In a game design class at Page High School, groups of students collaborate to create 2-D and 3-D video games.
Together, they brainstorm game ideas. A more serious game that the students collaborated on, which revolves around the life of a turtle, recently won a North Carolina game competition.
One of the students in "Advanced Game Art and Design," junior Vincent Mazzo, said this course provides a pathway into the fields he's interested in: graphic design animations and video game design.
By taking the intro and advanced game design courses in Guilford County Schools, he's able to work with some of the programs that game designers use, including Photoshop and 3D Studio Max.
“It definitely gives you a good taste of what’s going to be out there in an industry once you go out and get a job,” Vincent said.
Through game design courses created by two Guilford County Schools teachers, students in four schools learn skills that will allow them to enter new and emerging careers. And soon, the curriculum will spread across the state and the nation.
Game design is one of the biggest career choices out there right now, said Phyllis Jones, a career and technical education teacher at Page High who developed the game design courses with Roy Kimmins from Weaver Academy. And because game development represents a large industry in North Carolina, trained students are able to find jobs.
Many students want to play video games. And through game design courses, students can both play and learn at the same time. For instance, teachers can teach them how to write a story and develop a storyboard for video games.
“We’re trying to reach the kids at their level and teach them in the process of doing it,” she said.
And these courses don't just prepare them for a future in game creation. They also prepare them to create serious games and animations. Down the road, they could create jet simulations that teach pilots how to fly or animations that show how natural disasters happen.
“We’re very visual people," Kimmins said, "and so game designers — even though they make fun games — still have those skills that would carry them over to a lot of other fields.”
These two teachers have developed the two courses over the last six years and have been piloting them for the past three years.
More schools will have the opportunity to use the two game design courses these teachers developed. For the 2012-13 school year, the state Department of Public Instruction approved them for use in all North Carolina schools.
“This has been a good thing for our students and a good thing for Guilford County," said Bob Gantt, the district's director of career and technical education. "And it’s going to be a great thing for the state of North Carolina."
But school systems will need to prepare teachers to teach game design courses first.
“One of the challenges that we have is to find teachers who can actually do this, and very few teachers are going to come out of traditional universities prepared with the skills to just walk into a classroom,” Kimmins said. "So just because a state gets a curriculum doesn’t mean that they’re going to have teachers that are ready to jump in.”
By sending them to workshops that Jones and Kimmins offer, school systems will give teachers the opportunity to receive first-hand training on the software they need to use.
While the teachers developed and implemented the curriculum, they encountered a few challenges.
Students come into class with the idea that they can create everything that goes into a 3-D video game in a few weeks. But that's not realistic.
In the first level course, they focus on principles used for developing good game design and cover areas that relate to art, history, ethics, storyboarding, programming and 2-D visual theory.
They also create 2-D games, which gives them total control of a game and allows them to create all its assets (characters, houses and other objects you're putting in a game).
In the second course, they focus on visual design, evaluation, scripting and 3-D visual theory.
Because of the way the game engines work and the amount of programming needed to create a 3-D game, learning how to do it in a semester is difficult, if not impossible, Kimmins said. So they modify parts of an existing game instead of creating every game from scratch.
They also learn tricks that gamers use to create assets that look good, but make the game work quickly. When you run a game, your graphics card has to process on the fly at 30 frames per second. If you put too many high-quality assets into your game, you can crash it, Kimmins said.
“It’s not always about the final game," Kimmins said. "It’s about the process of getting there.”
In addition to becoming approved curriculum in North Carolina for 2012-13, these courses will be available for schools in other states to use through the Engineering byDesign program, developed by the STEM Center for Teaching and Learning in the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association. The science, technology, engineering and math-focused program provides a standards-based national model for grades K-12.
The center worked with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to obtain the copyright to the game design courses. These courses are in the development process and will go through the review stage next.
In addition to making the curriculum available to at least 22 states in its consortium, the center plans to work with Jones and Kimmins to train other teachers to teach game design, said Shelli Meade, coordinator for Engineering byDesign and development. Along with workshops, they may expand professional development to the Engineering byDesign online professional learning community.
“That way teachers across the nation — across the world if that is what it leads to — can collaborate and share success stories, share resources, share exemplars of student work, that sort of thing,” Meade said.
Back in Guilford County, the district offers career and technical education programs that will provide students with a set of technical skills that lead to high demand, high wage and high skill occupations. The district also looks at new and emerging fields, which the game design curriculum fits into.
“This particular course and these programs are the kinds of courses that are preparing students for some of the new and emerging sectors, particularly in the technology and in the computer fields,” Gantt said. "And we need more of those. We need to make sure that we’re staying abreast of what’s happening in the ever changing and evolving job market.”
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