October 1, 2017
Twelve-year-old Jeremiah Gongs designs his own video game as part of Kramden Institute’s Game Design Camp.

“Oh no, my game’s broken. Oh, no. That’s not good.”

Despite the technical hiccup, 12-year-old Jeremiah Gongs was quite cheerful as he leaned closer to his laptop and began typing on the keyboard. Little robots whizzed back and forth on the screen, pacing along walls that Gongs designed as part of his new computer game.

He was one of 13 students in the Game Design Camp, a weeklong program of the Kramden Institute in Durham. Kramden, which is known for refurbishing old computers and donating them to local students, also offers digital literacy classes, workshops and camps such as this one.

“These are kill blocks,” Jeremiah explained, hovering his cursor over pixelated, rectangular blocks. “They’re like a death pit. If you fall into it, you die.”

It was Day 4 at the camp, which means students were in the throes of designing Level 3 of their game. The first level of their game was designed on paper. The third level was more difficult and incorporated sound effects, customized graphics, the placement of “enemies” in the game to make it more challenging, and different checkpoints. The students coded everything using templates from the instructors and GameMaker: Studio software.

“I’m going to test your game and I’m going to break them,” said Lile Stephens, technology education instructor for the Kramden Institute. “I’m going to give you some feedback if you really think you’re done.”

“This is all about designing and tweaking things and making sure it’s completely playable,” added Bill Koeb, co-instructor of the class.

The sixth- to eighth-grade students sat at their laptops. Some chatted with their classmates and others worked in silence, intensely focused on their screens.

“It’s surprising to see how some of the kids have taken off,” Stephens said. “You see some kids who are really advanced and know a lot about games and computers. Not everyone’s going to be a game designer or a coder when they get out of here, but they realize there’s a lot of layers to bringing a craft or project to fruition.”

Kramden Institute received a $2,000 Community Care Fund grant through the Duke Doing Good in the Neighborhood employee giving campaign in 2016. Funding from the Community Care Fund, a competitive grant-making program for diverse Triangle nonprofits, was used to fund curriculum development and lesson planning for the program as well as scholarships for low-income students to attend.

Jeremiah Gongs is still deciding what he wants to be when he grows up, but video game designer is a top choice.

Gongs said he is still deciding what he wants to be when he grows up. He is torn between becoming an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter, a WWE wrestler, an actor, or a game designer at Naughty Dog or Telltale video game development companies.

“Games are my life,” said Gongs, who stays up until 8 a.m. playing “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” on his Xbox 360. “I’ve always kind of wanted to become a game designer, so that’s why I went to this camp.”

Support organizations like the Kramden Institute by making a gift to Doing Good in the Neighborhood. Duke employees can make a gift year-round that supports the important work of local nonprofits, schools and neighborhoods.

From left to right, Kramden Institute instructors Lile Stephens and Bill Koeb work through challenges in the game design software.
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