Coming out of high school, Jason Suriano (BA '01) was focused on the fast track to a law degree. Now, 14 years later, he's navigating a museum gallery with a group of 10 year-old kids as they banter about video games – and he couldn't be happier.
Recently, Suriano launched Seek Your Own Proof, a new online game at Discoverykids.com. The game targets 6-12 year-olds and follows the story of three investigative siblings – Aidan, Milanie and Heiko Munro – who discover a secret underground agency known as the Central Institute for Exploration (CIE).
The teens are quickly drawn into a chase through time and history against enemy agents who are plotting to rewrite the past, change the present and alter the future. Online users can play the game in traditional form but also have the option of taking field missions to real museums and landmarks.
"To start with, we're trying to make the history in your backyard the most relevant," says Suriano. "It's neat if kids get a little bit enlightened about their own surroundings. We're also trying to make it available in as many cities as possible, so that if I take my kids to Calgary or Edmonton on the weekend, a place like the Edmonton Art Gallery is a part of it."
Considering Suriano laughs about being one of the last of his generation to begin using a computer, there is no lack of irony in the fact he now designs computer games for a living.
"In Grade 12 I was still submitting hand-written essays," says Suriano, a Catholic Central High School graduate. "I always had a real interest in technology, it was always one of the things that I liked, I just didn't know how to get into it."
He began his post-secondary career at the University of Alberta but decided to come home to the U of L after one year. It was in Lethbridge that he laid the foundation for his future.
"I'm a firm believer in the "things-happen for-a-reason" train of thought," he says of abandoning his legal aspirations.
Embracing the liberal arts philosophy at the U of L, Suriano discovered his passion. His humanities focus would then serve him well as he transitioned back to the U of A for a second degree, an MA in Humanities Computing with specialization in comparative literature.
"Before you work in the technology field, it's essential to have a grounding in the arts. Research and writing are keys, particularly with what I'm doing right now," he explains. "The work I do involves a lot of fact gathering, making sense of blocks of content from museums and distilling it all into worksheets and then online forms."
Once out of school, Suriano began working in the non-profit sector. With both a writing and technical background, he was hard to pigeon hole and found himself working for the Heritage Community Foundation as head of the Educational Learning Objects division.
After a stint where he did consulting work for his company, Hotrocket Studios, he and business partners Ken Bautista and Norman Mendoza struck off on their own and the seeds for Seek Your Own Proof were born. Their big break came when they secured Telefilm Canada and Canadian Film Centre (CFC) Telus Funding, one of only two projects in Canada. It allowed them to flush out the idea and enter it in the Kidscreen PitchIt! Competition in New York, where they won the top prize.
"That was the first sign that we were on to something pretty cool," says Suriano.
"The neat thing is that seed idea we came up with in 2005 is still novel now, there's really not a lot of this going on, especially within our demographic."
Galt Museum executive director Susan Burrows-Johnson says the game is a wonderful way to connect with today's generation of technologically savvy kids.
"Almost no one who works in museums plays games, and everybody under 18 does, so there's this huge generation gap that we've been worried about," she says. "It's not that history isn't interesting to them, because it is, it's the generation gap around the technology that we need to pay attention to. Kids use different tools in their learning process and that's the gap we're trying to bridge."
To come full circle and stimulate learning in his hometown is especially gratifying for Suriano, now a father of two.
"I approached the Galt a couple years ago when we were starting this portion of the project, and Susan was very open to it and supportive of the concept," says Suriano. "It's great we are now ready to bring it back here in this form."
GET THE FACTS
• Suriano now lives in Edmonton with his wife Jen and their children Ethan (4) and Malcolm (1).
• The debut field mission of the game involved facts around the King Tut exhibit at Discovery Times Square Exposition in New York. Officials estimate handing out more than 500 worksheets per week to visiting kids.
• Seek Your Own Proof is available for play or purchase at www.seekyourownproof.com
• CIE and Seek Your Own Proof have been recognized with several awards including: Grand Prize Winner at the TEC VenturePrize competition in Alberta; Best in Show at the Fusion Digital Media Venture Forum in Vancouver; PitchIt! Winner at KidScreen Summit in New York; and Most Promising Company at the Canadian New Media Awards