University Communications | July 20, 2012

SISTA Trains Aspiring Game Designers

This summer, UA faculty members with the School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts held their first game design workshops for middle and high school students.

SISTA is training the next generation of computer scientists not only to advance computer programming, but also to find better ways of solving problems. Dozens of students have had the chance to learn about game design in a workshop UA SISTA faculty members have been offering. (Photo courtesy of Derek Green)Middle and high school students involved in SISTA's summer workshop are learning how to design and develop their own video games, with attention to art, motion and sound effects.

Can you make sense of this? If x of self <0 set x to 0 for self set x-speed to 0 for self.

That set of seemingly random words and symbols actually represents graphical programming code for a computer game, and it's part of what middle and high school students have been learning in a new workshop developed by the University of Arizona’s School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts, or SISTA.

SISTA faculty members Derek Green and Jane Strohm created the Game Design Workshop, which is modeled after an introductory course Green developed and taught to UA undergraduates. The first workshop was held the week of July 16, and the second will be held the week of July 23, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with an end goal in mind: to have an operating, original prototype of a computer-based game.

The immersive, hands-on workshop is meant to give the young students a feel for game designing while encouraging them to consider computing sciences. Over the course of the week, students learn to quickly build computer-based games while also creating animated graphics, music and sound effects.

“Our main goal is to get them to a point where they feel confident enough with what they’ve learned this week that they’ll want to continue to learn about game design on their own," said Green, a lecturer with SISTA.

All of the students enrolled were either interested in game design, programming or just games in general.

"I just want to be able to control things that I make," said Ben McBride, 14, who wants to someday work as a game designer. "The process of learning and understanding the programs is more complex than it looks, and it can be frustrating. But I just think about the final product."

McBride got feedback on his game from Randall Kliman, who is from Washington, D.C. and spending the summer in Tucson. Like every other student, McBride had to create and design an original game and decided on a duck responsible for eating "flavor orbs," which lead to an accumulation of points. The more points generated, the faster the player was able to work toward defeating an "army of blocks."

"It's pretty fun," said Kliman, 13, adding that he appreciates that the workshop is self-guided. "I want to create games professionally one day, so I'm here for the games and the programming."

Computer programmers, multimedia artists and animators alone average between $29 and $35 an hour in pay, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the anticipated growth for those types of jobs through the year 2020 is likely to be driven by the service industry and demand for work on films, video games and in television, the bureau also reported.

"There are kids their age," Green said, motioning to his class of students, "who have developed and published their own games on the Internet. You can be very young doing this."

This type of work requires strong intuition, good problem solving skills, critical thinking and also the ability to break large complicated problems into small more easily solved problems, Green said. Those are the types of skills he and Strohm have been teaching the students, along with help from two interns, UA computer science and Honors College junior Livio De La Cruz and Ryan Lofgren, a SISTA senior.

Doing this type of work requires strong intuition, good problem solving skills, a capacity to organize thoughts in a logical way and also the ability to break large sets of problems down into small sets of solutions, Green said. And those are the types of skills he and Strohm have been teaching the students.

"We have some great students in this workshop. They are learning things far more quickly than we expected," Green said. "They're so interested in exploring and learning and they are fearless about experimenting. Those are the best qualities for students to have."

During the summer workshops, the students also play all types of games, such as board games, classic video games and also social and interactive games to gain a theoretical understanding of play, said Strohm, a researcher of education informatics for SISTA.

“We're exploring different styles of game play and discussing why people play games so the  participants can incorporate the ideas into their own designs,” Strohm said.

Sarina Levin said that while she has come to realize computer programming may not be her career goal, she gained much from the workshop. 

"It has taught us a lot," said Levin, 13, who collaborated with Amber Velez, 11. "It makes you think more while you're playing games, like how much it took to make it, even just one character." 

In working with some pre-made features in the Stencyl software program, students also leanred to build their own game logic from scratch.

They also learned how to use other programs like Pixen and also GarageBand and Audacity with the help of UA School of Music faculty member Kelland Thomas. Strohm said she and Green emphasize allowing the students the time and flexibility to imagine new and different games.

"We want them to think about how changing the rules of known games affects game play," she said. "Our goal is that they learn the tools and feel confident to continue to explore the tools introduced in the workshop."

Story Contacts:

Media Contacts

Jane Strohm

School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts



Derek Green

School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts