Can a non-gamer teach a game programming class?

I had a kind of epiphany today.  (My epiphanies are usually a “duh” to the rest of the intellectual world.)  For the last year or so I have been tinkering off and on with Project Spark.  Nothing serious, just enough to get an idea of what it was all about and if it would be worth using in game programming class I want to build.  I had reached the point where I decided I need to sit down and spend a few hours of serious tinkering to get the software really figured out.  Last year I had one of my seniors tinker with PS for a while during class.  He was into Minecraft so I figured it would interest him.  Forty-five minutes later he had a pretty good game up and running.  Terrain, characters, programming and all the rest.  A bit rough and simple but it worked.  That is what convinced me this should not be too hard to get a handle on.  After about an hour I was wondering how he was able to get what he got so fast considering he started from scratch.

I regularly teach kids who are smarter than I am.  Been that way since I started teaching.  It is not that I am particularly dense or anything (no, you may not get my wife’s opinion) it is just there are a lot of smart kids out there that are better than I am at certain tasks.  This kid was one of those top five percenters so I figured that must be the reason.  I continued to tinker with the determination to get serious with PS.

Yesterday, Christmas, the wife and I went over to her niece’s for brunch.  The niece’s thirty year old husband Henry is a gamer, big time.  That is what he does for entertainment.  For hours.  I figured I would introduce him to Project Spark just to see what he thought of it.  Unlike my student I watched Henry work. It was very interesting to watch a pro at work.  His gaming experience was obvious.  He expected to be able to do something and looked for it.  He understood characters have different strengths and weaknesses.  Just in his tinkering he was building a game.  Henry is not a computer geek.  He is not a programmer.  In fact I do not think he has ever programmed in his life.  He took one look at the brain code and had the idea.  Then it hit me.  The epiphany.  Building a game with PS is a gamer thing.  I am not a gamer.  I do not know what a good game should do or what characters should do.  The youngsters (when a 30 year old is a “youngster” then you know you are getting old) are familiar with computer games.  They understand the play, what to expect and their fingers fly with the controller.  They have seen enough variants of video games to come up with a basic generic game without thought.

I now realize that to teach a half way decent game writing/programming class I should be a half way decent gamer.  I should know the various game genera, plots and schemes.  Not going to happen.  I am running about 10 years behind.  Five minutes of playing a first person shooter and I start thinking about the laundry I should be folding.  My idea of a fun game is Lightbot or CargoBot.  Not exactly what most of my students are in to.  I do not think this means gamers can instantly become game programmers.  It just means they have a better starting point for understanding the basic concept of what a game is all about.

I do believe I have a solution for the proposed gaming programming class I want to offer next year.  I am never going to be a gamer, but I expect to have a room full of gamers taking the class.  I am going to have to learn a lot from those kids.

3 Responses to “Can a non-gamer teach a game programming class?”

  1. Brian Sea Says:

    This book should help you in designing a good curriculum; It’s focus is on designing good games (and not just video games). Hope it helps:

  2. Bob Irving (@birv2) Says:

    I think the more you know about games, the better you can teach it. I’m not much of a video gamer, though I have some experience with pen and paper, boardgames, wargames, etc. I’m using part of this break to play more Minecraft and even start WoW. But it’s research!

  3. zamanskym Says:

    Not everyone’s a gamer. I’d only call myself a casual+ gamer. It makes me a little tired of the gamification and all the gaming based entry points.

    Yep – they’re good for some, maybe even many, but not for all.

    Just another tool in the toolbox.

    While you might learn something from the gaming point of view from your kids, it’ll also be interesting to see how you will bring a fresh perspective to them combined with your overall experience.

    On the other side, I’m starting to see lots of kids want to go into CS because they like to play games and had some gentle intro only to fall flat and drop out.

    Actually, that’s pretty similar to what I see with a lot of these gentle intros since so few people plan steps B and C.

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