by Mark McGowan
Many of the young teenagers who came to NIU’s Game Design Day Camp arrived with exactly zero knowledge of how their favorite pastimes were created.
By week’s end, they were playing games that sprang from their own imaginations: Little green men. Flames. Bullets. Nutcracker villains. Robot heroes. Puddles of crimson blood.
Some were more peaceful: “Mine is about a girl in a dream who has to come home before her parents wake up,” said Kayla Federici, a 13-year-old student who attends St. Mary’s School in DeKalb. “She has to jump over clouds and beat the timer … (and) try not to get under the rainbows.”
Andrew Yohanon, a 11-year-old student at St. Mary’s who loves the game “Halo 3,” watched in delight as the word “BANG” bounced on his screen. “I really like video games,” he said, “and I really wanted to learn how they’re made.”
“The goal of the camp was to learn what it takes to design and develop video games. We reinforced that there’s a lot more to it than sitting in front of a computer (and) programming” said Jason Underwood, a camp instructor, eLearning Services staff and adjunct faculty member in the College of Education.
“On the design part, we spent time with colored pencils and paper drawing characters. We came up with the back story for our characters. We played a lot of video games and used those to talk about narrative, the high concepts of the games and what makes games fun.”
Aline Click, director of eLearning Services and co-director of the Digital Convergence Lab at NIU, served as camp director. Travis Pierce, Andy Saia and Michael Taylor joined Underwood as instructors, bringing expertise in information services, time arts and music technology.
The camp, Click said, is part of the Digital Convergence Lab’s goal to provide fun learning experiences at NIU that focus on emerging technologies and 21st century skills. The lab (and camp) is located on the third floor of Founders Memorial Library.
Research has shown that students who lose themselves in video games often are learning “hard stuff,” Click said, “so if we could develop 'serious games’ that also meet the needs of schools’ curriculum requirements, then we are successful.” At the university level, learning how to use and create emerging technologies can better prepare college students for the global workplace and its demand for online social networking, virtual meetings and reliance on mobile technologies, she added.
Students at NIU’s camp used computer-based tools and a book titled “The Game Maker’s Apprentice” to move their ideas and designs from the prototype stage to playable video games. As they worked, they also developed skills such as teamwork, project management, use of computer software and complex problem solving.
They also honed math skills such as algebra and geometry through exploring the rules of logic as well as plotting coordinates for their animations.
Click first envisioned the camp last spring during the Students in Technology Conference at Clinton-Rosette Middle School, where her daughter Sam is a student and gave a presentation on making movies with iMovie.
“It was a conference for students by students. The students actually had to get up and do presentations on different technology,” Click said. “So, I asked if a games camp was something students would be interested in.”
As soon as the second day of camp, students were using their break time to continue programming.
“It’s really cool to be able to make games and not just play games. All these kids are game players, and to make the transition to a design perspective and not just a consumer perspective is really a different state of mind,” Underwood said.
“All the instructors agreed that we were pleasantly surprised at how advanced the games were,” he added. “By the end of the third day, the kids had gone into more of a free development mode, where different kids needed different things for their games. The games all turned out very differently. Everyone didn’t end up with Pac-Man, and we started with Pac-Man as a simple premise.”
Click would like to continue offering video game design classes this fall.
“We were surprised at how well it went and how engaged the students were. We had 100 percent attendance, and the camp was hard. It wasn’t meant to be easy. It wasn’t a come-and-play camp. It was hard – and fun,” Click said. “We’re hoping to do some after-school programs and keep this going.”
As to a location for an after-school camp, “we are still in the planning stage” Click said. “We have the technology and the staff we need here in the lab, but we understand it will be more difficult for the kids to get here after school. If I compare it to violin lessons over in the Music Building, I have to believe that parents will bring their kids to the library if they think learning these technologies skills are an important-enough thing for them to learn.”
All of the software used at the camp is “open source” – it’s legally free online – so the campers can continue to work on their projects at home. The programs included GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program) and Audacity (which helped the campers with their audio, including music they created on computerized synthesizers).
Underwood expects the parents of the campers will set aside typical concerns concerning video games to allow at-home programming.
“These kids are incredibly engaged in a creative enterprise,” he said. “You wouldn’t yell at your kid if he sat in his room and painted for three hours.”