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The Games Hub in Uganda

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So what's this all about?

I’m just back from a week in Kampala, Uganda, setting up a new branch of The Games Hub.

I wasn’t sure quite what perspective to put on this as there’s so much to cover, so I opted for this “my experience” point of view. This blog post jumps around a bit in many ways and some of it is quite hard to put down into words and give it justice, hopefully though this is interesting and informative as well as understandable.

I’m a big believer in removing barriers that stop people even being able to try something, let alone working through something that may become their future.

There’s really no games or app development in central Africa itself, and although there are a handful in South Africa, it’s far from a prominent industry. We as an industry should offer everyone, every opportunity, to give stuff a go and help guide them through, regardless of where their future lies.

Where did it all begin?

Many months ago I was approached by a wonderful man by called Don Brewen, who for the last 25 years has been visiting central Africa through his previous work with the church. This was initially an introduction through his niece Susan, who works at the University of Essex. Don wanted to talk about developing an app or apps to help people based in Uganda teach themselves and learn. This would be a way of helping them continue on from what, if any, limited education they were able to get.

My first thought wasn’t how or what app to make, but why don’t I help them to make their own app? They are far better informed on what they need to learn and how best to do it, plus it would also give them the opportunity to build themselves a future. And in the back of my mind was the thought that it could work the same as The Games Hub, and potentially help them set up their own companies.

After initial discussions and a meeting, my idea was to emulate my Games Hub programme in a more open way, as an experiment (for want of a better word) to see if I could help set some on a possible career making games or apps. It was also vitally important that, like its counterpart, it was free!

So after many weeks of planning and discussions, with a few ups and downs along the way, on the 2nd of July I boarded a plane for Entebbe airport and on to Kampala, where, for the following week, I would spend the days mentoring and educating 20 people from both Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) about all I could to do with games and app development. Of those 20 it was excellent too see 7 of them were girls.

Those travelling from DRC had to make quite an arduous journey (and a longer way around) to avoid some areas of violence. Yet they all managed to arrive on time.

The plan was to spend each day from around 9am till 6pm (with tea breaks and some lunch) fitting in as much as we could learning and making stuff. I was keen to find out what they wanted to do, and the overarching and very clear desire from everyone was that they wanted to learn so that they could share their learning with others, to pass on their knowledge and experience so that everyone could have the same opportunities.

The experience

On the day we arrived, I met all of those who would be taking part in the programme at Namirembe guest house, where Don and I would stay for the week, and jumped straight into spending the afternoon talking about the industry, roles and possibilities. It also gave a chance for those first very quiet and shy introductions.

Most of the participants hadn’t met each other before, so it was inevitably quiet to begin with and I did far far too much talking and waffling on. But it did give a great starting point to the week. I bored them with my career so far (99% of which no-one had ever heard of) and gave a good overview of the many different roles, platforms and range of software there is. I also covered as further a range as possible of topics including business, stores, designing, art, code, audio, engines, software and much more.

This time also gave us a chance to get some of the software I’d brought with me installed. Before going I tried to prepare for as wide a range of hardware and skills as possible, although I knew what some of the computers were going to be like (which was a broad range of almost 10 year old laptops to current day i7s). To ensure that everybody would be able to learn as much as possible I opted to use Construct 2 (C2) by Scirra.

I also used the opportunity to take short videos of a few of them to find out what they wanted to gain from taking part and why. It took quite a bit of coaxing to start with, but after the first few I ended up having to stop as everyone wanted a go! I know this would have “worked” much better if done at the end of the week, when everyone was more relaxed, but it was important to get this before they started.

Frustratingly there was no internet due to problems out of our control, initially not a worry as I had the first few days planned out already and all the software and documentation needed.

This meant that it (C2) would likely work on all the laptops as well as it being reasonably straightforward to pick up. I’ve also used it for tutorials in the UK with many different ages and skill sets. I was hoping it would make life easier and be more accessible to cover the wide range of abilities.

One thing that became more and more apparent over the week was, in particular with those from DRC, that the inexperienced were more limited than I first imagined. This wasn’t only in terms of their technical understanding and use of computers, but also how much English they understood. This was also even more apparent when it came to most of the terminology used, as there are lots of words that were simply unknown and just as hard to describe or give context too.

I also now know (well I think I already did) that I talk far too fast and rush too much, and that it makes it a struggle (and likely off-putting) for those who find things like this difficult enough already.

