By MARINA WATERS
“You can go to any school really in East Tennessee, and the first thing you notice as soon as you walk through that door is that the only trophies you see are sports trophies,”David Crockett High School student Austyn Shelton—who is a member of the three-person team that won first place at the state competition for video game design—said. “And that makes kids think that they have to live up to that legacy and to become good at sports. That’s why most anyone who goes here is pretty much an athlete or something else.”
As for Shelton and his fellow team members Sydney Hill and Corbin Cowden, taking home the the Technology Student Association award for their video game “The Abstraction” at the state competition in Chattanooga on April 8 took time away from things like sports and other after school activities for a typical high school student. But creating the arcade-style game that focuses on teaching kids a life lesson took extra dedication outside of their class with Crockett drafting teacher Guy McAmis.
“Some of (the skills TSA covers) I know how to do. Video game design is not one of them,” McAmis said. “They basically learned this on their own. So they did it from scratch themselves.”
“There’s not really a class (for video game design),” Shelton added. “The game that we made and the stuff that we had to do, we had to go learn how to do it on our own. There’s really no one here for that.”
However, there were guidelines the team had to follow in making the game that would end up topping the other 24 games entered in the state competition; The project had to be an arcade-style game that taught a skill or lesson. So for the team’s project, they made the focus a life lesson about right and wrong.
“So we were coming up with ideas and we were like, ‘Hey, what if ‘you get what you deserve?’,” Cowden said. “So we created this game about a thief, the best thief in the world, who wants to go and steal a diamond and—‘get what you deserve’—get captured by the cops by the end of it.”
The idea for the game came from Hill whose main focus is art and animation.
“If you read the backstory, Alec (the game’s main character) grew up feeling that he was never good enough,” Hill explained. “And his parents were telling him that the only way you can be a part of the family is if he stole. They were finally caught in prison and never heard from again so he said, ‘I will make them proud by stealing the world’s most valuable diamond.’ So that’s how it starts out.”
With a lesson in “The Abstraction” that is a bit more complex than basic arcade games like Tetris and Pac-man, the team wanted to extend beyond teaching kids something like simple math. They wanted to instill a lesson that would be a bit more lasting.
“We went with something that would be more interesting for kids to actually play because for that competition, you could walk in there with a game that’s just simple like ‘What’s two plus two?’ kind of thing to teach math,” Shelton said. “But we wanted to go with more of a kind of vivid approach that’s actually more appealing to the eye. Like you’d actually want to play while learning a lesson at the same time.”
It wasn’t just a lesson through gaming that motivated the designers to create their own virtual world; the three brought their specific interests and aspirations together to form a team that ended up taking home some hardware for their efforts.
“I watched ‘Rise of the Guardians’ as a kid and that kind of really inspired me,” Hill said. “I felt that childhood wonder and love for animation. And I want to be able to express that to other people. I know how stressful the world is nowadays, so to be able to give someone that childhood feeling or just that excitement and joy is just my dream.”
For Shelton, technology was also a driving force for wanting to team up with Cowden and Hill.
“I’ve always been fascinated with computers. Ever since I was little, I’ve always been taking them apart and putting them back together. I’ve always wanted to know how they work and whenever I started getting into programming, I learned there were these competitions you could do through TSA that actually focus on that skill set.”
As for Cowden, who is a member of the soccer team and made a perfect score on his ACT as a sophomore, his interests vary and was proven through the level design, character design and some of the programming work he did on the project.
“I like a bunch of different things,” Cowden said. “I made a couple (of games) on my own. But I really like world-building and story-building.”
This sort of interest in building and designing a game might not be a typical high school student’s leisurely activity. In fact, according to the National Math and Science Initiative, the U.S. has fallen behind other countries and is ranked 27th in math and 20th in science amongst 34 other countries. And only 36 percent of high school graduates are considered ready to take a college-level science course by the end of their high school career. This leaves a need for science, technology, engineering and math amongst young people.
On the other hand, classes like wood shop, driver’s education and other career and technical classes have fallen to the wayside throughout the years. Though the two could be considered on opposite sides of the educational spectrum, it takes both of these areas to create an end-product like these Crockett students did in building their video game.
When asked why both of these areas of education are falling behind, Cowden had one simple reply:
“Probably instant results,” Cowden answered. “Most people are now used to instant results. In English, you go and you do a 40-minute quiz and then you scantron it and you have that right then. In math, you go problem to problem and you have so many quick results. But in engineering, you’re taking weeks to do a project. We started this in the fall and just now got it done. We revised, revised, revised.”
For McAmis, he can see a lag in the amount of career and technical education classes offered throughout the country. But as time has gone on, he’s noticed a sort of revival towards valuing hands-on work.
“Things are changing. I can see us working more and more toward that way where we’ve got the STEM classes and the hands on stuff for kids to do. We’ve got carpentry, we’ve got all these different CTE classes and you can hear them—they’re building right now,” McAmis said above the sound of hammers and electric saws echoing throughout the back building at Crockett. “And there’s a lot of kids, that’s what they want to do and that’s the way they go. But I think we need a little more of the in-depth stuff to break it down a little more.”
In relation to STEM education, Shelton said he felt that extra, in-depth step is also a main component to bettering those slipping STEM numbers.
“If you learn English, guess what, you know English. If you learn history, you know history,” Shelton said. “If you learn math, hey guess what, you know how to do math. But if you learn programming, per se, that doesn’t mean you know how to make a video game. That doesn’t mean you know how to program a robot. There are several steps.”
One focus in McAmis’ class is his application of real-world aspects. Encouraging the process in which actual professionals outside of the doors of David Crockett High School is exactly what the drafting teacher hopes to instill in his classes.
“If they were to go to a video game designer, this is exactly how it would be laid out. You’d have somebody that would come up with a concept, then you’d have somebody that would do the grunt work like the programming and the other part of it. And they would all work together as a team,” McAmis explained. “They have worked together as a team just like real-world video game designers. To me, that’s more valuable than anything because they’re learning what it’s going to be like when they get into the real world.”
But before the sophomore and two juniors head off into the “real world”, they’re entertaining the idea of heading to the national competition—if they can find the money to go.
“Nationals this year is in Orlando, Florida. And right now, we’re not sure if we’re going to get to go because we don’t have the money to,” McAmis said. “The county has given us money and even with what that, it’s still almost $600 a student to be able to pay for motel rooms, registration, things like that.”
Even without attending nationals, the TSA trophies stored in McAmis’ room could fill a trophy case themselves. The drafting teacher told the Herald & Tribune that Crockett has scored state wins for a number of categories from machine shop to graphic design and cosmetology. A number of his students even created a robot and a solar-powered go-kart that was recently driven at Bristol Motor Speedway for the solar go-kart race.
“I want to show you these other things going on that the community doesn’t know about that’s happening here at David Crockett High School, good things that are happening.”
As for the video game designers, they’re already fixing glitches in their game. Cowden even paused the interview to say he had a few ideas already in the back of his mind.
“They’re always thinking of the next step,” McAmis said. “And that’s good. Without goals you can’t get anywhere. You gotta have a goal.”