Pangnirtung youth create their own video games at camp

“There’s a huge, huge opportunity there”


Pinnguaq's Ryan Oliver, left, works with Grace Metuq, middle, at a winter break computer programming camp in Pangnirtung Feb. 20. Myra Young, right, was another participant. (PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN OLIVER)

Pinnguaq’s Ryan Oliver, left, works with Grace Metuq, middle, at a winter break computer programming camp in Pangnirtung Feb. 20. Myra Young, right, was another participant. (PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN OLIVER)

On Feb. 10, the creator of a wildly popular mobile app game called Flappy Bird pulled the game from the Apple application store because it was “too addictive.”

Flappy Bird is a game where you collect points by flying a bird through a tight corridor with pipes as obstacles along the way. If you crash into them, you start at the beginning.

The game is touted as difficult to master, addicting, but very simple to create: the perfect starting point for Ryan Oliver, director of the Pangnirtung-based tech startup company Pinnguaq, and a group of local youth.

During the winter school break, Oliver put on a week-long computer gaming workshop with nine local students ranging in age from six to 19, as part of Pangnirtung’s Code Club.

“We had a few Flappy Bird tournaments throughout the week, and the kids loved it,” Oliver said. “And we thought, we could make this game. Let’s teach them how to make this.”

So Oliver assigned the kids to three teams for the final project — a programming team, an art team and a music team.

They used an MIT-built simple coding program called “Scratch” to create what the group dubbed: “Scratchy Bird.”

And that’s just one of the many games the Pangnirtung Code Club put together over the break, Oliver said: each student created a game a day.

The goal of the workshop was to get kids involved in computer science, something Oliver said is “vitally important” in today’s world.

“We’re all becoming more and more technologically dependent. And the less we understand it, the more it is capable of dictating the terms of the relationship,” he said.

Oliver was surprised at how the youngsters picked up the skills.

“The six-year-old was a genius, fortunately, and we were able to work really easily.”

And Oliver said one of the kids, a 12-year-old, “blew us all away.”

“His ability to pick up logic and math concepts was incredible for a kid his age,” he said.

Oliver brought up a close friend for the workshop — game designer Michael Despault, a programmer for one of the largest video game companies in the world, EA Sports, based out of Burnaby, British Columbia.

“We’re teaching them how computers think behind the scenes,” Despault said.

EA Sports offers something called “Action Time” for its employees, where they can take a paid two weeks to work on projects outside their job description.

Despault said his team at EA Sports also Skype’d in from Burnaby to teach them different aspects of creating computer games.

Oliver and Despault grew up together and went to the same high school in Lindsay, Ont.

That’s where their love of computer science shaped their careers — and it could for kids in Nunavut, too, like that 12-year-old programming whiz-kid.

“If there was computer science education in the curriculum at school, if he had a chance to continue to explore programming with computers every day, he would be able to write his own ticket in a few years,” Oliver said.

Despault said the Code Club, which Oliver is continuing each Saturday from now on, helps kids understand that computers aren’t there just to be used.

“It’s a very powerful tool,” Despault said.

“You have something in your imagination and you can take that and use the tool to create it,” he said.

Oliver said there’s no reason why kids in Pangnirtung can’t go on to careers in the tech-savvy industry of computer gaming.

“It’s sustainable. It’s in high demand. The video game industry by itself is worth 4.3 billion just for Canada. And there’s a huge, huge opportunity there,” Oliver said.

To view all the computer projects the kids made during the week, click here..

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