M&S camp: Where games open doors of opportunity

Published 10:30 pm Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On a giant screen in front of the class, a dragon was shooting fireballs at demons hurling themselves at the mythical creature.

It was just another day at gaming and simulation camp.

This week, middle school students from Suffolk Public Schools are spending their days at the Tri-Cities Center in North Suffolk learning the basics to one of the region’s biggest industries.

According to a recent article in Virginia Business Magazine, the modeling and simulation industry is already responsible for more than $400 million a year in the Hampton Roads’ economy and has created more than 4,000 jobs, with salaries twice the local average of $32,000.

“This is a field that Hampton Roads has said, ‘This is one of our economic development opportunities and we’re going after it,’” said Jody Strausser, a modeling and simulation professor for Tidewater Community College who is teaching the summer camp. “It’s our responsibility to have a workforce that’s ready to take on these hi-tech jobs.”

Students are yearning for the chance to learn about those hi-tech positions.

“I always wanted to do gaming and simulation, because I was really interested in how they worked,” said Symone Wilson, who attends John Yeates Middle School. “And my family encouraged me to learn more, so I came here.”

Students begin their week at camp talking about the basics of gaming, specifically what makes a good video game and what makes a bad one. Then, the students brainstorm their own storyline and capabilities to create their own working video game by the end of the week.

While gaming and simulations are different (simulations have elements of reality in place in order to be used for training or testing, whereas gaming is more fantasy-based and without direct real-world applications), Strausser said the skill sets are highly transferable.

“A good way to bring in the younger generations is to bring in game systems,” Strausser said. “So, we’ll call it a ‘game’ and not a ‘simulation,’ but that’s what these kids are creating.”

For instance, during camp on Tuesday, the students played the computer game, “Evil Clutches,” complete with the dragons and demons. Throughout the day, students were able to change and customize the game to their liking, altering how many demons were hurled toward the dragon, what the fireballs look like and so on.

“It’s fun,” said Hugh Nezat, a rising sixth-grader at Forest Glen Middle School. “My mom signed me up, because she thought I’d like this computer stuff, and I do. It’s fun trying out my game after I complete it.”

While the gaming aspect is fun for the students, Strausser said that what’s more important is that the students are learning how to look at technology analytically and see how to improve it.

“We’re walking through the process of ‘Why are we doing that?’ and ‘Why are we introducing this into the system?’” Strausser said. “We’re developing that logical through-process of dissecting problems down to small pieces and then bringing concepts back together. That’s so important. I think the earlier we start teaching that developmental process, the better.”