When one thinks of hot Canadian video game development hubs, Montreal and Vancouver and possibly even Toronto come to mind. Could Nunavut be added to the list some day?
A new program from local company Pinnquaq and gaming giant Electronic Arts is looking to get that ball rolling.
“We’re taking these young kids and hoping to light the spark,” says Ryan Oliver, founder of Pinnquaq, which means “play” in the Inuit language. “At the same time we can hopefully make the point to the education side that this is something really important in terms of job creation.”
Running until Feb. 21, the five-day Code Club event is teaching kids in Pangnirtung – population 1,325 – the basics of game design in what Oliver says is the first computer programming course ever offered in Nunavut.
EA software engineer Michael Despault, who has worked on the company’s NHL hockey franchise, is showing kids how to use Scratch, a free program that can be used to create simple web browser-based games. The goal is for the kids to create one game per day.
Sixteen participants between the ages of 8 and 19 have signed up for the course and have so far produced such games as Hoogaly Boogaly and Booooooooooooo, where the goal is to click on as many on-screen ghosts as possible within a given time frame.
The in-class sessions are also supplemented by video conferences with EA Canada employees in Burnaby, B.C., where designers field questions and talk about how they got into games.
Despault says he got involved with the program after Oliver, whom he’s been friends with since they were both kids in Ontario, contacted him with the idea. He decided to use his annual “Action Time,” a two-week period that EA employees get to devote to things they’re passionate about, to help with the program.
He hopes to get kids excited about the possibilities offered by computer programming.
“It’s such a powerful tool that it lets you create whatever you can imagine, which is what we’re doing when we’re creating games,” he says. “If you think about it, a game is nothing more than something someone has imagined and that they’ve brought to life.”
The program, which will continue to run on Saturdays until the spring, isn’t without its challenges. Infrastructure, for one, is a problem, with satellite-based Internet access being particularly spotty. When Oliver showed up at the Pangnirtung youth centre to set up, he found that the monthly bandwidth allowance of 15 gigabytes had already been depleted. He had to go home and get his own modem, then do some rewiring, to get the video calls with EA working.
Nunavut’s focus on mining means there’s also a lack of qualified computer programming teachers. Oliver hopes that both the government and companies such as EA will help continue the Code Club program after its initial run.
“This territory has a lot of history with one-and-done events. We want to make sure we go beyond that,” he says. “We have to think beyond the mines.”