Thursday, December 10, 2009
Hampshire College Students Learn Fundamental Computer Science by Designing Video Games on iPhones
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."
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.
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install three different versions of code from Apple, and the tutorials and textbooks are three months old and already out of date," said Dickson.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.
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."
Elaine Thomas, director of college communications, 413.559.5482, firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Dickson, visiting assistant professor of computer science, pedCS@hampshire.edu