These Va Beach students create video games

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — The computer program Bruce Robinson created for a high school class assignment last year had one simple goal:

Save the princess.

It was a video game, the kind in which you vanquish foes, move up levels and eventually rescue the fair maiden. Robinson, 18, designed and programmed it himself for one of the most popular classes at the city's Advanced Technology Center: Software and Game Development.

"I've found my passion, I guess, in this class," Robinson said, echoing his classmates, a collection of math-and-science-savvy boys who talk about computer code as fluently as they write it.

While others their age play video games, these students create them. Over two years, they get a solid footing in GameMaker, Java, C-sharp and other programs — skills that can carry them into jobs, college and, if they're lucky and work hard, the world of video-game programming.

Norfolk and Chesapeake offer similar courses, and Suffolk has one in partnership with Tidewater Community College.

Virginia Beach used to call the course "Windows Visual Basic," after the Microsoft program that made up the course's core content. But in 2008, the Advanced Technology Center, which houses some of the more technological courses offered by Virginia Beach City Public Schools, called in a focus group of industry leaders.

The school does that periodically, to make sure its courses are keeping up with trends, said Ann Marie Garvey, the center's assistant director for student programs and business development. This focus group altered the course a bit and changed its name to Software and Game Development.

Thanks to that little word "game," interest in the class shot up, Garvey said. Now, the class gets as many as 100 applications for its 20 seats.

"Kids think because they play games well, they can design them," Garvey said.

Quickly, they learn there's a lot more involved. The course leans heavily on advanced math the students need to learn beforehand. Because of that, Garvey said, it has acted like a carrot: Students who want to take it know they need to pass tough math courses first.

Just after the holidays, James Thompson, who took the course before graduating from Virginia Beach schools in 2007, came to visit. He leveraged what he learned into admission at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Washington state, then into a job at Darkside Game Studios in Coral Springs, Fla.

He's living the dream of many students in the Software and Game Development course: He programs video games for a living.

And his advice to those who want to follow in his footsteps?

"Get ready for math," Thompson said.

Earlier this month, in a room papered with posters for "World of Warcraft" and other video games, students in the advanced class hunkered over computer monitors for a less-glamorous assignment. The owner of a paintball field needed a new online form for customer waivers, and the students were asked to create a corresponding database. It's good real-world programming experience, said teacher Michael Weber.

In groups, students talked about whether the form should assume the waiver lasts for a year, and whether it could "error check" to make sure a given email address wasn't already in the database. It might not be a game, but it's still important, said Colton Hurst, 18.

"A game is basically just a fun program. You use the same concepts from one program to another."

Added Isayah Weedon, 17: "It's the reason it's called software and game design." At the Advanced Technology Center's open house, "I told people, 'Don't expect to play games all the time.' "

The course doesn't exclude girls, but for some reason, few sign up. This year, all in the advanced class are boys. Many are hoping for a career in computer programming, game development or artificial intelligence.

They said the class is hard to get into, then challenging once you're in. But it's worth the time — two and a half hours every day — and sacrificing other courses, including Advanced Placement classes that look good on a college application.

They said they like learning skills that can lead to a job, a career or, at minimum, piecemeal work on the side.

Plus, it's fun.

"It's my favorite class," Hurst said.


Information from: The Virginian-Pilot,

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