By Magy Seif El-Nasr
According to the Entertainment Software Association, “U.S. computer and video game software sales grew 22.9 percent in 2008 to $11.7 billion — more than quadrupling industry software sales since 1996.”
The computer and video game industry employs more than 80,000 people in 31 states in the United States alone. It is projected the industry will support more than a quarter of a million American jobs in the coming year. The average salary for employees is $92,300, resulting in total national compensation of $2.2 billion in the United States, according to the ESA. This trend has also been reported in other countries around the world, including Japan, Korea, China and India. This puts the gaming industry in an important position in the software and entertainment industry worldwide.
In the past year, we have developed a curriculum to disseminate game design, development process, computational thinking and problem-solving skills using game development. This curriculum was delivered as three after-school workshops for middle and high school students in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, at three different schools: Harkness Institute, British American School and Mexico Americano School. A total of 29 students signed up for the workshops: 16 in British American School, eight in Mexico Americano School and five in Harkness Institute. Ages of students ranged from 10 to 19 with the majority between 14 and 16 years old. All students were Mexican except two students who were Canadian and attend British American School.
The workshops were scheduled at different times depending on the school and the student times. It was designed as 12 four- to six-hour sessions; at the end of the workshop, we put together a graduation ceremony in which students presented their work to parents, media and kids in attendance. All students were given a certificate of completion at the end of the class.
There are three distinct lessons we learned as part of changing and evolving these workshops through the years since 2004. First, the inclusion of the industry was crucial. We invited five game professionals: one producer, two lead engineers, one designer and one artist. They came at different times during the workshops. They not only came to see the students’ games, but they also gave talks, listened to game pitches and played game demos. This gave the workshops creditability and encouraged students to work harder to make their games and concepts presentable to show to industry professionals who talked with them. The timing of these visits was also important to orchestrate at critical points in the course.
Second, while many researchers advocate problem-based learning or constructivist methods, we found in our experience this normally does not work specifically when we are dealing with kids who have no previous knowledge about gaming engines or tools. Thus, we advocate a more guided approach. We used a method similar to game tutorials and reward systems in which essential design and programming concepts were divided into piecemeal problems given to students in sequential fashion in the beginning four sessions. These piecemeal problems introduce the fundamentals of design and programming. All students are required to complete these problems to proceed to the next problem (or the next level). In our workshops, all students were able to pass all five problem sets; some students were faster than others. We also gave students rewards for harder and more challenging problems. These rewards were games that Electronic Arts donated to us for these workshops. This workshop was developed as a tutorial level within a game in which players/students had to go through certain levels of training and accomplish all given objectives to proceed.
The third important feature of the workshop is the graduation ceremony, to which parents, teachers, media and games industry professionals were invited. The anticipation of this event, which instructors kept reminding the students of from session 1, was important in encouraging students to do their best. The retention of the workshops was 100 percent. We had a total of two excused absences for medical or family reasons; otherwise, all students attended all sessions, and none dropped out. The anticipation of the graduation ceremony was obvious and very well-observed by teachers within the school who noted that students were working hard on the weekends and after school to get a presentable demo to show their parents and the media.
In total, we believe these workshops were very successful and have definitely made a big change in the lives of the students who took them. We have several students asking to attend GDC, two have already started their own game company and many are still making games as a hobby. As noted by parents, the students demonstrated an unexpected maturity in presenting their ideas and game concepts. This is not surprising at all to us; we believed in them, and they delivered. Even though their first language was not English, all students — from 10-year-olds to 17-year-olds — presented in English very clearly.