Cynthia Lu


A key step in creating more opportunities for underrepresented voices in the field of robotics is making robotics education accessible, interesting and relevant. While multiple programs and products are geared towards teaching how to build robots through kits, games, and toys, their methods can be costly and not always feasible. How could we engage students with non-robotic backgrounds in robotics education through a narrative and worldbuilding lens to encourage creativity and sustain longer interest?
Mechanaire is a game that is the result of my explorations in making something fun, financially accessible and narratively memorable. The lessons and subject matter can be associated with personalizable stories, worlds and characters, and in turn create an opportunity for students to choose how they want to join the robotics conversation. This amplification of diverse perspectives can lead to a more informed and inclusive human-robot future.

Welcome to Mechanaire

Mechanaire (n.) - 1. A person who designs mechanical feats through imagination & knowledge. 2. A print-&-play game that teaches robotics through world-building.
Welcome to the story of how Mechanaire came to be.
Inside the pages of my thesis, you'll find my writings and sketches as I embarked on a journey to create a game that teaches concepts of robot building, wrapped in a narrative and world-building print-and-play game.
Mechanaire is my vehicle for exacting change. Learn to build robots, and have fun playing and imagining. No kits, just paper. No cost, as this base game comes free for you to print at home or your local school or library. Create, experiment and play without getting bogged down or intimidated by the exact technical details, not yet. This game is your stepping stone, so have fun!
I want a world where anyone can build robotics, where they feel empowered to create robots that fit their own lives, cultures, and needs. To learn is to play, and one of the best ways to remember is recalling the experiences you've lived through, real or fictional. So journey with me through stories and play in Mechanaire and the potential it holds to realize that world.
This is just the beginning.


Overhead view of the Mechanaire board game, which is shaped like a plus sign and showcasing the cards in the middle of a play.

Mechanaire is a made-up word. The root of the word “robot” is Czech for “forced laborer”. So instead, how can I promote someone who creates robots as, not so much as a roboticist (a creator of forced laborers), but more of a Mechanaire (a creator of mechanical feats).

How to Play

The story of Mechanaire goes thus: A hundred years from now, we find our world recovering from ruin. Dilapidated buildings, spotty communication towers. Cities are overgrown, the climate itself has also changed. In that post-apocalyptic landscape, a band of survivors build robots to help take them home. First, they need to scavenge for parts. Wheels from a broken car here, the motor of a washing machine there. Aluminum, steel, fur, cloth. Then, using the materials they find, they must build a robot. Their robot must survive in the harsh environment, and can meet all sorts of chance dangers - a fire, rain, boulders. Will they survive the journey?

That is the core of the game. Mechanaire introduces how to build robots by giving players an easier first step. They can get to the fun part of constructing their own robot faster, like designing it with octopus arms, or strategizing about which sensors to put on to avoid which disasters- they think through the story cards high-level use cases, and learn through play and teamwork, without getting disheartened by needing to get technical details exactly right at the very start. The goal is to bring them into the story, so they can internalize their own learning journey with the journey in the game.
Mechanaire is supposed to be a first step game - a game that entices you into the world of robotics through story and fun, and teaches you terminology along the way. It’s a game that doesn’t test you on whether your battery is sufficient enough to power your robot so it maintains a certain speed. It instead shows you the end goal, of something that could be made, so that if they do decide to pursue robotics later, they have a goal in mind. Hopefully then, when they’re deep in trying to debug their robot, they keep that end goal in mind,  they don’t get disheartened just yet. The gameplay also takes steps to make sure advanced and beginning players can play together. Illustrations, words and descriptions are provided, and the game uses chance events to equalize the playing field. So even if you know all the parts of the robot, a rogue boulder chance event could still knock your robot out.


An overhead photo of the Mechanaire cards, strewn about in disarray.

Mechanaire’s cards are meant to invoke a sense of collection and building from the players, and are designed with colors that try to be colorblind safe.

