The Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation Beanie illustration

HomeAbout SparkLabActivities and experimentsInventor profilesResources

SparkLab logo

  Activities & Experiments

Explore it!

In 1976, Don Woods was studying at Stanford University in California when he was introduced to a computer game called Colossal Cave Adventure, also known simply as Adventure. Another student had found the game on one of the school’s computers and gave Woods a copy. He began playing it and eventually tracked down the game’s original developer, William Crowther.

Crowther, who was a computer programmer, enjoyed exploring caves in his free time. He also enjoyed the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. These interests, along with a desire to create a game he could play with his children, led Crowther to develop the first version of Colossal Cave Adventure which allowed players to explore a cave. At the time, there were very few graphics or pictures used in computing. Unlike today’s games which rely on graphic, Adventure used words. The game described a scene to players and players typed in a command, giving the computer its next move.

When Woods contacted Crowther, he asked him if it was okay if he tweaked the game. Crowther agreed. Woods expanded the game’s story by adding new locations, puzzles, and magic words. He also added a scorekeeping feature and fixed problems or bugs with the original game. The game became popular among computer programmers and is still played today.

First you’ll need to come up with an idea. Here are some questions to think about:

  • What’s the story behind your game?
  • Are there characters?
  • Where is it set (the future, outer space, a fantasy world, or somewhere else)?
  • How will your game be different from others?
  • What’s the goal of the game?
  • How do you win?
  • What are the rules?
  • How many people can play?

Think about games you like to play. Are there ideas from those games that you could incorporate into yours? How about a game you don’t like? How could you improve or change it?

Now that you have an idea of what your game will be, sketch out some ideas for how it will look. Think about the playing board and any other pieces you may want to include, like a spinner, playing pieces, or cards. The sketching phase of invention is a good opportunity to try out lots of different ideas.

Now you’re ready to create your game!

  • Gather all the supplies you think you will need.
  • Use the large piece of cardboard for the playing board. Using pencil first, draw out the board design. Once you have it the way you want it, bring the board to life with crayons or markers and other decorations like stickers and craft supplies.
  • Create any other pieces you will need to play your game. Use pieces from other games or make your own out of paper, craft supplies, or recyclable materials.
  • Write out the rules of the game. (You may want an adult to help with this part.)

Once the game is made, it’s time to try it out! Gather your family or a group of friends together to play. Before starting, explain all the rules and answer any questions the other players have.

Not all inventions—even games—come out right the first time. After you play one round, ask your friends and family if there are ways they think you could make your game even better. Tweak your game as needed.

Now it’s time to name your game! You might also want to think of a fun slogan that would help sell it. Take a photo of your game and ask an adult to send it, along with a brief description, to Sparky at!

Want to learn (and do) more? Check out these links:

Download this activity »