As Matthew Stubbing waves his arms and punches the air in front of the green screen, the muscular character across from him copies his movements.
The Stevenson High School senior is using the newest technology in the video programming class to design Kinect body movement games for Xbox 360. Later, his class will use the same technology to make characters they've 'skinned' run, dance and jump in the game.
Lake County high schoolers have the opportunity to become "not just users of technology, but creators of technology," said Joe Judge, who teaches the video game programming course at Lake County High Schools Technology Campus.
Video game programming is just one of many technical programs offered at the tech campus, which any Lake County high school juniors or seniors may attend during regular school hours. Fifty-five percent of public school districts in the U.S. had students enrolled in technology-based distance education courses in 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statisitics.
At the Lake County tech campus, students can recieve three college credits for each programming class.
Tim Abilzade, Libertyville High School senior, said he already had some programming knowledge from designing at home. In the class, he's created characters by "animating every bone and muscle" in a process called rigging, and created landscapes by importing them from Google Maps and hand-painting the texture on the computer.
Abilzade wants to be an animator for Ubisoft after college.
Abilzade's buddy and classmate, Jake Rogers, said the students in the class work together to build games and solve problems much like they would in a real workplace.
Rogers, a Richmond-Burton Community High School senior, said, "I couldn't do this at home because the software is very expensive. Everyone has that dream of being the guy to create the next hit game. It's a great experience because this class gives you the tools to work with and the capability to do anything."
Judge, class instructor, said "Enrollment in the class has tripled since we changed focus from Java to programming." Java is a subset of C++ programming, which the class teaches.
Students spend the first four weeks of class learning to build a screensaver. Along the way, they'll create video games, 3D art, even iOS device games for cell phones or tablets. "They can play levels they've made [for games] on PS3," Judge said.
The students can take their fully realized games – complete with packaging they designed – home to play on their own systems.
The tech campus is the only school east of the Mississippi river offering this level of gaming education to high schoolers, Judge said. The curriculum is developed by the DigiPen Institution of Technology, located in the Silicon Valley. Judge said the tech campus helps level the playing field for all students interested in video game programming.
"We're blending students from 22 area high schools [from Lake County and three in McHenry County.] Some have access to gaming systems at home, other students come from impoverished homes. This levels the educational standards for students of all backgrounds," Judge said.
Women are considered non-traditional students in the class – three of 45 students in a morning class were girls.
Judge said the ratio is typical of the industry, which has started encouraging more women to join its workforce.
The video gaming program started eight years ago, said Linda Jedlicka, executive director of Lake County High Schools Technology Campus. The teachers work with Ninetendo to make sure that "our high school students are learning state-of-the- art technology," she said.
Bob Parker, a retired original tech campus faculty member, acts as a mentor to Judge. He taught the class back when it was about data entry in 1977. Parker said the class has come a long way. Back then, they'd have to send programs to a state facility to have them convert text to machine language. Now, they can do it in minutes in the classroom.
Jedlicka said, "There are lots of opportunities for jobs," in video gaming for the high school students who participate, or they can go on to college including the College of Lake County to become more highly trained.”
The average starting salary for an entry-level job as a QA tester, searching for game glitches, is $48,611. Programmers, artists and designers can make up to $92,181. Students would need more training after high school to earn those salaries.
Judge said some of his students have literally gone on to study rocket science, some are doing programming for All State Insurance, and some are designing video games. Some of his students have gone into indie game development, selling games in the App Store or building games with other designers across continents.
The program is "not all fun and games," Jedlicka said. It requires students who are intelligent and like to work independently, she said. They spend two hours a day in the video gaming program and then spend the rest of the day at their home school.
Judge said, "I use the comparison that I like to eat cake but I don't bake them," in relation to students who like to play but may realize programming may not be as fun.
"If they do well at it, it opens doors for them. This is the opportunity to see if it's for them. They don't pay tuition here, they don't have to drive [the students are bussed from their high schools] and if they do well, they can leave with a college transcript."