Why Stories?

When fans are invested in their characters and their worlds, there is an intrinsic motivation that develops. That motivation is what drives us to feel excited about learning something new, as long as it pertains to our interests. Pokemon fans can recite all the different, hundreds of types of Pokemon, down to their types. But I’d wager not all of them have invested the same amount of time and effort into memorizing the periodic table. Why is that? Now consider, if the elements of the Periodic Table were to be given character form, with each embodying the traits of the element. Add a story, add some narrative tensions and resolutions, and a healthy dose of entertainment, and then suddenly, the periodic table may have a higher chance of being memorized by fans looking for the thrill of the story and the characters.
In a similar way, my thesis aims at capturing the lure of characters and worlds into teaching robotics through a fun game method. The learning aims to happen as an extension of the love the player feels for their character and world, to ground their experiences into a story so they remember what they learn anecdotally, as if from their own personal life experience. And making this experience personal, about the players, is key.


Side by side view of 2 illustrations, left side a black and white inked illustration of 4 children in cartoon form playing a card game around a table, and the right side a colored version of the 4 fantasy characters playing a holographic card game around a table.

One of the next steps for Mechanaire is to continue the illustrated world I started, so that the act of creating characters and world scenarios can help prompt others to create their own too. This level of customization is key for making the experience personal and educational.

The Journey of Making

Among several goals, Mechanaire tried to lower the barriers of entry for robotics education. I want to prevent a future where robots are designed predominantly by a few, privileged groups. I want to prevent a future where the design of our lives that is impacted through robots are dictated solely by communities who have the power and wealth, with no competition or say from other communities.
The divide of who has the means to learn robotics can be dictated by money, status, and implicit opportunity. By making robotics education even more accessible, we raise awareness about the direction of robotics, and place power back in the hands of the people whose lives could be marginalized in this field.
Students are the broad main community I want to work with, as they are already in the learning mindset and naturally curious about what interests them. I believe that by making more of an effort to include them in the robotics conversation will help empower their lives and combat a future where, in a worst case scenario, could mean an even larger socioeconomic divide for those that know how to create and control robots versus those who can’t, for those that can dictate what a robot can do for them versus those that suffer from the consequences of those actions and can’t do anything about it.
I made 3 prototypes that I showed to the Central Falls high school students attending the STEAM Box after-school program, a student-led program with a focus on STEAM initiatives and teaching employable skills. The game underwent 3 major design changes, from testing out transparent cards, to a stacking game, to a narrative journey the players must survive. Throughout, I worked to make sure the gameplay built off the elements the students found most fun each round, like working together collaboratively, and changed gameplay to accommodate a much shorter play time and balanced strategy. While there is much still to improve upon, this is a solid first step towards creating improved versions of Mechanaire

Notes for the Traveler

I hope you will find my thesis book and journey an insightful, fun, or otherwise good browse. 
In your own journey, I implore you to think about how your life is affected by robots, in the small ways and the big. I hope Mechanaire and my journey of making and thinking have helped you understand my concerns and hope for our future.
Our future will inevitably be filled with technology, with great software and hardware to the likes we haven't seen yet. But you, with all your creative energy and mindful desires, are also part of this developing world. You should have just as much say in it as the leading CEO of a forefront robotics company. By equalizing our access to such abilities, and igniting your interest and curiosity into building robots, I hope to arm you with confidence in your path to success.
Because regardless of where we are and who we are, you and your perspectives and imaginations should be heard. And in the world of advancing tech and robots, that voice is not often given a change to be heard. Let's change that.
I wish you well on your future journeys, and I hope to see you again in the world of Mechanaire


Illustration of 3 robots in black and white.

I’ve illustrated several robots for this game, but I’m sure many more forms are still undiscovered. Mechanaire aims to teach the basics to players, so that their own perspectives and interests can create even more fantastical and relevant robots for their own lives.


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