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Camp teaches video game design skills

IU's Game Development Camp popular among Bloomington-area students

(This story originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times:

By Michael Reschke, Bloomington Herald-Times

Seamus Cherry loves playing Slime Rancher. The object of the computer game is to feed slimes the proper foods so they will produce "plorts," which can be exchanged for gold. Seamus can then use that gold to upgrade his ranching equipment.

It may seem like a waste of the 12-year-old's time, but last week, it became much more than that.

"It's a big inspiration for the game I want to do," he said.

Seamus is one of more than 100 kids who signed up for Indiana University's Game Development Camp this summer. Parents have been bringing their children to the Bloomington campus to learn how to make their own video games for four years. The camp has proved to be a huge success, growing from one session and 15 kids the first year, to seven sessions and 110 kids this year. Getting to this point wasn't easy, though.

"It was an uphill battle," said Chabane Maidi, camp director.

The idea came from a conversation he had with a telecommunications professor back in 2013. Edward Castronova, who is now the director of IU's game design program in the newly established Media School, suggested creating a camp for game development. Maidi jumped at the opportunity.

"That's not something I had while I was growing up," he said.

What he did have was a love for games like Halo, a first-person shooter game released at about the turn of the century. When he was a student at Bloomington High School South, he and his friends would critique the game that spawned one of the most successful video game series of all time. As a student at IU, Maidi studied computer science with an individualized major in game design. He started teaching classes as an undergraduate instructor, and after graduation, he got a job with University Information Technology Services. He thought about embarking on a career in game design, but that would have likely required moving to a city on the East or West coasts. His friends and family are here, and those relationships proved more important to him, especially after his wife had a child.

The game design camp was an opportunity to teach kids something he enjoyed, but getting it started was a challenge. The plan was conceived in March of 2013, and Maidi had to make the website, do the marketing and coordinate with Residential Programs and Services. To break even, the camp had to have at least eight kids. With almost twice as many kids signing up, Maidi then had to fulfill the ambition he had for the camp: Getting kids with no prior training to leave with a game they designed themselves.

"I was kind of nervous about that," he said.

The kids surprised him, proving to be more motivated than many of the college students he taught. Now, examples of games kids made at the camp can be found on the Game Development Camp website. One of them is a game a girl designed during the first year of the camp. It's a novel concept, Maidi said, with no enemies and no fighting. It's centered around a young person who is apathetic about life. The object of the game is to help the character find beauty in the world.

"She did all the art and even recorded her own song for the game," Maidi said.

That girl was one of the few females who have come to the camp. Maidi admits getting girls involved has been a struggle. He's not exactly sure what's causing the discrepancy between the sexes, but this year there are a few initiatives to address it. One is the girl-powered camp, which is a weeklong session exclusively for girls. Another is an art weekend.

"They won't be putting graphics inside of games, but they'll use the same graphic design tools used in the game industry," Maidi said.

Taking the word "game" out seemed to make the art weekend more appealing to some girls, but others didn't shy away from the more traditional camp sessions. Kendall Hewitt, who will be a freshman at Bloomington High School South this fall, attended last week's 3-D camp. The experience gave her a new appreciation for the work that goes into making the games she enjoys playing.

"It's interesting how many things you have to do just to make a door open," she said.

The 3-D session Hewitt attended is far more conceptually challenging than the 2-D session that was the only option in the camp's first year, Maidi said. He was worried he wouldn't be able to maintain the camp's promise of kids developing their own game by the time they leave. Once again, the kids in the camp surprised him.

"I was blown away," Maidi said. "I was beyond pleased."

One of the reasons for the kids' success might be Maidi's approach to the camp. While signs can be seen around town, Maidi admits there hasn't been a huge marketing push on his part. The camp seems to be growing because of its quality.

"I would rather spend resources to make the camp great than bring kids to a camp that’s lame," he said.

It seems to be working. Seamus Cherry said he's been to other game design camps, but he insisted they're nothing like the one at IU.

"If you're interested in coding and game design, this is definitely the camp for you," he said. "Even if you're not into it, I'd still say do it. They make it so much fun."