“We Came to Play”: Lessons on Connected Learning and Creativity from Caine’s Arcade


Caine at work on a new game in the short film "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.

Natalia, 7, built her own “Angry Birds.” Her teacher invited her to share it with the class.

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.

The story of one boy’s dream has quickly evolved into a kids’ DIY movement: #TeamCaine.

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.”

Hayden, 9, is “obsessed with Claw Machines.”

“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.


Picture of Marie Murphy
Marie Murphy (San Francisco, CA)


There’s still another component that hasn’t been brought up in what I’ve read so far about this story, which is “forced boredom” that helps develop creativity. A lot of parents these days are constantly entertaining their children by playing with them and always giving them the attention they desire. It seems to me that Caine’s dad was busy working at his shop without much time or attention to give to his son during those hours, which drove Caine’s exploration and creativity, and ultimately his arcade.
Here’s to making kids play their own games by making it boring!

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Jennifer (St. Louis)


Caine’s story is so inspiring to me as a parent, as a person, and as an entrepreneur.  I identified with Caine’s frustrating experience of building something really cool and fun, and finding that no one cared.  It was an incredible miracle that Mullick showed up in his life and brought all of this attention to his creative and entrepreneurial efforts.  It is a very affirming thing for us all.  The truth is that there are many kids—and adults—like Caine out there who don’t find much support from their communities (peers, teachers, families, etc…).

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JP (Los Angeles)


I understand that most people living in America are not accustomed to seeing something like Caine’s arcade. I invite you to detach yourselves from the cute and charming Caine for just one moment. Think of the millions of children who grow up without ever having access to a computer, smarthphone, video game console, etc. There are millions of children who long for so much as a proper soccer ball that they might be able to kick around. Those children have found ways to entertain themselves that are many times more creative, artistic and original than those portrayed in Caine’s story. Caine is a marvel because in this society of instant, digital gratification we often forget that children will amuse themselves with the simplest objects. Caine is no different from most children his age, with the exception that he had the good fortune of Mr. Mullick having come across his dad’s business one day. This set of a snowball that has grown in such proportion thanks to Mullick’s film making and networking savvy.

Picture of Marie


Great article! Well written. I enjoyed all the links provided as well. Thank you! smile

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Marion Clemans (Charlotte, NC)


Great article. The thing that struck me about Caines Arcade were what I believe are necessary components for many kids to be inspired in their creative explorations:  an abundance of unstructured “alone” time in a safe setting.  Another child might have written poetry or music. Or drawn pictures. My son spent a lot of time at that age cutting fantastic creatures out of paper. Maybe the most important thing Caine learned was that he could be by himself and fill that time with purposeful activity with the resources at hand. Bravo!

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Hunting.Targ (California)


I don’t know if I buy the idea of ‘play capital’, but creativity is definitely at a premium in our post-industrial economy.
Caine came up with his arcade out of a personal passion; nobody made him do it, no circumstance dictated that he do it - he just did it.  And pursuing a passion is how great ideas go from one ‘crazy’ person’s head to being part of everyday life.  If only more parents would encourage, or even allow, this kind of pursuit, North America would become tremendously different.

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Heidi Massey (Greater Chicago area)


I hadn’t seen the comments when I first read this wonderful piece on Caine’s Arcade. Delighted that it didn’t fall into the trap of the “shiny object” syndrome. I am even more fascinated by the comments that have followed. As a mom of 3 grown children, I remember many a time when my kids told me they were bored. It was like music to my ears. I knew that if I didn’t “rescue” them, then what would follow would be magical. I also had 3 brilliant babysitters who believed in the value of play. They took my kids on “missions” where they would dress up in crazy outfits and go places and do things, like ask for 1 sprinkle at dunkin donuts. And they would top the missions off by buying a gift like a bag of candy and delivering it to people working at some particular location. Television just wasn’t an option with these sitters. As a single mom who never made a lot of money, I will never stop being grateful for those 3 sitters crossing our path.

Unfortunately, I think many of the kids like Caine, who really do take the time to be creative, are outcasts at school. They may be bullied or made fun of, which for many, only serves to make them try to be like everyone else. It is of critical importance that our schools and our families learn to encourage that creativity and individuality instead of trying to fit every kid into a box. Kids who don’t fit in are our future. But many of them aren’t fortunate enough to have a parent like George Monroy who delights in his child’s creativity or a filmmaker like Nirvan Mullick who sees a great story in a child’s play. Almost seems like we need more mentors to inspire this-in schools with teachers and with parents. I, for one, am thrilled about the conversation that this film has stimulated.

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Heather Alicia (Guatemala)


MarIe Murphy hit the nail on the head. It is about moving through the boredom and into that magical realm of discovery. I was a single homeschooling mom. My daughter was with me all the time but I had to work. She played, discovered and learned as I worked. She is now 26.  She knows herself really well and still has a great imagination and ability to learn. I am heartbroken when I witness parents over booking their children’s days and when they attempt to manipulate the learning. Where has the trust in our own children’s innate brilliance gone? I so loved watching Caine’s dad with him!

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Hunting.Targ (California)


“Kids who don’t fit in are our future.”
I totally agree, Heidi.


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