One of the most important things that professionals always need to do is keep abreast of current tools and trends in the industry where they are employed. One of the most common ways to do this is by attending professional conferences. This is equally true of the game industry as it is with any other professional field. I introduce my students to this fact by taking them to the East Coast Game Conference. This annual event takes place in Raleigh during the springtime and boasts the largest gathering of professional game designers on the east coast. It is often an eye-opening experience for my students when they interact with the creators of some of the biggest titles being produced both currently and in past years.
However, this post is not about ECGC. This past week, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the NC Technology Engineering and Design Educators Association (NCTEDEA) Spring Conference held in Kill Devil Hills, NC. While there, myself and three other Kenan Fellows shared information on our experience in the program along with our resulting lesson plans. Although the conference was very small, there was a lot of interest in what we had to say. Attendees got to see how four individuals from different backgrounds (an engineering teacher, a business and marketing teacher, an honors chemistry teacher, and myself - a game art & design teacher) were put together to build a wearable device and how we brought this shared experience back to our classrooms in unique and differing ways. While this was useful for the other teachers in attendance and presenting to one's peers is good for all to experience as a professional, I really wanted to bring something useful back for myself and my students.
Not only does attending conferences allow one to gain valuable information by attending formal presentations, but it allows you to network and converse/collaborate informally with one's peers, many of whom you may or may not see in other environments. This is where the real power of conferences comes into play in my mind. In attending, I managed to catch up with a former fellow game art & design teacher, Jonathan Peedin, who has since left the world of education and returned to his former career of designing video games, this time for Boss Key Productions as a senior UI/UX designer. However, he has kept one foot in the world of teaching as he is working on re-vamping the GAD curriculum and requirements to more closely align with the game industry. We had a number of conversations about where these changes may lead and I came back from the conference refreshed and excited about the updates to come. During the formal sessions, Jonathan gave a talk on free design tools and tablet use in the classroom, where he introduced two applications that teachers and students can use. And, I want to encourage my students to look into these tools as they can gain a lot out of both. Plus, being free, the price is perfect.
The first tool Jonathan shared with attendees is Sculptris by Pixelogic. Sculptris is a free 3D modeling application made by the same company that sells ZBrush, the industry standard 3D modeling software. Both products work like modeling in clay, allowing the artist to pull, pinch, push and prod their character or object into shape. Currently, the curriculum calls for teaching 3D modeling using 3ds Max, which has its roots in the world of computer aided drafting. Just considering this information and how we would use 3D models in video games, it is clear that using an artistic approach makes more sense than the technical design approach. We are often working with organic shapes and technical drawing is not really designed for such work. This doesn't mean that one should ignore technical modeling programs such as 3ds Max or Maya. While you can easily model your objects in Sculptris, you cannot rig or animate them and these are important tasks in creating video games. Applying texturing is also handled better outside of Sculptris. Based on all of this knowledge, I was very pleased to learn this powerful and lightweight application is being added to the list of required software for the game design classes.
The second tool I learned about was Krita, which is a free paint program. While Photoshop continues to dominate as the industry standard piece of software for 2D digital artwork, some companies are also looking at what is available to use for free these days. And, I often have students ask me what they can get for cheap, or better yet free, to learn how to create artwork on the computer. And, it may come as no surprise that GIMP is often the answer I provide. Like Krita, GIMP is free. However, it has a steep learning curve and I have often hear students (and myself) complain about getting very frustrated with it. GIMP is not intuitive and if you are used to working in Photoshop, rather hard to understand. At least it is for me. So, when Jonathan told me his coworkers at Boss Key pointed him towards using Krita, it made me even more curious about using it. So, as soon as I returned from the conference, I downloaded the software and started exploring its capabilities. After just a few minutes, I found it to be very intuitive and easy to use, which gave it a major boost over GIMP. And to my amazement, in terms of drawing on the computer, I preferred it over Photoshop! So, while I currently have minimal experience with this software, it has become my new go-to response when students want/need access to a paint program.
The final piece of knowledge that Jonathan touched on was the use of graphics tablets for doing one's artwork on the computer. I have tablets in my classroom but tend not to use them too often. I know...shame on me! But, with everything else I have to do and learn for my classes, I have simply put learning the graphics tablet on the back-burner to more pressing concerns that are constantly presenting themselves to me. But, I do see the value in using them and have always allowed students to do so at their request. I found Jonathan's response to a comment by another teacher useful in re-framing my mind on using them. This teacher asked if it is difficult to get used to drawing on the tablet and looking at the screen as opposed to a pen and paper on a desk. His response, and I paraphrase: you already do this with a mouse...it's just a matter of training yourself to do it with a different tool. So, when I installed Krita, I also grabbed one of the tablets. My first problem was that I could not get different shades like I can with a pencil despite the maker's claim of 1024 different levels of pressure being available. This bothered me. However, after updating the driver, it worked like a champ. All that is left for me to do is learn how to program the hot spot locations on the tablet and I am really ready to use it even more productively. However, even without them, I have started working on my skills and am quickly falling in love with using a graphics tablet. It's really not very difficult to become accustomed to, as Jonathan mentioned, and simply takes a little practice. I believe this will be the focus of my personal learning this coming summer.
So, while attending the conference, I was out of my classroom and at the beach for two days. The question I ask myself is does this benefit my students? I think it does based on everything I discussed above. I learned some new tools and gained a little insight into the direction the game design classes will be taking in the future. I hope you agree with my assessment and if you do not currently attend whatever professional conferences your industry offers, you change your perspective on them and start doing so.
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.