Games People Play

Kaitlyn Bajakian loves to create banners, stationery … and video games.

As she heads off to college this fall, the 2015 Panther Creek High School grad is taking along life skills and special training that could jumpstart her on that hot career path: Courses dubbed SciVis, or Scientific and Technical Visualization, and GAD, or Game Art & Design.

“We learned technology skills and programming to create games, but also problem solving and time management,” Kaitlyn said of the Career & Technical Education classes at Panther Creek. “The classes are project-based, so we had to keep up with deadlines. And we learned better teamwork skills, because we really needed to work together. That made things easier in my other classes.”

More than 200 students in Wake County schools, at Panther Creek, Cary High and Holly Springs High, take these advanced technology courses.

Students Karthik Patil and Louis Campo brainstorm details of the game they’re designing, with the help of teacher Danielle Taweel.

At Panther Creek, third-year teacher Danielle Taweel presides. Her classroom interactions with students often sound like this: “You need a collision event. Is your character destroying the fire, or is the fire destroying your character?”

From storytelling to 3D modeling, Taweel says game development goes beyond STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — to incorporate all educational disciplines.

“Students learn engineering by programming games. There’s math, as they have to figure out the angle of their character’s entrance. They do the research, and use the scientific method of thinking,” she said.

“The problem-solving aspect is huge; so is the collaboration and testing piece. They give and take constructive feedback, and we use a task list for the project with estimates on the amount of time it will take to do each one, with mini-deadlines to meet.”

The students learn on industry-standard software, and have access to a 3D printer. Most are headed for careers in digital media and graphics, and a few to the actual game industry, Taweel predicts.

Life Skills

Even elementary-age children are tackling technology at Youth Digital,, a Chapel Hill-based firm offering interactive 3D game design courses for kids ages 8 to 14, online and at summer camps across the area.  

Company founder Justin Richards says the idea for the company goes back to his childhood.

“When I saw Toy Story, the idea of being able to tell a story using technology blew my mind,” he said. “I immediately wanted to create my own animated movie, but there weren’t many resources available. I taught myself, created my first website, and discovered the passion of creating with technology.”

Youth Digital is geared toward the “every student,” Richards says.

Children ages 8 to 14 can learn interactive game design, 3D animation, app design and more at Youth Digital, which offers summer camps and online courses in technology. “There’s a fundamental distinction between the creation and consumption of digital media,” says company founder Justin Richards. “It’s transformative.” Photo courtesy Youth Digital.

“There are two ways to teach technology: Focus on one specific language or tool, or prepare students for change by giving them the creation process that hasn’t changed. The skills I learned designing my first website years ago are the same skills I used to design the Youth Digital website. We try to get students using creative skills to drive technology, rather than react to it.  

“There’s a fundamental distinction between the creation and consumption of digital media,” he said. “It’s transformative — a kid who learns to make an animated movie never views a movie the same way again.”

The Industry

With one of the largest concentrations of game development companies in the nation, the Research Triangle Regional Partnership cites Interactive Gaming & E-Learning among our area’s viable economic development clusters. The partnership works to promote economic and job growth across the region.

“Companies here are thriving,” said Michael Micholic, studio marketing director for gaming firm Red Storm Entertainment in Cary, “There’s a great technical talent pool here, and we need great engineers and programmers to create games.

“Gaming attracts a cool factor, and this area has Comicons, record stores and an appreciation of art, music and film, which are all part of video games, so it’s the right environment.”

Red Storm was founded in 1996 by novelist Tom Clancy and current managing director Steve Reid, and was acquired by France-based Ubisoft in 2000. Ubisoft has studios and offices worldwide.

Micholic says over the years the industry has expanded to include mobile, virtual reality and digital games covering almost every imaginable genre.

Last fall the company took part in the first White House Education Game Jam, which brought together game developers, teachers, researchers and students to build game prototypes that can help teach difficult school subjects.

“President Obama has said that educational software should be as compelling as the best video game,” Micholic said. “It’s a shift to technology as a fact of life, and looking at how to harness it. Ubisoft is very excited about that.

“People can recite the details of a game,” he said. “We’ve heard countless times from gamers that they’re learning about specific battles and key moments of the Revolutionary War from Assassin’s Creed 3. They’re absorbing historical information through the game, because they’re engaged.

“And Just Dance is now used in PE classes to get kids moving; it’s one of our most successful games.”

By Degrees

Local colleges and universities offer academic degrees in game development to equip graduates for technology careers. N.C. State University has a Digital Games Research Center and a Mobile Gaming Research Lab; UNC-Chapel Hill is home to a computer graphics research program; and the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment is the Southeast’s only fully-enclosed, six-sided, virtual reality environment.

Senior weapons artist Michael Climer works to implement a weapon model into a game at Red Storm Entertainment in Cary, creator of Assasin’s Creed, Just Dance and other popular games. Photo by Shawn Ishihara, courtesy of Ubisoft.

Wake Technical Community College launched its Simulation and Game Development program in 2005, in cooperation with local game companies and the National Science Foundation.

Offering a two-year associate in applied science degree, plus diplomas and certificates, the SGD curriculum includes practical applications in creative arts, audio/video technology, modeling, animation, design, programming and management.

“The program recruits students from all different positions in life: new high school grads, students who never went to college and want a career change, students who have earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree and can’t find work or want a career change,” said Cindy Foster, associate professor and SGD department head.

“The goal of Wake Tech’s program is to teach students the hard and soft skills necessary for finding jobs in the simulation or video game development industry,” Foster said. “Recruiters and local companies call us directly when they are looking for employees.”  

Red Storm’s Micholic notes that becoming a game designer is much more than fun and games.

Last fall Red Storm took part in the first White House Education Game Jam, which gathered game developers, teachers, researchers and students to build game prototypes for use in schools. Photo by Shawn Ishihara, courtesy of Ubisoft.

“You’d better get good grades, because everyone wants this job,” he said. “Yes, you can wear your Star Wars T-shirt to work, but people might be surprised to learn just how hard we work. It takes a lot of hours to get to the final product.

“But there’s great reward in creating something that millions of people will play.”

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