Game On, Grow On

The parental cliché that “video games will rot your brain” might become a thing of the past, thanks to Impression 5 Science Center, TechSmith and, believe it or not, state-issued film credits.

“I don’t think it was well communicated or marketed to the employers out-of-state that gaming is also in there,” says Michigan State University (MSU) internship developer, Paul Jaques, of a 40 percent tax state credit that’s been popular with film studios.

“One thing I’m trying to do is to attract gaming businesses to come to Michigan," he says. "I don’t know if [gaming companies] know of that incentive and I’m trying to let them know."

About five major companies in Michigan and a few smaller ones, are working with gaming in Michigan. Jaques not only wants game-oriented companies to come to Michigan and Lansing, but wants them to stay here. And he wants to recruit MSU graduates to fill their ranks.

“Students want to get jobs or internships out there, so I’ve been working with them," says Jaques, who thinks the numbers of students interested in gaming will continue to grow. "We just need to find these students jobs," he says.

“I’d love businesses to recruit more [from MSU]," he says. "We’re a very young program—two years old. We’re going against some pretty heavy competition right now,” he adds, citing programs at other universities, including MIT.

“Gaming businesses are real savvy—they really want to recruit, and I think we need to look at our curriculum to make sure it's what they are looking for.”

Jaques says the issue with Michigan's gaming sector is that developers only come for a limited time. “They come for projects—they’ll come in for a three or four month project and then they’ll leave. One of the things I’m trying to do is to get more businesses here that know gaming and can teach students entrepreneurship, so they can start their own gaming businesses.”

"What I would really like to see in Michigan is more entrepreneurship with games," he says, "and if one student starts a business, I think it’ll keep evolving from there.”

Building the Brain Power

When gaming companies come to Michigan, the Capital region needs to provide them with talented employees. And building that asset means reaching out to kids even before they hit MSU.

“About a year ago we started to work with TechSmith to create a partnership that would be holistically focused on engaging youth and IT youth career development,” says Erik Larson, executive director of Impression 5 Science Center in Downtown Lansing.

The idea is to focus on creating skill sets for kids and getting them interested in programming and computer science. “One of the big hooks that we decided would be really successful would be gaming,” says Larson.

TechSmith is investing $250,000 over five years for the program. The partnership with TechSmith took a year to put together and also includes the Information Technology Empowerment Center (ITEC) in Lansing.

Larson says the three partners came together with several objectives. The first was to create camp-like experiences that would get kids interested in information technology (IT) careers. Larson says the second objective was “to create a higher level of access and presence of technology in Impression 5’s physical space and all of our education programs.”

The result was LABS (Learn About Basic Science) camps. The day-long camps are offered in during school vacation in winter, spring and summer, including on Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day and the day after Thanksgiving. The classes hold 20 kids, in age groups ranging from five to 15. Larson says Impression 5 will see more than 100 children through the classes over the next 12 months.

The camp was designed go beyond gaming, so the kids "could see technology and use it in many different ways that also is fun, interactive and hands on,” says Micaela Balzef, education director at the science center. Activities range from geocaching treasure hunts that use global positioning systems, to building simple video games with an open source software called Scratch.

Balzef says Scratch is a big hit. “It’s a very entry level way of building an interactive game.” While the kids can create whatever they want with the software, it is still science-based.“They learned about algorithms and programming and how to manipulate these different programs to get it to do what they wanted.”

The kids also learn to modify and program robots to meet certain challenges as part of LEGO Mindstorms. “All of [the children] got hooked onto something," says Balzef, "and they got to see a different way of looking at technology and the way it is used and hopefully hooking that into a career.”

Larson adds that Impression 5 is close to creating a research project that would take place at the Science Center and that it will specific to gaming.

Proof in the Library

Kids love games so much, they’re even going to the dreaded library to play them.

“It’s a big trend in libraries,” says Becky Fermanich, the Youth Services Librarian at the Delta Township District Library, which has been hosting video game tournaments and game nights for the past three years. “A lot of libraries are doing it.”

“We found that it really brought in our tweens and teens,” she says. “The kids kept asking for them, and we want to bring them to the library and have them enjoy our programming."

“That’s what brings kids in, the video games,” says Robert Chartrand, a youth services library assistant who plans and does most of the video game programs.

“As a library, we need to keep up with common trends," Chartrand says. "And video games are a huge hit with ages eight to 18.”

"We started by staff bringing in their own game systems or borrowing them from teens," adds Fermanich, "and now we have some of our own that the library owns. It started with a really small program and has grown from there.”

The events are drawing older audiences in to the library as well. “Last time we had a sports [video game] tournament, we had a lot of twenty-somethings and older guys stopping by saying, ‘We want some programs for us,’” says Fermanich. “So that’s something we want to try in the future.”

And it doesn’t stop there, “We just started a Wii For Seniors program,” said Fermanich, adding that at one event they had 25 seniors show up to play Wii Bowling.

Daniel J. Hogan is a freelance writer and creator of the Magic of Eyri Podcast. You can listen to his audio book podcast for free here

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Impression 5's Melissa Ballard works with students

A Delta Township District Library gaming event

Luke Donohue at an I5 Photo Hunter class

Students in an Impression 5 computer learning class (photo courtesy of I5)

Robert Chartrand, head of youth services at Delta Township District Library

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie unless noted

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