When Bethesda native Christian Vaughan first tagged along with his best friend to TIC Summer Camp, he didn’t just learn how to make the video games he was obsessed with playing — he found a career path, too.
Vaughan, 20, attended his first two-week session at TIC’s Maryland campus (located at the Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Md.) about seven years ago, learning the ropes of computer programming and video game design. Now he’s majoring in computer science at the Rochester Institute of Technology — and still playing a ton of video games.
“It was my introduction to programming,” Vaughan says. “It got me into it.”
After several summers as a camper, he became a counselor, staff assistant and, this summer, a leadership training director.
Camps like TIC, which also has locations in Virginia and D.C. (June 18-Aug. 17, $880), give gamers who are glued to their TV or computer screens a chance to understand what makes those games tick — and learn a pretty lucrative skill in the process.
“By learning something fun like video games, they’re learning the foundations of programming,” says Daniel Morais, TIC’s program director.
And having fun is what makes the skills stick. “Part of the appeal is that it doesn’t feel like work,” Vaughan says.
Local video game camps cater to kids who know nothing about video game design and to those who are already familiar with programming languages like Java or Python.
At Lavner Camps, a Pennsylvania-based company with more than 20 locations, including a D.C. camp at George Washington University, younger kids (6-12) can start with a video game design camp with apps, where they make a few games, including one for their phone, using a simple drag-and-drop-style computer program called Clickteam Fusion 2.5. Older kids (9-13) can take video game design with GameMaker, a more advanced software that even professional game designers use. Within each camp, there’s room for beginners to more advanced students.
“Year over year, our kids can progress to the next level or next programming language,” says Justin Lavner, the CEO and executive director of Lavner Camps.
Some of the skills kids will learn at the week-long camps (June 18-Aug. 3, $329-$549) are artistic design, storyboarding, coding logic, computer programming and how to beta test a new game. Because there will always be bugs, Lavner says.
“They learn trial and error. [Like,] ‘Why didn’t my game automatically go to the next level?’ ” he says. “You’re testing and seeing what you missed.”
iD Tech, a top tech-focused summer camp, has several locations in the D.C. area, including at American University, Howard University and the University of Maryland (June 18-Aug. 10, $829-$1,379). Student campers can stay overnight or attend as day students.
For parents, the camps can supplement a (sometimes annoying) hobby with valuable skills.
“Help them turn this passion into a potential career opportunity, a potential college path,” says Mark Moreno, the D.C. regional manager for iD Tech.
At iD Tech’s Minecraft camps, for instance, kids who are obsessed with the game can learn some Java coding in an accessible way to unpack how the game is coded. Moreno says former students from iD Tech are now working with Microsoft, Facebook and Epic Games.
“It’s that starting place,” he says. “Today it’s iD Tech. Tomorrow it’s your college application and your future career.”
The camps all encourage kids to continue working on their project or building new ones after camp is over. Students can buy the software to use at home, or Lavner suggests taking advantage of free trials of the programs, which can be expensive.
Some campers bring back projects from previous summers to continue perfecting and upgrading them.
Vaughan remembers one summer when he and his friend took their “fighting monsters in a dungeon” game from a previous session and updated it with 3-D graphics with a counselor’s help.
“It’s still a project I point to when kids don’t know what to make and don’t think they can make a cool game,” he says.
For all the debate over whether video games rot the brain or make it stronger, video game-focused camps appeal even to those parents looking to limit screen time.
“Campers are learning to make games, not just play them,” Lavner says. “They’re learning to be proactive and not just reactive.”
More on D.C.-area camps: