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Summer Camp for Kids, Ninjas

Virtual spaceships descend on campuses where youths learn to create video games. Many want careers in the $25-billion industry.

July 28, 2005|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

For as long as he can remember, Randal Williams has played video games. So it wasn't surprising when he decided one day to design his own game, or that it involved a five-headed dragon that has taken control of Japan.

Complicated stuff for some, but for the 11-year-old from Irvine, it all seemed logical enough. And Randal is not alone. He is one of a growing number of adolescents who are spending a part of their summer at camps learning to create video games.

"I've been fascinated with video games for a really long time, and I decided I wanted to learn how to make them," said Randal, who drafted an 18-page story line for "Ninjas Rise of Goliath" months before the weeklong day camp at UC Irvine began.

Such courses are offered by camp companies, as well as universities such as New York University, which in 2004 began a summer course for teenagers and college students interested in working in the $25-billion gaming industry.

It's impossible to know how many game-creation summer classes there are, but camp watchers say they have seen a growing number -- and a growing sophistication.

"Go back 10 or 20 years ago, and computer camp [focused on] how to turn on the computer, insert the disc, learn word processing. Kids today already know that," said Dan Schulman, director of programs at Oakland-based Allen's Guide, an online directory of summer camps and travel opportunities for children and teenagers.

Now, "kids interested in computer camp are looking for something extra, something they can't get at home or in their local school."

Dan Morris, editor-in-chief of PC Gamer magazine, said the summer camps and other educational opportunities were sorely needed.

"One of the most common questions we get from young readers of our magazine is 'How do I get started?' and we never have a good answer," he said. "It's just such a young industry and such a young art form.... Now, it's starting to mature, [and] it's good to see that the farm teams, so to speak, are getting set up."

The Urban Video Game Academy is holding free video-game creation seminars for at-risk teens in Baltimore, Washington and Atlanta.

Mario Armstrong, a technology correspondent for National Public Radio and an academy co-founder, said that in addition to computer programming skills, the classes expose students to geometry, algebra, physics, art and music. The program is designed to educate teenagers about career opportunities in game creation, to help change an industry in which minorities and women are often depicted in negative stereotypes and rarely as the heroes.

"At the end of the day, this academy is not about teaching software," he said. "It's really about giving underserved kids, kids in the inner city who don't know this is a lucrative career track, the exposure to career opportunities."

Although the academy, which has a waiting list of well over 100 students, is free, the for-profit programs can be pricey. A week at the UC Irvine camp run by iD Tech Camps costs at least $624.

On a recent weekday morning in a bright, air-conditioned lab at UC Irvine, Williams and 15 other adolescents learned how to make ninjas, fiery explosions and spaceships flit across computer screens. iD Tech holds similar programs at schools across the nation, including UCLA, Georgetown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It's kind of a no-brainer," said Pete Ingram-Cauchi, president and chief executive of iD Tech Camps, a Campbell, Calif., company that began offering video game-related classes in 2001. "Before, you had to be a mad scientist to program games. Now, it's just like anything else; you don't have to be a programmer to create your own video games -- the technology is so readily available."

Randal hopes the Irvine camp will prepare him for a career in creating video games.

"That's why I took this class, so I can get a head start," he said with a sly grin, "so I can make lots of money."

Troy Phillips of Bakersfield was staying with his grandparents in Costa Mesa so he could attend the day camp. The 11-year-old created a game in which multiple players compete as battling alien spaceships.

"It's pretty cool that you can learn how to make your own video game," he said as his 13-year-old brother sat nearby creating a game in which characters must jump from cloud to cloud without falling.

Even though the program is unlike any camp their parents attended, some benefits of camp remain unchanged from prior generations.

"It's fun to meet new people," said Nick Klang, 13, of Aliso Viejo, "and it's fun to make games."

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