Pokémon Go comes to NIU video game design camp

3Dgame design
Campers at NIU’s Video Games Camp work on building 3D worlds.

For the campers and their instructors at NIU’s Summer 2016 Video Games Camps, the Pokémon Go craze arrived at the perfect time.

A group of 10- to 13-year-olds spent a week at NIU’s Digital Convergence Lab creating Pokémon-like games into a Minecraft – an online video game – world.

Campers learned how to use OpenSim, a 3D multi-user virtual environment, to build graphics with coordinates to create action characters, objects and adventures.

If it all sounds complex, it is. But by week’s end, the campers’ results were impressive.

“What’s amazing is the talent of students. It’s nuts to see them catch on so quickly and push the boundaries of what I thought possible,” said Michael Swope, instructional support/analyst with NIU’s DCL and a camp instructor.

In just one week, campers powered up from zero experience programming – some never having played Pokémon Go – to creating giant pixel art characters based on Pokémon who could have snowball fights with other players or launch fireworks in a simulated world.

“I did enjoy it. It is fun,” said Tessa, 10, who didn’t know anything about game design when she began the camp.

Vani, 12, is a return camper. She attended the Just for Girls! Video Game Design Camp last year. “I liked all of this class,” she said.

Throughout the camp, kids play games and then discuss what makes them good as well as how they are built. Each game camp week features a different aspect of design, using a specific platform such as Kodu, Unreal Engine or OpenSim. When the Pokémon Go phenomenon evolved this summer, camp organizers captured the craze and added it to the existing classes.

A screen capture from this summer’s 3D Video Game Design camp.
A screen capture from this summer’s 3D Video Game Design camp.

Some campers find the first day difficult or, as Aline Click, co-director of the DCL, calls it, “hard fun.” Some kids aren’t expecting they will actually learn something and not just play video games all day. But after a day or two, they start to get it – and the fun begins.

Click said she wanted to develop these programs to appeal a specific type camper.

“There are camps for musicians and athletes, but what about the rest of the kids? I wanted to create something for them,” Click said.

She especially wanted to appeal to girls, and it’s working: This year’s Just for Girls camp was the biggest session this year. Remaining games camps this year include the STEM Career Camp, a residence camp for high schoolers; and Advanced Video Game Design Camp.

Another important element of the program is getting kids interested in coming to NIU. Studies show kids make up their minds about what they want to do when they grow up while they are still in middle school.

“We want to capture their interest and show them what it’s like on a college campus,” Click said.

Consider Ethan a success: The 13-year-old camper is excited about a future in gaming. “I want to become a game designer,” he said, “and decided I have to come here to do it.”

For more information, call (815) 751-3924 or email aclick@niu.edu.

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