Imagine there's no console

10 April 2012

How many UCT students get to play Xbox on campus and call it academic studies?

SA Imagine imagine cup
imagine cup imagine cup
Game on: From top - (back) Henk van Jaarsveld, Bilo Lwabona and (front) Richard Pieterse, Kevin Shaun Brenkel and Ryan Mazzolini working on their course notes; course convenor Dr Patrick Marais, Van Jaarsveld and Mazzolini put their winning game through its paces; the prize; and (back) Pieterse, Kaitlyn Crawford, Mazzolini, Marais and (front) Simba Nyatsanga and Van Jaarsveld get caught up in the action.

A group of lucky second-years in the Computer Game Development Course of UCT's Department of Computer Science, it appears.

While it's very hands-on stuff, it's not all fun and games, though, cautions Dr Patrick Marais, course convenor. The programme has very practical scholarly value.

"The intention is to try to make computer science interesting for students by teaching elements of gaming," Marais says.

Marais explains that overseas institutions have been successfully demonstrating certain computer science principles through the teaching and development of gaming.

"Games these days involve computer graphics, networking, databases. Many computer science principles need to be mastered to write your typical game."

At the same time, the department aims to lend a helping hand to the fledgling local games-development industry, competing in a global industry estimated, according to one study, to be worth over R190 billion in 2011. Without a viable local sector, the danger is that South Africa will lose good designers to overseas companies, says Marais.

Those could include the likes of Richard Pieterse, who was in no doubt about why he signed up for the course.

"I want to build games," Pieterse says. "I want to make people happy with games."

Marais and his students also have reason to be happy with their progress.

In December last year, trio Ryan Mazzolini, Matthew Miller and Pieterse - or Team Rom, as they called themselves - won an Xbox360 for the Department when they finished second in the South African rounds of the international Imagine Cup, funded by Microsoft. This, in the game design category, for their work on a first-person shooter game - Radix Omnium Malorum, Latin for 'root of all evil', also described as an "arena style death FPS".

Not a bad achievement considering that the team entered at the eleventh hour with a game that didn't have the Imagine Cup in mind and so didn't quite meet the specs of the competition.

It was a timely victory, nonetheless, as one of the course Xboxes had just recently given up the ghost - the result of extensive wear and tear, no doubt.

Classmate Henk van Jaarsveld was confident that this year's crop of undergraduate gamers would do even better in the Imagine Cup.

"Some of those guys are really, really good," he enthused. "Since we have a specialised games course - I don't think the other universities actually have it - we'll be more prepared."

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