Niagara Gazette

May 12, 2014

Game on for student designers at local library

By Kaley Lynch
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — Instead of spending Saturday playing video games, a group of students aged 11 to 16 learned the basics of creating their own.

About 15 girls and boys signed up for a game design workshop at the Lockport Public Library, taught by University of Buffalo graduate student Devin Wilson.

“When you’re young, you kind of always think it would be cool to make your own video games, but usually when you think of computer programmers you picture someone who’s brilliant at math and coding,” Wilson explained. “But there are programs, like the one I’m demonstrating today, which make it much more visual and abstract in a good way.”

Wilson walked the students through the functions of Scratch, a free, Internet-based web design program which allows users to manipulate colorful, cartoon characters, or “sprites”, into a variety of actions.

“You’re going to define the behavior of each sprite, you’re programming what it’s going to do,” Wilson told the class, demonstrating by making the cartoon cat on his computer screen take five steps to the left and meow.

Wilson showed the students how to control where and how far their character moves by defining the coordinates of their movements on an x and y axis.

Scratch allows users to create a program that the characters will follow by choosing from a simple command list on the left hand side of the screen, rather than typing in lines and lines of code, Wilson explained.

“In traditional programming, you’re using complex, cryptic code, which is a language just like Spanish or French, but really designed for computers to understand,” he said. “This program makes the idea of what happens when we type in code in a much more accessible, intuitive way.

Wilson, who originally went to UB to study filmmaking, said that taking a programming class in college “demystified” coding for him, allowing him to design games for the past four years. Wilson is now finishing his master’s degree in UB’s Department of Media Studies and plans on earning his Ph.D from Georgia Tech.

After a quick tutorial, most of the students in the class had a firm grasp of Scratch’s basics. One boy experimenting adding as many animal characters as possible, while another made his cat race around the screen.

Wilson also demonstrated how to create a simple game by giving a character a task and controlling it manually.

“This is the basic set of skills you’ll need before you can design anything more sophisticated, he explained while making the cat chase a randomly moving key.

Danielle Burns, a graduate student at UB studying for her library science master’s degree, said that the inspiration to hold the workshop came from a need to show the many aspects of libraries.

“I thought it would be a cool workshop to incorporate into the library because there’s a big stigma about them, that it’s all just scholarly reading,” Burns, a librarian trainee at the Niagara Falls Public Library said. “But there’s so much that we offer here, and hopefully this will also help get them interested in possibly studying game design.”

Understanding how video games work is essential to people who play them, Wilson said.

“Anyone who teaches English could tell you that reading and writing are complementary,” Wilson said. “If you’re playing video games, having at least an elementary understanding of how they work will help bridge that literacy gap.” 

Contact reporter Kaley Lynch at 439-9222 ext. 6245 or tweet to @Lynchie17