Six-week program introduced teens to elements to video game development

10 Haverhill High students display their certificates
Ten high school students from Haverhill completed the six-week iHub Game Design Studio, learning how to harness their creativity with open source software to design video games.

By Andrew Donaldson
UML senior and IHub Operations Assistant

Video games are undeniably one of the top passions of today’s youth. And for many, this passion goes beyond just playing them.

At the end of January, the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub launched its first session of the iHub Game Design Studio. In association with game design expert and teacher, Emily Treat-Czar, the program introduced students to the tools needed to make their own games, while teaching them ways to harness their own creativity.

As the first session began, a dozen excited Haverhill high-schoolers walked into the classroom to be handed a set of small objects: three pink Starburst candies and three multicolored stickers. With no screens or technology, Treat-Czar instructed the class to create a game, using only the items in front of them. Instantly, sparks were flying, one group created a turn-based combat game, or, glorified Rock Paper Scissors, as they so eloquently called it.

As a six-week program, each week focused on a different area of game development. And each week brought laughter, ingenuity and new ideas to the table.

The program was supported thanks to a grant from the Haverhill Cultural Council.

Utilizing personal laptops courtesy of iHub resident company, Uncommon Catalyst, as well as open source software programs such as Scratch, BALSAMIQ & Twine, students were able to bring their ideas from their imagination to their screens. Scratch for example, taught students the basics of coding games by using a visual, block based system. Treat-Czar wanted to demonstrate the availability and ease-of-use that these software programs offer to young and aspiring game developers.

The following week, the class utilized Twine, a software designed to use flow charts for a “choose your own adventure” style of gameplay. One student created a story about escaping a dragon and another made a step-by-step “quiz” where the player would follow their own answers to see what kind of video-gamer they are.

The iHub Game Design Studio didn’t just focus on software, however, as the curriculum instituted by Treat-Czar emphasized the importance of individuality and creativity with the bare minimum number of tools. On multiple occasions, students were asked to create concepts for games without using any software, and the results were nothing short of peak creativity.

One group, Izzy Ward and Joseph Miller, created a game called “The Bacon Game.” Using a whiteboard and markers, players have one minute to create the best possible depiction and story, of anything related to bacon. During a test run, one student simply drew a pig, and another drew Sir Francis Bacon.

“Seeing them publish and present their games for the first time is always absolutely enchanting,” said Treat-Czar, a resident of Haverhill.

Treat-Czar felt inspired and wanted to engage with the community in this field she is so passionate about. Having taught a similar program while earning her master’s degree at Carnegie Melon University, Treat-Czar saw an opportunity to bring the program to Haverhill. The Innovation Hub was thrilled to partner with Treat-Czar to coordinate the program to be held at UMass Lowell’s Haverhill campus and offered free for students.

“I wanted to learn more about the different parts of the game design process,” said Izzy Ward, a Haverhill High School junior. “This [program] was really fun. I love the artistic side of it and the flexibility of the narratives. I would love a game design job.”

Not only are video games as popular as traditional sports, the game design studio offers high-schoolers a new approach to gaming -- including game development as a profession.

“The hardest part of the field is that employers are looking for experience,” Treat-Czar said. “But you don’t need to work in a studio to gain experience. Use the tools that are available to you, keep building and gaining knowledge and the rest will come naturally.”

Teaching the kids to think outside of the box and to utilize free online tools were two of the goals of the program, but above all, seeing the students have a wonderful time learning, socializing and having fun was always the number one priority for Treat-Czar, and as the last class ended with a pizza party and final game presentation, it was abundantly clear that the program was a success.

“I like that the class showed us a lot of the tools and processes used [in game design]. It was super chill and a great time,” said Zachary Kazcor, a Haverhill High sophomore.

The Innovation Hub will offer additional Game Design Studio workshops with a second session planned for the summer.