early afternoon on a gor-geous midsummer Friday. A moving
truck is parked by the curb outside Latham Circle Mall as
men load office supplies through the mall’s entrance doors
and onto the waiting truck bed. Another Latham Circle business
apparently has gone to pot. That’s no surprise; this place
has been on the decline for well over a decade. In fact, the
sprawling hull of a building, once the bustling lower half
of a semicolon dotted by the Latham traffic circle, now faintly
resembles what was once known as a shopping mall: The few
businesses that continue to thrive here—or survive, at least—include
a bank, a few food stands, and a Burlington Coat Factory.
But in a small, dark classroom tucked deep in a corner of
the mall’s second-floor, you can almost see the future . .
. or something like that: Welcome to video-game-design camp.
Now drop and give me 20.
Elley, the “school for careers,” recently launched a new School
of Digital Media Arts. This summer, the school’s Latham and
Pittsfield, Mass., locations presented the inaugural installment
of video-game-design for children entering grades 6 through
10. (The slightly more-official-sounding Summer Institute
for Game and Multimedia Design, for kids in grades 11 and
12, was launched simultaneously.) The camp was a hugely popular
part of the summer curriculum, and it’s not hard to imagine
why: Kids of that age tend to spend their summers either at
the mall or at home playing video games. This way they get
to do both, sort of—and walk off with an education. And it’s
a “camp,” not a “class,” so the pace and intensity is low,
relaxed, right up the alley of the average kid who’s trying
to stave off the passage of summer vacation.
camp is one of many programs popping up around the country,
and it’s a trend that’s fast growing in popularity. Electronic
Gaming Monthly recently ran a feature on 10-year-old Julian
Finnegan, a San Francisco resident who created his own video
game, Sharp Shooter, and started his own company, Sharp
Shooter Games, to peddle it. He picked up his skills at a
course run by iD Tech Camps (www.inter naldrive.com), a company
responsible for programs held at 40 universities in 19 states.
A simple Google search for “video game design camp” yields
results for numerous courses run by Digital Media Academy
(www.digitalmediaacademy .org) and National Computer Camps
(www.nccamp.com), among others.
were invited to attend from one to all six weeks of the Elley
program (for a fee, of course); the Latham location even had
to add an extra week of classes due to demand. These classes,
broken by age group into morning (younger) and afternoon (older)
sessions, covered topics from 3-D Modeling and Animation to
Designing Video Game Worlds to Building 3-D Game Characters.
Using programs like Maya and Gamemaker 6.1, the young future-Electronic
Arts employees manipulate curves and surfaces, add fur to
furless humanoids, make water flow and splash, and edit NURBs.
Neal, the school’s marketing and communications director,
points out, Video Game Design Camp is a great option for “kids
that aren’t into sports camps” or Boy Scouts or what have
you. Heck, if I had this option when I was young, I’d sure
as hell have gone for it: I’m sure some kids really enjoy
poison ivy, mosquito bites, and rope rash, but I wasn’t one
of them. Plus, when camp is over, kids can take with them
valuable skills that could, with some luck and persistence,
be turned into a career. The same cannot be said for, say,
particular Friday falls at the end of week four, during a
section on Building 3-D Game Worlds. Fifteen or so boys shuffle
about the classroom. (As one might expect, the class predominantly
attracts males.) Some are thumbing away at their PSPs or other
handheld gaming systems; others challenge one another on a
first-person actioner that’s being projected onto the whiteboard
in the front of the room. Then Ben, the course instructor,
has the kids settle into their seats for an afternoon of hard
first, the kids go about toying with the universes they already
have constructed. The students begin to ask questions about
different tasks at hand, and Ben, a youthful 30ish dark-haired
man, obliges. One kid with a curly mop of brown hair asks,
“How do you make indentations for eyes?” After Ben’s response,
the boy explains that his new character is soon to be “cut
in half by a chainsaw.” The boy makes a few quick adjustments
and sends his character off to his inevitable doom.
to give the class a bonus lesson on how to create gravity.
His assistant, Tom, who looks all of 16 in his close-cropped
hair and “Things I Learned From Video Games” shirt, takes
a seat behind the computer at the head of the class and demonstrates
this new concept with a domino-toppling exercise. Then, he
makes a conical object crash through a wall of cubes. The
cubes explode into the “air” in all directions, some bursting
into flames. It looks like the frickin’ Matrix.
to follow the instructions: first, “create a flat plane,”
then make “passive rigid bodies” and—ah, screw it. It’s mostly
gibberish to me, but the kids click and type away, adding
new dimensions to their already quite-lifelike computer worlds.
This is the generational gap at work: Watching these kids
at work/play is dazzling and confusing. And one day, we will
all be part of their little games.