Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Shhhh! Quiet in the Library, We're Playing Video Games

It’s a Monday night, the computer lab in the library is full of high schoolers doing their homework....wait, they’re not typing book reports or doing research, so what are they doing? Would you believe playing video games.....yeah I would too, but how about learning how to make video games of their own. Last week the Palatine Public Library hosted a workshop called Video Game Design Lab and as the name suggests you got to design your own video game.

Prior to the the Video Game Design Lab I got a chance sit down with Megan Ower, the Palatine Public Library’s Teen Librarian in charge of the lab. Megan noticed that some of the teens had a difficult time using computers. In a day and age where computers are the wave of the now, Megan was worried they would be left behind in the wake of advancing technology. She needed to find a way to solve the computer illiteracy problem, but how she wondered? As she sat thinking of an answer, a ray of light shot down from the heavens surrounding her in light and the phrase USE THE POWER OF VIDEO GAMES miraculously came to her mind. OK so that didn’t happen, but how cool would it be if it had? Megan is aware that game design and programing wont solve all the computer illiteracy, but at least it’s a step in the right direction, especially for the teens who like video games.
Anyways, back to the making video games part. The workshop was instructed by Jon Cukjati, a game designer from MIT who recently finished making the Terminator Salvation arcade game. Jon showed the workshop how to use a simple program called Scratch, a free open source program that teaches the basics of game design to aspiring developers. The best way to describe Scratch is to think of it as HTML lite. Instead of typing long strings of code onto a blank page, all you need to do is drag brightly colored pre-arranged code from the left side of the screen into middle screen, type in a few numbers and blamo! you just made a game. Depending on how complex you make the code, the game could be as simple as moving a stick figure across the screen or as complicated as dodging asteroids in space. I’m not going to lie, the graphics weren’t the best, but hey, its designed for beginners and its free, so I can’t complain.
While I’m not in high school anymore, Megan let me sit-in on the lab, and let me just say, I had a blast making a game called Snuggle’s the Fire Breathing Dragon. The objective of the game was to fly Snuggles around a rudimentary maze looking for a bowl of Cheetos and blasting them with his fiery breath of doom...how cool is that?!? OK, so it’s no Legend of Zelda, but I’d like to see you do better. Using Scratch was very intuitive and the only difficulty I had was when I made my code too long and too confusing. This resulted in Snuggles flying through walls, but through some trial and error and help from Jon I was able to keep Snuggles from ghosting through walls like Kitty Pryde.
From what I can tell, the Video Game Design Lab was a huge success and Megan is planning on doing another one in the spring. So if you’re in the Palatine area you should definitely come by and enroll in the second workshop. If you’re impatient like me or don’t live in Palatine you can always download the program and make a game at home. If you need help using Scratch, the Palatine Public Library also has Scratch Programming for Teens available for checkout or you can buy it online at Amazon.com. I’m glad to see a library using video games as a tool for teaching and I hope this continues not only at the Palatine Public Library, but at other libraries as well.
For more information on the teen section and other events being held at the Palatine Public Library check out their blog or follow them on twitter @palateenbrary


  1. Thanks for spreading the word about our program, Brandon. Overall, teens tend to be pretty tech savvy these days, but it helps to have an expert and actual game designer in the lab to teach the class. When will the game Snuggle's be available in stores? :)

  2. LOL, hopefully soon, I could use some extra income

  3. this place is so special to play with you potable console, in my teenage I brought my Game Boy into my high school, was to close for a punish.