Of course, as the week went on, everyone got to know each other that little bit better and every day things got much more relaxed. People spoke up more, took on more and we all started to make some friends.

The first tutorial was to take everyone through the beginner’s guide to Construct 2, which works well as it shows many of the key things needed when developing a game or app (take an idea, make some assets, import them into the engine, give those assets information, give the game instructions on what you want it to do and run). It also serves well as a way to introduce how the software works and how the user interacts with it. It also helps that C2 is event driven, so when making simple games/apps the logic is more straightforward to understand.

I’d allowed a couple of days for us to get through this, knowing the difference in knowledge and experience meant (despite my rushing) we could take our time. But it turned out that by the end of day one we’d done about 80%!

So, time for a bit of a rethink on how we could get the most out of the rest week, as it was quite clear that for most the desire to learn really helps overcome lacking experience. Extending the initial tutorial was fairly straightforward as there’s much that can be added to the tutorial game (lives, high score, levels, etc…).

By the end of the second day everyone had done the whole tutorial and the extras. This was hugely impressive, especially by those with extremely limited experience with computers, let alone the language barrier.

During all the sessions I tried to show where many of the systems and mechanics being implemented could be used for different projects. This helped spark a bigger thinking about the projects they would like to make for themselves.

Over the course of the week we started working on ideas that the participants had come up with, and the general theme was around how to teach others, from things like picture-to-word association to going on a journey and taking people with you. Hopefully some of these will be projects they continue to develop.

Everyone (most) became much more relaxed and conversations, ideas and ambitions were much more free flowing. Those that had picked up C2 quicker than others started to help out those who were working against the language and technical knowledge.

There was a growing confidence in their abilities and the process of going from idea to asset-in engine to behaviours to events written to tested was improving every day. As everyone was doing so well I decided to let them all jump into something more complex and take them through making Pacman. Now, although released in 1980, none of them had heard of it and it transpired from the conversation around my surprise of that, that only a couple of them had heard of things like X-Box and Playstation! That also made it more obvious as to why some of the things I was talking about weren’t being clearly understood.

However the timing of this worked out rather well, as towards the end of the week we managed to get some very limited 4g internet through one of the guys (Tonny’s) mobile dongle. It wasn’t fast by any means, but it did give me a great chance to show them the bigger world of games, from Epic’s Unreal Engine E4 live car rendering technology, to games and apps developed in Unity and other many game engines. 2D games, animations, film work, education apps and even footage of Pacman being played was incredibly exciting (and eye opening) for them all. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a group of people getting nervously excited about Pacman being caught by a ghost!

On the last couple of days a few expressed an interest in wanting to give other engines a try, Unity being the best option. Although we didn’t get a chance to do any tutorials with it, I did get to provide them all with an offline install and the documentation, which I’d brought with me (along with as much free offline software as I could).

This does bring up a few interesting things. The rushing ahead of modern countries for “always online” is sadly making places like Uganda, and even more so the rest of central Africa, fall further and further behind. There’s a reliance on mobile tech rather than landlines, but the speeds outside of larger towns and cities (even on the outskirts) and costs means online can be a luxury. The average standard of hardware is lower, again with access and costs making this even more limited to many.

By the end of the week, the huge leap in knowledge and skills they had all achieved was honestly remarkable, made even more impressive by the ones who had started the week with their limited hardware, experience and language. But they did much more than I expected, so much so (especially with no internet) that at times it was a struggle to know what to do next.

Wrapping up

To sum everything up, the whole experience was completely amazing; so many things seem the same, yet others vastly different. The lives of some of those I met have really highlighted the struggles that most of us would struggle to comprehend. The deep desire to learn and know more, and how precious they hold what education they can get through all the adversity, is incredible

But these and more are the next generation, and I believe will change the world for the better. The more we can do to help, support and guide them the better for all.

I’m beyond proud of all of them in every way, they’re all truly amazing people!

The future

So, next steps. They are all planning on continuing to learn even more, with plans already in place to develop a range of apps and games. They also want to share what they’ve learnt and will learn with others.

I also now have even more plans, to look at giving them all dedicated office space to work from. I’ve started some discussions about doing a tour, if I can convince someone to lend me a mobile 4g truck and some free software and hardware (EE and Microsoft I’m looking at you). Then we can take these to even more people who are stuck behind stupid barriers blocking them from any opportunity to give stuff like this a go.