The Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR), which IES administers, funds the research, development, and evaluation of new, commercially viable education technology products. Time Tails is an online game intended to prepare middle and high school students for success in postsecondary education and career pathways in computer science. The game, which introduces students to coding within the context of computer game design, was developed as part of the SBIR project Coding Bridge: Bridging Computer Science for Girls. In this interview blog, game developers Grace Collins and Carrie Linden of Liminal eSports (now called Snowbright Studio) discuss Time Tails and the importance of inspiring female-identifying students to code.
What is Time Tails?
Time Tails is a series of digital games funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the Tides Foundation to help provide learners of all ages with an entry point into learning game design. Each episode transports you to a different point in history, where you help Ari and Zoe (two rad cartoon cats from the 1980s) fix glitches in history while also learning and practicing 3D game development and game design skills. The games are packed full of 80s’ puns, humor, references to salmon (it is a game about cats, after all), and story, while also encouraging players to learn about some amazing folx that sometimes get left out of history class textbooks.
For me, Time Tails is a tool. It’s that missing bridge. Imagine you have a student who is interested in design who has been playing around in Scratch for years. When you show them Unity or Unreal game engines (popular game architectures), they may balk at the complexity of them. Time Tails breaks down those complex interfaces into digestible components that gives students the confidence and interest in making the jump across the gap. We’re continuing to release new Time Tails episodes every six months or so, adding new historical periods and new technical concepts.
Thanks to our partnership with Unity, we’ve also been able to create an entire year’s curriculum for AP Computer Science Principles aligned to College Board’s standards and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards.
What inspired you to create Time Tails?
I was teaching computer science at an all-girls school in Cleveland, and the lack of resources for my students was just painfully obvious. There are a lot of generic coding resources, but when I went looking for something that could creatively inspire them and also lay the foundation for a career in game development or real-time 3D development, I was always coming up short.
Some of the first iterations of Time Tails were done right there in my classroom as I asked my students what they cared about (underrepresented female and LGBTQ+ figures in history), what they liked (cats), and even how different colors make them more or less likely to engage with learning content. When learning software pops up and it’s all steel gray and black, my students would look at it and say, “That looks like it’s for my brother.” They knew, and we know too, who the audience is for some of these tools out there. Time Tails tries to do all of that differently.
When you look at data on who is currently working in the computer science and game development industries, you will find that men are overwhelmingly the ones with active roles in the field. When we looked at where these drop off points were for girls in computer science career pathways, we found some interesting things. Girls were often leaving coding and computer science before they made it to high school, and most schools offered little in computer science and coding instruction during that gap between entry level software (like Scratch) and full game development platforms (like Unity). There was clearly a need for something to bridge that gap between tools used by younger kids and professional developers. There was also a need for those tools to be welcoming to female identifying and gender diverse youth as they are the ones falling out of the career.
What elements of Time Tails are uniquely tailored to female-identifying students?
We decided to build Time Tails around narrative. As you progress, you get pulled into the written story and learn more about our feline heroes Ari and Zoe along with the people that they are helping.
Humor, color, and charm also all tested well with our target audience compared to the typically dry YouTube tutorials and guides that you see out there that covers similar material. We packed our game full of ’80s puns and silly jokes, seasonal allergies (relatable), and made sure that each level was filled with colorful art and adorable characters. More often than not, these characters are strong women from history whose stories don't frequently make it into the textbooks. Our leading cats are female identifying and nonbinary, making Time Tails the first ever learning game featuring a canonically nonbinary character.
It can be hard sometimes reading interpretations of our work. Adults will come in saying that the game looks too young or too childish. They want it to be more mature. They want darker colors and a more serious take. We can’t speak for everyone, but when we tested this game, that’s just not what teen girls wanted. They already had a lot of anxiety about getting into computer science in the first place. They’re VERY aware that it’s a masculine dominated field. They need that entry point that says it’s okay to be silly. They need to see others like themselves throughout history making waves. It’s been really heart-warming to see teens playing it, and even more so when their parent sits down with them to explain all of the 80s’ references. Those have been great moments as we’ve been out there testing this game.
What advice can you give other game developers who focus on female-identifying students?
Representation matters. If you can showcase the work that female-identifying folx are doing in the games industry, then you really should. Too often we see the tech and games industry primarily focusing on the women working (super important!) community management roles, but we also need to see highlights of the work done by female identifying developers, writers, quality assurance staff, producers, and more. Highlight all the roles and not just the ones that the industry has already decided are a “good fit” for women in tech and games.
My main advice to any developer is to involve your audience early and often. Have teens give you feedback on art, characters, concepts, everything. And don’t be afraid to see that those teens don’t agree. Be bold and brave in serving the students that you are trying to reach. Stay true to your vision and your audience.
What are the next steps for Time Tails and Snowbright Studio?
Time Tails is currently available on Steam. One purchase gets you access to all current episodes along with additional episodes releasing every six months or so. We are working with our partner, FableVision, to publish a version that allows for classroom licensing on their FableVision Games platform as well.
Snowbright is also very active in the tabletop game industry, publishing cozy mystery role-playing games (RPGs) as well as card and board games. Our most recent Cozy Companion magazine actually took Ari and Zoe on a brand-new adventure to 1966 West Virginia as they learned about pollinators and cryptids in a mini-tabletop RPG.
Grace Collins (they/them) is the Founder/CEO of Snowbright Studio, a Cleveland-based LGBTBE certified game studio dedicated to publishing heartwarming games and experiences. Grace previously led games and education policy at the US Department of Education and later coordinated federal game policy across the executive branch. Prior to serving at the Department, they managed and developed educational game projects at the Smithsonian Institution. Grace has taught computer science and game design at multiple levels and was profiled by the Associated Press for founding the first esports team in the nation at an all-girls’ high school.
Carrie Linden (she/they) is the Communications Manager at Snowbright Studio, handling social media, websites, and the creation of official copy for the organization. Carrie has a Master’s in Education and seven years of experience teaching in LGBTQ+ friendly public-school programs and has her Certificate of Esports Management from UC Irvine. Carrie is an active member in the gaming and content creation community.
This blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), NCER program officer and co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.