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Learning to Play

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to cowboys—send them to video-game-design camp!

By John Brodeur

It’s 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.

Mildred 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.

The Elley 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.

Students 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. (Huh?)

As Maria 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, orienteering.

This 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 learning.

At 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.

Ben decides 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.

I try 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.

 


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