Co-Designing Digital Treescapes with Children

Dylan Yamada-Rice
7 min readFeb 2, 2024


Producing videogames with children to allow them to play and tell stories about future landscapes with trees.

This is the first blog that reports on my involvement in the Digital Voices of the Future project led by Dr Simon Carr at the University of Cumbria with Dr Ian Davenport and partners from the Manchester Metropolitan University (Dr Khawla Badwan & Dr Su Corcoran), Middlesex University (Prof Johan Siebers), the Mersey Forest (Dr Susannah Gill & Dr Dave Armson), and X||dinary Stories (myself and Dr Eleanor Dare).

It is a knowledge exchange project funded by a UKRI joint research councils (NERC, ESRC, AHRC) programme the Future of UK Treescapes and builds on the back of research that seeks to include children’s ideas on the topic. Connectedly, this project seeks to explore how children can be involved in the co-design and production of a videogame about treescapes. Treescapes is the term the project is using to think about the various ways in which trees exist in our lives, i.e. in rural and urban environments, en masse or as a singular tree.

In order bring children into the design and production process, myself and Eleanor Dare will devise a series of workshops to be undertaken with late primary and early secondary school children to explore key elements involved in game development: world building, character design and gaming mechanics. This blog describes the first of these.

Information Sheet made to explain the project to children as part of the informed consent process (Yamada-Rice, 2023)

World Building Workshop

The extent to which children enjoy gaming can be evidenced just by considering one standalone statistic that 147 million children play the online game Roblox each week. As Roblox is a free-to-play gaming platform accessible via computer, tablet or phone, we are currently considering it for our game. The sheer number of Roblox users makes it more likely that it will be used by other children than if we were to launch a game on another platform and there is also no paywall.

The sister platform, Roblox Studio provides a free game development space. Whilst readymade digital assets and base plates offer fairly low-poly gaming aesthetics, it is also possible to develop more sophisticated models in other industry standard software that can later be added to Roblox Studio and programmed. Adults are increasingly using such methods to create games for children that are essentially online adverts aimed at driving real-world sales. I was surprised to hear at the Children’s Media Conference a couple of years ago that only 10 percent of children have ever used Roblox Studio themselves.

As a result, I am interested in creating spaces where children can question gaming aesthetics that are made for them, and as part of this encouraging them to create alternatives. In my work to date, I have found that children, even those young in age are strong critics of digital games and content, yet the chance to understand that gaming aesthetics are also a decision made by adults and not a result of the technology is something lesser expressed. For this reason, and also because this project is related to treescapes, Eleanor Dare and I planned the first workshop so that children could design gaming worlds from natural materials.

World Building Workshop Prompt (Yamada-Rice, 2023)

This also seems to relate to one of the Mersey Forest’s aims which is to get children to engage with trees in real world contexts. One way in which adults tend to go about trying to use games for educational purposes is to replicate worlds or knowledge literally. Yet, children rarely do this in their own play (especially younger children). Instead, they merge fact and fiction more readily. As a result, I began thinking about how the handling of natural materials could provide more subtle ways to link digital and real treescapes. Furthermore, should they be interested it could even be possible to use aesthetics of natural materials in the game we develop.

In the workshop children were asked to work individually or in pairs/small groups to make a physical model of a game world based on treescapes. They were told that treescapes could mean a forest or a wood, but it could also be those in an urban environment or a singular tree.

To produce the game world models we used a “Cultural Probe” approach (see e.g. Gaver et al, 1999; Wargo & Alvarado, 2020) where physical materials were offered as design prompts. To this end, children were given packs of craft materials containing, coloured paper, pipe cleaners, google eyes, coloured plasticine and modelling clay. As well as, a range of natural materials, twigs, pine cones of various sizes, conkers and sticks or bits of lichen etc.

Cultural Probes

In offering children such a wide range of materials, I was also drawing on ideas from Pauliina Ratios’ (2013) work about how materials have agency that draw children differently to them. Finally, children were provided with a Minecraft LEGO Minifigure. This was given to provide a context for scale in building their worlds, but also it was intended as a reminder that we were doing this as part of digital game design and development; Minecraft being a game most children are familiar with.

Junior School Children Building Game Worlds

It feels worth noting that the natural materials brought moment of chaos into the classroom when unintentionally insects emerged from them. This reminded me of the importance of more-than-human theories as well as how young children often include animals in their play because they deliberately allow for chaotic storylines to emerge because they can not be expected to be confined to human rules, which is why when you watch young children playing “house” nearly always one child is assigned the role of a dog.

After children had made their game world models they were shown how to use photogrammetry to scan and turn them into digital assets, thereby demonstrating the move from physical materials to digital.

Junior and Secondary School Students Scanning their Models using Photogrammetry

When I was giving a talk to MA Data Visualisation students today a question was asked about how I make sense of material objects made by research participants and decide what to include within the design and production stage. This made me articulate how I personally approach it. Having trained as a social science researcher I am often drawn to thematic analysis as an approach that looks for common elements among research participants. Yet, the artistic side of me also realises the need to seek unique perspectives which I believe can make us think more speculatively rather than just documenting what already exists.

As a result, I tend to explore common ideas and features alongside “outliers”. For example in the world building workshops, there were lots of treescapes that contained narratives about the variety of trees, an interest in the age of trees such as by placing value on old trees by giving them special powers within their game designs. Of course, animals appear and many children created homes for them, e.g. hives or caves. Yet, on the fantastical level one group also produced a dystopian forest in which people believe they are going to relax, but in actual fact are under government surveillance. This was indicated by placing “googly eyes” on animal figurines, hidden in vegetation and on bark on the ground.

Dystopian Government Surveillance Forest

As a game designer my interest is in both these view points: the everyday common narratives as well as fictional ones, and both will be kept in mind as we see where the second series of workshops on character design take the project.


Gaver et al (1999) Cultural Probes. Interactions

Rautio, P. (2013) Children who carry stones in their pockets: on autotelic material practices in everyday life. Children’s Geographies, Vol. 11(4), p.394–408.

Wargo, J. M. & Alvarado, J. (2020) Making as Worlding: Young children composing change through speculative design. Literacy, Vol. 54, p. 13–21.