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A&S’ Camp Kiki Builds Leadership and Knowledge — As Well as Esports Skills

Camp Kiki Sizzle Reel from UK College of Arts & Sciences on Vimeo.

For a photo album from Camp Kiki, go here

By Richard LeComte 

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- On a hot Friday morning, about a dozen seventh- to ninth-graders gather around giant screens at the University of Kentucky’s air-conditioned UKCFU Esports Lounge and encourage each other in the mastery of a video game. Their enthusiastic gaming complements a week of fun and learning both in the virtual world and in real life in a way that shows how UK gives back to Lexington. The first-year summer outreach effort is called Camp Kiki. 

"We wanted to get resources to the community,” said  Kishonna L. Gray, associate professor of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies and Africana Studies in UK’s College of Arts & Sciences, who founded the camp. "We wanted to build the bridges and connections between the university as an institution and the local communities, especially the under-resourced communities.” 

Camp Kiki — the title comes from Gray’s nickname — interlaced a series of physical explorations and games with gaming from June 27 to July 1. In addition to playing such games as League of Legends and first-person shooters, Camp Kiki introduced young people to UK archives concerning the Lexington community, LARPing (live-action role-playing) and information on how the participants could use their gaming skills in their careers.  

"We are trying to set them up for several pathways,” she said. "The gaming is important, so you know they already have that skill set. They're also experts in streaming and content creation. What we want to do is show them how they can translate those skills so they can capitalize on them.”  

The camp received funding from Niantic, the tech company responsible for Pokémon Go, the game that sends players out into the environment to collect prizes. When she was at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Gray encouraged Niantic to place virtual Pokémon Go stops on Southside landmarks. From there, a relationship bloomed, and Camp Kiki is one such a result of that on-going collaboration. 

"A lot of kids are just so focused on the digital,” she said. “I always want to connect digital space to physical space. That's why I think Pokémon Go is beautiful. We walk around with the app, and we connect. You can connect digital games to buildings and history.” 

Gray had several helpers, including teaching assistant Akil Finbar Fletcher, an anthropology doctoral student from the University of California-Irvine. He also researches virtual worlds and Esports, and his gaming expertise helped him connect some of the students to more intricate games, including League of Legends. Camp Kiki was also supported by College of Arts & Sciences graduate students Kathryn Kohls and B. Bailey. 

Another visitor to the camp was Edmond Chang, assistant professor of English at Ohio University. He took the students outdoors to work on their live-action role-playing skills, including creating makeshift weapons using pool noodles. The students also were exploring what it means to be a hero in fantasy, games and reality. Chang had the students fill out a questionnaire about who they thought were heroes.  

“It’s all boys, right?” he said. “So they all named men heroes, and I asked, ‘Can anyone name any women heroes?  They came up with a few, which is good. and then the last question was, ‘If you had to pick a character or a kind of character or hero, what would you be or who would you be?’ Then they created that character, and we did some very pared-down LARPing with them.”  

Camp leaders also addressed sportsmanship during the camp as well: They tried to model how to win graciously and accept loss, and then come back to play another day. 

“They have this capacity to be able to support each other,” said Kayland Denson, Academic Living & Learning Success director in UK’s College of Education, who was another Camp Kiki leader.  “We want to provide accessible, safe spaces for them to learn leadership, and it’s really beautiful. I just want to be there to give them all the resources, fill in every blank, and if they need to you know something, we can figure out how to get it to them.” 

 Gray intends to offer an expanded version of the camp in 2023. In the future, she wants to increase both the reach of the camp and its aim of building confidence and knowledge in her participants.  

“I'm always big about equipping young folks,” she said. “I want to empower them with information and knowledge so that they have pride in themselves and their community.”