Computer Camp Catastrophes

Author: Mathew Tschirgi
Editing: Cecil Casey, Matt Barton
Online Layout: Mathew Tschirgi, Matt Barton

Note: The names of campers used in the article are not the actual names of the campers that I taught while working for the computer camp.

While I was in middle school, I attended computer camp during the summer. For two weeks in the summers of 1994-1996, I took classes in programming in BASIC and C++. While this was fun, the dry worksheet approach to learning zapped the fun out of the learning experience. The programming courses distracted me from what I truly wanted to do: design games.

In the summer of 2004, I experienced a sort of role-reversal. I had the opportunity to teach kids workshops in Game Design—precisely the same thing I had wanted to learn almost a decade before. RPG Game Design workshops used RPG Toolkit, a buggy program which allowed users to create their own RPG in the style of the original Dragon Warrior for the NES. Action Game Design workshops used Game Maker, an easy to use program which allowed users to create anything ranging from a remake of Pong to a side-scroller similar to the classic Commander Keen games.

For the Action Game Design workshop, I decided to spend the first few days showing campers how to download images from Google for their games. I also had them create title screens for their games. While this was optional and not included in the curriculum, I thought giving more time for campers to come up with concepts for their games would be more rewarding for them in the end.

Tommy, a camper that was in the 5th grade, was having trouble finding graphics for his game. I asked him if there were any games that he enjoyed playing at home. Tommy stopped for a second, thinking. I left him to think for himself as I walked by other campers computers to see if they were doing OK. John, an older camper that was in high school, downloaded pictures of characters from Inuyasha, an animé (Japanese cartoon) that he enjoyed watching.

I returned to Tommy for a moment, who had stumbled across a website with pictures from the Sonic the Hedgehog games. Now that he had an inkling of an idea to make a game off of, he seemed more engrossed in the project. As the first few days progressed, it was clear that some campers didn’t care about making a title screen. They wanted to get started with making their game.

As different sessions of campers went through the class, I tried to make the title screen design aspect more exciting. Once, I downloaded various pictures of title screens for different video games, trying to prove how important a title screen was to a game because of the impression it gave. Campers that were more artistically inclined enjoyed the title screen creation process more, but everyone appreciated them more when I eventually let campers try out games that other campers had made. A well designed title screen or a catchy title might make more campers attracted to a certain game.

After everyone had a reasonable title screen finished and their initial graphics rounded up, I started giving tutorials on how to use Game Maker to make the hero avatar (the avatar controlled by the player) move left and right. Other introductory tutorials were more complicated, teaching campers how to make their hero avatar jump, how to make enemies move, how to create weapons, and how to make multiple levels.

Notice the large amount of icons used in the Game Maker interface
Notice the large amount of icons used in the Game Maker interface.

This very linear method of teaching was a bit slow to start off with, but once the basic tutorials were completed, campers could go off and create lots of levels of their game without much interference from me. What made things even slower was the nature of Game Maker itself. Instead of typing in programming line by line, campers had to drag icons onto certain areas of the screen to make various aspects of their game work correctly. This drag and drop approach to programming made it easier for non-programmers to understand, but made it rather dull to teach. Rattling off something along the lines of “drag this icon over, then change its value to 9” several times over made some tutorials stale. As things progressed, I could say, “Experiment with the gravity settings to adjust the height of the jump” and most campers would get the gist of what I was talking about.

Tommy struggled with some of the early programming concepts, but eventually got them down. One day he asked me if he could have different buttons control different characters. I showed him quickly how to do such a thing, and he worked on redesigning his initial level so players could guide three separate avatars through it in separate ways. Imagine a simpler take on Blizzard’s The Lost Vikings with Sonic the Hedgehog characters and you can sort of see what direction he was taking.

On the other hand, John was getting burnt out on his Inuyasha side-scroller. His levels were lacking, as if he threw them together in a few minutes. Several times he would be exhausted, sleeping in class. It didn’t help that I had to teach a dozen kids in a classroom where a second class was being taught simultaneously by a different camp counselor. As much as I tried to motivate him to come up with better ideas, he slogged his way through the class. Part of this was personal problems he was going through at home, and a large part of it had to do with this being his second two-week session at computer camp; things were nearing the end and he simply wanted to relax at home instead of taking a class at a camp. This proved to be frustrating, but I feel that a teacher can not force his student to be interested in a subject. It is ultimately up to the student to motivate himself or herself to want to participate

It really puzzled me why younger kids consistently were more creative than older kids in my workshops. I think part of it might be because younger kids have so much less going on in their lives. A younger kid can work on his game for the hour or so every day in class and just focus on making it the best game possible. Older kids might be thinking about a girl they like at school, what’s happening in the latest episode of their favorite animé, and other topics more important to them than the rinky-dink side-scroller they are working on. Older kids tended to focus on things from more of a technical angle while younger kids focused on things from more of a creative angle.

The RPG Game Design class had its own unique kinds of challenges. An RPG is much more complex kind of game than an Action Game, but in some ways creating one was easier. To get an avatar to move around the screen in RPG Toolkit was much easier than in Game Maker. On the other hand, their actual software had several bugs in it. The nastiest bug managed to make the game campers made in class not work on their computers at home. Needless to say, this made more than a few campers upset.

RPG Toolkit is more straightforward, but is a good deal more buggy.
RPG Toolkit is more straightforward, but is a good deal more buggy.

Teaching RPG Game Design was similar to Action Game Design in that you had to build off of certain concepts. Campers started learning how to create maps, then how to link them together, then worked on statistics for their avatars, then worked on creating items, and so forth. The faster pace of things made more campers interested in RPG Game Design than Action Game Design.

Due to the more story-intensive nature of RPGs, the concepts campers often came up with were more interesting as well. Lucy created great graphics for her game which dealt with a female warrior having to ally with a dragon in order to fight against evil dragons. Susan came up with a plot in which the player controlled Nick York, a male warrior who had to defeat evil cats in order to find the Magic Sweet Potato!

Though there were not many female campers, they were consistently more creative than the guys. Guys focused on making interesting dungeons or ugly monsters instead of crafting an interesting story. I think this is because girl gamers are more interested in stories in games than most guys. This also tends to be true when it comes to animé, a type of fandom that usually has a high amount of gamers in it as well. I’ve noticed that girls get wrapped up in the complex over-arching plots and relationships of characters in the shows while guys are more interested in the fight scenes or busty beauties which populate the shows. Obviously, this is not true for everybody, but I do tend to think that girls respond to situations on a more intellectual level while guys respond to situations on a more gut-reaction visual level.

Regardless of the quality of the games that different campers created, most of them enjoyed the process. It was great to see the kids get excited playing their own game and playing games they their friends had made. Some kids got so into making their game that they worked on it during their free periods. Making games in a “game toolkit” or “level editor” is not as complicated as programming from scratch, but makes game creation much easier for the average person to get into. As a kid, I would have had a lot more fun making a side-scrolling level than programming IF…THEN loops in Q-BASIC!

Letting kids make games on their computer lets them do something productive. They are creative something to suit their fancy instead of lounging back playing somebody else’s creation. Even if they don’t stick with making games, the experience of creating something on a computer for others to enjoy stresses a positive side of technology: using it for education. Various message boards on game design or geared to specific level editors thrive on the Internet, helping aspiring game designers from getting stuck on certain problems. It’s an easy enough hobby to get into and is well worth a try for those wanting to make their next gaming experience a little bit more personal…