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Don’t Just Play Video Games – Make Them: Penn State Professor Teaches Teens Gaming Technology

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Madis Pihlak and his students look up for a photo

While most professors are taking a break from teaching during the summer, Madis Pihlak, associate professor of art and architecture, is helping high school students learn to make their own video games. Pihlak is one of the faculty members who has partnered with Summer Study’s pre-college residential summer programs at Penn State to offer ninth- through eleventh-grade students the opportunity to experience university life before college. This summer was Pihlak’s fourth year of teaching his wildly popular two-week course, Video Game Development.

“It takes a lot of energy to prepare for this course,” said Pihlak. “The software we are using is the most complex out there, and the students have zero background in it.” 

The course introduces students to two industry-leading game development software platforms, Unity and Maya, and Pihlak teaches them to think critically about aspects of game design. The takeaway is not only the skill-building component but also their very own video game.

“My game is a medieval island with a futuristic avatar,” explained 15-year-old Maverick Willis from Chicago, Illinois, as he navigated through the game he built. “There are a lot of components. I’m trying to get the effect of water right now.” Maverick turned out to be the “fix-it guy” for the third-person controller. Whenever a student had a problem with the complex camera controls for the third-person controller, Maverick was able to offer his simple fixes.

Students are able to design individual games because Pihlak is not standing at the front of the classroom lecturing. He uses a constructivist teaching philosophy that emphasizes solving problems together and working one-on-one with students in small classroom settings.  The students decide the type of game environment they want to create.

“I start with Maya, teaching paint effects. There are literally 900,000,000 options within a single dialogue box – I can’t explain it all,” stressed Pihlak. “Instead, I give them the basics to get started, and then we work interactively to help them create while learning the program. They ask me questions, and I have to be a detective and figure out why something is not working. We solve problems together. It’s radical because it goes against the idea that the professor knows everything.”

Neither Pihlak nor some of his students consider themselves gamers, but they are drawn to the software for its potential in many realms. Jennifer Garcia, a 16-year-old student from Chicago, enjoyed building a serene landscape with characters that blended her love of coding with her interest in design. Penn State architecture, engineering, and visual arts students also learn both programs as part of their degree curriculum for their relative applications. Similarly, Penn State alumnus Jacob Stephens (B. Arch. ’96) used Maya to create digital effects for the major motion picture, Avatar.

“This class requires students to suspend their disbelief in order to learn in two weeks what usually takes three quarters of a semester during the school year. I’ve never been able to replicate the enthusiasm that these students have for learning. They aren’t afraid to make mistakes. They come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures – some were helping each other in Spanish. This is the classroom of the future! It is very inspiring,” acknowledged Pihlak.

David Wolk, director of Summer Study and Penn State alumnus (B.S. Health & Human Development, ’97), added, “It is an absolutely outstanding educational and social experience. Students meet people from all over the country. We work with foundations to provide partial and full scholarships for underprivileged students. Some parents who want their children to go to Penn State use this as a way to get their children interested. And when it does come time for going away for fall semester, our students look back at their experience at Summer Study and see how it helped them with time management and the diverse, communal living experience.”

Penn State was the first university to partner with Summer Study when it started in 1991, and students have been attending the program since 1992. Penn State was also one of the early adopters of the Unity Technologies software, most recently celebrated as the software used by Niantic, Inc. to create Pokémon Go. Applying new technologies in the classroom is something that Pihlak has been doing since he first used SimCity as a teaching tool and he will continue to do so when he teaches his Interdisciplinary Digital Studio course in the fall.

“I have always been experimental with technology because I always see where it could go. People underestimate the value of it. Some people see gaming as negative or an antisocial thing – that people are immersed in a game – but with augmented reality like Pokémon Go, it gets you out.  Game design mixes artists, architects, engineers, and designers. They work together – that’s what the real world is like.” 

For more information on Summer Study, visit the website:

To view a gallery of images from the course, visit the gallery: