Spica Tech, the gaming academy turning children into game producers

Spica Tech offers courses at six sites across Lebanon and is being integrated in private schools to teach coding during class hours.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Children learn how to create their own video games at the gaming academy Spica Tech in Beirut. 	  (Spica Tech)
A lifetime toolbox. Children learn how to create their own video games at the gaming academy Spica Tech in Beirut. (Spica Tech)

BEIRUT - Using children’s passion for games to motivate creativity is at the core of game developer Reine Abbas’s Spica Tech Academy, which teaches children fundaments of the fast-growing gaming industry.

Nominated for the 2019 Cartier Women’s Initiative Award, which celebrates female entrepreneurs, Abbas co-founded Wixel Studios in 2008, Lebanon’s first indie gaming company, before establishing Spica Tech in 2014.

“Our children (in the MENA region) are among the largest consumers of video games in the world. We can change them from being mere consumers to producers and young entrepreneurs. Instead of Arabising video games we can create our own games,” said Abbas, a visual artist and self-taught game developer.

At Spica Tech, children and young adults learn how to create digital games from scratch.

The idea for the academy was triggered when Abbas’s 4-year-old son asked her to show him and his classmates how to create video games. “I put in place a 14-hour course and taught young children to create their own games. The children loved it and the feedback from the parents and teachers was great,” Abbas said.

Starting as a mobile academy giving workshops here and there, Spica Tech offers courses at six sites across Lebanon and is being integrated in private schools to teach coding during class hours. It has developed 16 courses of 20-40 hours, with six levels, targeting children above 4, teenagers and young adults.

“We teach them the whole process using the software that video game developers use in their production and that includes game design, coding, animation and storytelling,” Abbas said. “Once the game is completed and tested, it is published online. In that way, we are empowering the kids and giving them the know-how to create a product.”

Providing youngsters with game development skills is meant to give future generations a lifetime toolbox in a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology, Abbas contended.

“Creating video games is the most complex digital process involving different disciplines such as mathematics, physics and art. It motivates children to have critical thinking, tell a story, design a game and do the artistic work, be a producer, an artist, a publisher and market their games,” she said.

“All kids love games and by learning how they are developed, their creativity is strengthened and they gain self-confidence. Can you imagine how proud they would feel saying ‘I created and published my own game!’”

Traditionally, the tech and gaming industries have been dominated by men but Abbas, a staunch feminist, said she wants to encourage more girls to become interested in the industry, which she said is composed of only 15% female producers and developers. Occasionally, she offers 50% discounts on courses for girls. She has cooperated with NGOs such as Girls Got IT offering free courses to 400 girls from poor and disadvantaged families.

Abbas’s career in gaming kicked off when she co-founded the first gaming start-up in Lebanon — Wixel Studios. She had spent several years as head of the art department at DigiPen Lebanon, which produces Nintendo games.

Wixel Studios created several successful games, including “Douma” (“Puppets”), inspired by street fight during political upheaval in Lebanon.

Shocked by the puppet-like behaviour of the people, Abbas and her partners created a game with the roles reversed and the people become the master and political leaders are the puppets. “It was a massive success. The game was downloaded thousands of times within the first hours after it was placed online,” Abbas said.

Other games designed by Wixel Studios include “Survival Race: Life or Power Plants,” which centres on a post-climate change Middle East, and “Little Heroes, Big Deeds,” which raises children’s awareness about reflexes they should adopt when facing domestic or natural risks.

Named among the top five most powerful women in gaming by Inc.com in 2013, winner of the WIT Women in Technology Award in 2010, selected one of the top ten High-Profile Women in Video Games and among the World 100 Most Powerful Arab Women in 2014, Abbas is hoping to be among the seven laureates of the 2019 Cartier Women’s Initiative Award.

“It was really a dream for me to be one of 21 finalists worldwide selected among 3,000 applicants. It is a great boost and an invitation to develop my business,” said Abbas, who will be defending her endeavour before the Cartier Award jury in May in San Francisco.

Spica Tech will soon launch an online e-learning platform offering courses in Arabic, French and English.

“In our Arab region, there is no gaming industry because there is no education in gaming. By teaching children how to do games we can help create small producers and future success stories,” Abbas said.