When Brody Ryals fires up his computer, it doesn’t seem like there’s much he can’t do.
But the rising fourth-grader at Smith Elementary School isn’t going to leave any stone unturned when he gets a chance to learn a little bit more. That’s why he was one of about 15 students taking part in the Tweens and Technology Camp last week.
The brainchild of the staff at T&T Creative Group, the camp taught rising fourth- and fifth-graders about gaming, from how to create games of their own to how they can turn the fun things they do on computers into lucrative careers.
Jacqui Pomales-Moody, T&T’s Community Relations Director, completed a term as PTA president earlier this year at Smith Magnet Elementary School and saw firsthand the need for increased access to computers and other technology. She said the schools make good use of the resources they have, but in a society that is growing more dependent on technology, students needed more exposure to technology.
“We see our mission as one to educate and provide for people. They have exposure to technology in the middle and high schools, but not as much in the elementary schools,” Pomales-Moody said.
She went back to work and talked to co-workers about what the company could do. T&T Creative Group partnered with Smith Magnet Elementary throughout the year on a variety of projects and company founder Derrick Thompson saw the computer camp as a way to expand what the company was already doing through its after-school program.
“There are many potential Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who are left behind in technology at an early age due to the lack of exposure and opportunity. We established the Tweens and Technology program to prevent that from happening,” Thompson said.
The free camp alloted 15 seats for campers. The camp lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and students were fed lunch and a couple snacks each day. But for the most part, they were hunkered down behind their Google Chromebooks learning about code, sprites and other gaming aphorisms. The camp was hosted at St. Andrews United Methodist Church, which is across the street from Smith Magnet Elementary, but seats in the camp were open to more than just Smith students. At the end of the camp each student was allowed to keep his or her new Chromebook.
While a lot of the focus in the camp was centered around the technology itself, the students also heard from guest speakers who talked to the youngsters about career opportunities in the gaming industry, which has mushroomed in recent years. Sam Kushner, 29, is the owner of Perfect Square Studios, a company that develops games. Kushner said the gaming industry is a challenging one to break into, but the earlier students begin thinking about game development as a possible career, the better their chances of success are.
On Wednesday, Kushner stood before campers looking for an entry point to begin his presentation. He asked them several technical questions and to the surprise of many of the adults in the room, the students already knew what he was talking about. Kushner then went on to explain how he got his start in gaming. He was a gamer as a high school student before he attended Wake Technical Community College.
While he was there, he went to a gaming expo and was talking to one of the vendors about a change he would like to see in one of the company’s games. The man later asked Kushner to join the company. Kushner took him up on the offer and soon found himself as part of a team designing computer games.
In an interview outside the classroom, Kushner said the opportunity to develop a wildly-popular game that catches on with the general public can be difficult, but he said creativity often leads gamers to develop changes to existing games that make the game more popular. And that same creativity, he said, could lead to the chance to catch lightning in a bottle and develop a game that is popular all over the world. But starting your own company from scratch isn’t necessarily the best way to get into the profession.
“I was into gaming in high school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I got into it. That’s super intimidating. If you can figure out what’s fun to do and find a way to make money at it, you can always do something you like,” Kushner said.
For campers like Brody Ryals, the chance to learn more about gaming is where it’s at. “I spend probably about three or four hours a day in the summertime playing games on the Internet,” Ryals said. The camp proved to be a low-pressure way to learn more about something he already enjoys. “The teachers are nice. They don’t yell at you and they will take the time to talk to you when you have a question,” Ryals said.
Not that Brody had that many questions, mind you.