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Playpower: Designing 8-bit Learning Games for Radically Affordable Computers

Derek Lomas (The Playpower Foundation), Daniel Rehn (Playpower Foundation), Jeremy Douglass (U. California San Diego)
Computing, Developing Markets
Location: Empire Room
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The Playpower Foundation ( is using a $12 computer as a platform for 8-bit learning games in order to improve educational access for millions of children around the world. New 8-bit computers can be manufactured and sold for as little as $12, because they make use of a TV as a display and employ a computer processor that is now in the public domain (Nintendo Famicom®, produced as the Nintendo Entertainment System® in America). Motivated by the availability of this radically affordable platform, our goal is to design and discover high-quality 8-bit learning games and make computer-aided learning affordable for people everywhere.

Developing a skill as basic as touch-typing can be economically transformative. In the developing world it can make the difference between earning $1/day (as a rural farmer) and $1/hour (as a office worker). Similarly, children who learn computer programming skills at a young age have incredible opportunities to make economic and social transitions. The 8-bit TV-Computer (TVC) discussed here is currently sold with a full keyboard and a mouse, as well as cartridges containing software for typing instruction and learning BASIC programming. However, much of the content on this platform is poorly designed, and a great deal more is needed. Playpower’s goal is to enhance the educational value of the TV-computer by introducing a core suite of high-quality 8-bit learning games. Furthermore, we are developing an open source 8-bit game creation kit, to enable the design of region-specific content by individuals around the world.

The Playpower Platform, a $12 Computer
“The $12 computer,” as the press has appropriately labeled it, is a keyboard, mouse, and 1Mhz processor that connects to a TV screen and takes 1980’s era 8-bit Nintendo cartridges. Cartridges can contain hundreds of software titles and plug directly into the keyboard (a self-enclosed unit which contains the processor and video card). We believe that this platform can serve as the basis for affordable Computer-Aided Learning for millions of people around the world, and the Playpower Foundation intends to support this by ensuring that high-quality CAL software is made available for this machine.

The primary reason for selecting the NES/Famicom as a platform for affordable computer-aided learning is that the platform has been massively successful over the past 25 years and as a result, it is still being manufactured. For years, dozens of manufacturers have competed to produce hundreds of different pirate versions of the Famicom at a very low cost. As a result, there is a mature and cost-efficient console manufacturing ecosystem—but it is no longer illegal (because the original patents have expired).

Creating an Open Source 8-bit Development Kit
The issue with developing new content for the NES/Famicom TVC is that it requires assembly coding, which is a difficult and specialized skill. In real terms, it would be relatively expensive to pay an assembly code expert to produce any new learning games. Our goal is, therefore, to develop an open-source 8-bit programming kit that will make it far easier to program learning games (and ‘regular’ games, as well). To accomplish this we are using nBASIC as the core of our open source programming kit (nBASIC is a high-level framework for building assembly code that uses BASIC programming conventions, developed and open sourced by Bob Rost,). With the aid of this simplified programming environment, we hope that developers from around the world will be able to create their own 8-bit games, creating an ecosystem of 8-bit content that will support regional languages, local educational needs, and diverse cultural expression in game design.

Playpower hopes to establish reciprocally valuable (and unusual) social bridges between 8-bit enthusiast sub-cultures (including 8-bit hackers, geeks, otaku, anoraks etc) and the communities in developing countries we wish to serve.

8-bit Design Constraints
Out of necessity (and a lot of love), we embrace the design constraints of 8-bit computing. While representing an earlier stage in the history of computers, we do not view 8-bit games as obsolete. 8-bit games are, rather, a wholly different medium for expression. Like black and white photography versus color, cartooning versus photorealism, or super-8 versus technicolor—8-bit graphics and audio offer aesthetic constraints which are valuable in their own right.

Photo of Derek Lomas

Derek Lomas

The Playpower Foundation

Derek Lomas, MFA, is a scientist and artist who currently directs the Social Movement Laboratory at the California Institute of Telecommunications and Technology (Calit2) at UC, San Diego.

The Social Movement Laboratory, founded by Mr. Lomas and Natalie H.M. Jeremijenko, is a hybrid arts laboratory researching the aesthetics and dynamics of social activity.

Photo of Daniel Rehn

Daniel Rehn

Playpower Foundation

Daniel Rehn is an artist, designer, and researcher.

He is the Creative Director for the Re:Game lab and Playpower — a foundation that designs and distributes learning games for developing countries with a low-cost ($12) computer.

Daniel and Adam Robezzoli are currently developing the LA Game Space — a non-profit interdisciplinary lab in Los Angeles that will offer artist residencies and public programs.

Rehn also conducts research at Calit2 with Lev Manovich and Jeremy Douglass — they are pioneering “cultural analytics” (the visualization and algorithmic understanding of pop culture and the humanities).

Photo of Jeremy Douglass

Jeremy Douglass

U. California San Diego

Jeremy Douglass is a postdoctoral researcher in Software Studies at the University of California San Diego, in affiliation with Calit2, the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, and Visual Arts. He researches critical approaches to software and code using the analytic frameworks of the humanities and social sciences.

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