- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2007

rew Mathisen has heard tales of the glass ceiling, the term used to describe the barriers women may face in rising up the corporate ladder.

Now the 15-year-old Broomfield, Colo., resident can do something about it — or at least electronically simulate shattering the divide.

The ninth-grader created a video game over the summer in which a woman scurries through a corporate office and, if she avoids morale-draining male co-workers, gets the promotion.

Drew learned to create the game at a unique camp held last month at the University of Denver. While some students spent their summer at the park or playing with pals, she hunkered down to study the science behind game programming.

Dubbed Pixels, Programming, Pedagogy and Play, the program helped both teachers and students learn more about what makes video games tick. The program, in addition to the university’s existing video-game curriculum, explored the science and math underpinnings of modern gaming.

“I’ve never done any programming until now,” Drew says. “It’s all problem solving to get it all to work.”

The students, ages 14 and 15, spent two weeks designing their own video games. The lessons illustrated that gamers need to take several years of math and computer science classes before they can realize their dream jobs.

Students at the Monroe Technology Center in Loudoun County study science to learn animation, a similar skill set used by those creating today’s video games.

Those lessons also can be taught at the university level; Virginia Tech is gearing up for a spring 2008 course in video-game programming.

At American University, some communication students are taught video-game programming to create education contests.

Scott T. Leutenegger, professor and game-development program director at the University of Denver, says his colleagues use video games as a platform for raising awareness on social issues and improving medical techniques in addition to teaching students about science.

“The latter has the most powerful effect at the high school level,” Mr. Leutenegger says, adding that the number of students going into technologically based majors is dropping.

In the summer course, the boys poured their energy into creating action-packed games, while the girls offered a far different slate of games. One girl crafted a contest featuring a ballerina who keeps dancing as long as the gamer keeps hitting the right keys. For that contest, the student drew several images of a ballerina and animated them, a process Mr. Leutenegger compared to fashioning a flip-book cartoon.

“She got excited about getting realistic ballet movements into her characters,” he says.

The subject matter ultimately didn’t matter, at least from a programming point of view. Students had to appreciate the science behind the characters and gaming elements in question.

If a gamer’s protagonist shoots a gun, the bullet must follow a certain trajectory.

“Its path follows a vector. You can explain the concept of vectors and how to use them,” Mr. Leutenegger says.

Anything moving in a game becomes fair game for a physics lesson. Mathematics also gets a workout during the game-making process. To control a character’s movements, the game designers must chart the figure along a grid, he says.

“You have to understand X, Y and follow parabolic functions,” he says. “In order to take a spaceship and rotate it, you need to understand sine and cosine values.”

Yong Cao, an assistant professor of computer science at Virginia Tech, says his university is developing a media computer game track within the computer science department.

The track consists of math, physics, computer graphics, computer animation and, ultimately, a masters class in game design, says Mr. Cao, who once worked with the video-game company Electronic Arts.

The goal is to have people working together, engineering students alongside art majors, as is done in the gaming industry, he says.

That industry takes notice of the scientific advances made by researchers. If a university developed a new animation algorithm to, say, increase the number of images to be animated on-screen at a given time, the industry very well might adopt it.

Mr. Cao says it’s common in engineering programs to get a crash course in computer gaming.

“Every real-world problem will be in your game, and you’ll have to solve it,” he says.

If the game in question is a football simulation, students will have to calculate the force and trajectory of the ball flying over the field, he says.

Sarah Irvine Belson, dean of American University’s school of education, teaching and health, says such engineering lessons can be taught at surprisingly young ages. Experts report that computers operate in a manner that makes them accessible to young minds, she says.

Younger and younger children can manipulate images via video-game programming.

“They watch these sophisticated cartoons. You see more about the characters and their environment,” Ms. Irvine Belson says.

Students of any age might dig computer game making and not care that they have to study science along the way.

“The purpose is to make something that works,” Ms. Irvine Belson says. If students see the reason for all the studying and drudge work, they will be more inclined to make it happen so they can get the game they want to see.

The biggest challenge for Drew wasn’t the science behind the games, but “coming up with innovative ways to challenge the player, something that hasn’t been done before,” she says.

Drew plans to keep tinkering with her game. Her video-game education continues as well.

“Next year in school, I’m going to enroll in Java [computer programming] class,” she says.

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