to say, we have to be willing to constantly regrind our conceptual lenses. In order to continually make sense of this changing world, we need the freedom to explore, mess up, pull back, reflect, and try again.”
That’s as good a reason as any to try your luck at Caine’s Arcade—and stand at the crossroads of the past and the future.
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