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Course: Video Game Design on iPhones

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hampshire College Students Learn Fundamental Computer Science by Designing Video Games on iPhones

Paul Dickson

AMHERST, MA — Hampshire College computer science professor Paul Dickson's students are building video games from scratch on iPhones.

Why the iPhone? "It's fun to be able to pull an iPhone out of your pocket to show off what you've created," said Dickson. "Using the iPhone is fun for students—and for the instructor—while at the same time providing a great platform for fundamental computer science. It's not often that students get to build software for class that runs on real-world devices."

Cameron Kingsley
Cameron Kingsley, a third-year student from Washington, D.C., agrees: "If you tell your friends that you're working on a finite state machine, they'll probably say 'that's nice' and move on. Tell them you're making games on the iPhone, and suddenly they want to know everything about what you're doing. Working on the iPhone platform is great because even your grandmother knows what it is—and probably has one."

Video Game Design, a programming-based course, teaches fundamental computer science blended with art and game theory. Students first learn to write applications on the iPhone, slowly building skills such as creation of text fields and buttons, all necessary in game creation. They then learn OpenGL and graphics, or how to "draw" on the iPhone. The final five weeks of the semester are spent designing and building the games.

Tamagotchi iPhone
Roughly half the members of this semester's class own iPhones and the other half have iPod Touches (which run the same software and games) on loan for the semester, thanks to Hampshire College and an anonymous donor.

The work Dickson's students are doing is cutting-edge, using a device that Apple keeps updating. "Since the semester started we've had to install three different versions of code from Apple, and the tutorials and textbooks are three months old and already out of date," said Dickson. "It can be frustrating but at the same time it's great exposure for the students, showing them what real software development can be like."

There are 17 students in the class, including three from Smith College and one from Mt. Holyoke. Each proposed a game concept, and then the class divided into teams to create those they chose as the top three ideas. Kingsley's group is building a tower defense game that involves shooting projectiles at creatures moving across the screen. Another group is developing a virtual pet game. The third is a strategy game; the player controls a ship on a grid, scanning for enemies and taking appropriate action in response.

Tamagotchi iPhone stats
Most game-design courses are either part of a full game-design major or a single elective class within a computer science or engineering major. Full game-design programs at vocational schools, or at a couple of large universities, teach students the design packages used by industry and serve as a feeder system for large game-design companies. A single course within a computer science major is usually just a single piece of the puzzle in the process of making a game. Most use a "toy" game-design package not heard of or seen previously by students, but that does enable them to create a full game. Dickson wanted to combine these two types of courses. The iPhone enables his students to build a full game, from scratch, without the use of special game-development software, and to do so on a real-world device.

Taught within Hampshire College's liberal arts framework and individualized academic program, his course enables students to pursue their own visions as they create games. They can also express their social consciousness as they discuss the ethical grounding of specific games. "Getting an intensive education in 'game making' is less useful than getting a full-spectrum liberal arts education that will allow you to take a wide variety of experiences and perspectives and apply it to game design," said student Kingsley. "That self-sufficient creative motivation that Hampshire promotes is something that all the great game designers share."

Media contact:
Elaine Thomas, director of college communications, 413.559.5482,
Paul Dickson, visiting assistant professor of computer science,


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