By Nick Kaye
Special to The Weekly
BANGOR — In a dimly lit computer lab on the second floor of the United Technologies Center on Hogan Road, six high school juniors and seniors are diligently working on something they are all passionate about: video games.
Known collectively as The Maine Game Club, these students are currently creating a suite of games based upon space exploration for the Maine Discovery Museum. The finished suite will allow museum visitors to learn the order of planets in the solar system, repair satellites, customize and pilot rocket ships, guide an astronaut through space, and drive the Mars rover to collect minerals.
The project has received support from the Perloff Foundation and the Maine Space Grant Consortium. It will be largely grounded in real science, using 3D models provided by NASA. “We want it to be as educational as possible while still remaining fun,” said Mike Preble, who manages The Maine Game Club and serves as its primary instructor.
Preble created the club earlier this year as an extension of his information technologies course at UTC, a vocational program in 3D graphics, 2D art, and game design and development for high school students in the Bangor area. It is now open to motivated students from outside the UTC course as well.
The Maine Game Club runs throughout the year, and is divided into three trimesters, each focusing on work for a different nonprofit in the Bangor area.
“[Working with the community] is a real intrinsic motivator for the students,” said Preble. “They’re providing things that they know well to benefit others.”
Beyond helping the community, Preble hopes to equip his students with the skills necessary to begin successful careers. Students in the club work with industry-standard programming languages and 3D art tools, and learn to market themselves and their work.
Meeting three or four times a week in the summer, the club’s curriculum is highly intensive — not for the stereotypical slackers that video gamers are often imagined to be. Preble reported covering 12 weeks of college course material in only 8 days.
Students are able to use what they learn to test for and acquire nationally recognized certification in 3D art and computer programming through partnerships with groups including Brainbench, the C++ Institute and the International Game Developers Association. An effort to offer college credit through local institutions is also in the works, Preble said.
So what’s next for club members after they’ve graduated high school? Some may be able to acquire jobs right out of the gate, said Preble, and others may go on to computer science and art programs in higher education.
In any case, he hopes that they’ll end up putting their skills to use in Maine. Despite the low profiles of the video game and digital art industries in the state, there is a growing need for individuals with the types of skills Preble teaches. A search through the Bangor Daily News online job listings returns 30 programming jobs and 30 graphic artist jobs.
“What I teach and what they learn also allows them to succeed in healthcare systems, banking systems, or any sort of industry that needs a programmer or an artist,” said Preble.
Eventually, Preble would like to see The Maine Game Club become an entirely student-run organization, with two or three alumni or long-term members receiving money to provide instruction. He already has taken steps toward this by bringing in former students, including Steve Leighton, who is now a computer science major at the University of Maine, to assist with certain lessons.
The club is the only organization of its type in the area, Preble said. “What we do here is pretty unique and pretty special.”
The next trimester will begin in September, and students are able to apply online. Admission is dependent upon school GPA and attendance, previous experience and individual merit. For registration and more information on The Maine Game Club, visit themainegameclub.com.