Ahmed Saeed, an 8th grader who goes to Cherokee Heights Middle School, spent Tuesday filming a one-on-one fight scene between a Lego man in a bomber jacket wielding a double-bladed sword and Lego Batman.
Saeed filmed his 30-second stop-motion animation at a table strewn with Legos and iPads on the third floor of the Madison Central Library branch. Saeed was there for Coding & Gaming Day, an event that aimed to expose teens to the process of creating video games.
Pitting anyone against Batman may be unfair, but the fight ended in a draw.
“Batman gets on his bike, does a few tricks, runs (his opponent) over,” said Saeed, explaining the climax. “But then Batman falls over. Nobody wins.”
The stop-motion animation station was only one stop along a chain of activities at the event, organized as part of My Brother’s Keeper, a city-backed initiative to provide opportunities for boys of color. Each station was manned by developers and designers from tech nonprofits and video game studios in Madison, including DANENet, Acme Nerd Games, Filament Games and Gear Learning.
At one table, participants could design video game characters by drawing over silhouettes of figures in dynamic poses. Finished designs, taped to the library windows, featured superheros in capes, villains with spiked shoulder armor, even aquatic characters in old-fashioned diving suits.
At another station, Chromebooks with a lightweight game-building software called Construct 3 loaded up on them were available. Boys took pre-built mini-games — racing games, run-and-gun platformers, catapulting simulators similar to “Angry Birds” — and tinkered with how they worked using rudimentary programming mechanics.
A team of motion-capture specialists from Mad Marker Studios in Mount Horeb taught kids in a separate room about the art of translating human motion into video games. They had participants stand up and do mock exercises — running, walking, making the dynamic poses that actors have to do in a “Mo-Cap” studio.
One of the instructors teaching the motion-capture workshop was David Healy, who oversees studio operations for Mad Marker. Madison has become a “game development hub,” he told the kids in one of his groups. Game studios like Raven Software work on games like Call of Duty along with newcomers like Bluehole, which made 2017’s monster hit “Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds.”
“There’s one I bet you’re all familiar with,” chortled Healy.
The fact that a majority of children and teenagers are playing video games like Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, Call of Duty and Fortnite (a new title that Saeed said is one of the most popular among his peers) is one of the hooks of the event, said Mike Beall.
“Now, they’re getting to see that the games that they’re playing, there was a lot of work that went into that,” said Beall, the director of Gear Learning, an educational game studio based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s not snap your fingers and there’s a video game.”
According to Amos Anderson of the Urban League of Greater Madison — another organizing partner of Coding & Gaming Day — the idea behind the event was to give teens, particularly children of color, a fun but constructive activity over spring break. Many of them aren’t traveling or spending time with parents — they’re home alone with nothing to do.
Madison Deputy Mayor Enis Ragland, who coordinates the My Brother’s Keeper initiative for the city, said there was also an opportunity to feed some kids for the day. Meals were donated by Chick Fil-A and Herzing University.
“They get two meals today,” said Ragland. “Too many kids only get meals when they’re in school.”
Beall said he hopes the event could become part of a sustained effort between partner organizations to help expose kids to the world of game development. It's critical for the city's future for kids to develop an interest in coding or software development.
“We need to build an infrastructure to support all these tech companies ... and that infrastructure isn’t there right now,” he said. “These kids are the infrastructure.”
Saeed, for his part, said he had fun learning skills like coding at the event.
“It would be cool to get paid for doing this kind of stuff,” he said.