Eli’s Place, an unassuming family diner in Lawrence, is most popular for its banana walnut pancakes and s’mores French toast.
But for those looking to chew on something a little more creative, there’s an after-hours special: video game design classes.
Tyler Haddad, a rising senior at Becker College, is bringing free game design classes to low-income kids in Lawrence, holding class on tables at his parents’ diner. Called GameCraft, the program runs for two hours on Saturday afternoons after Eli’s closes. Using donated computers and free online software, he teaches them about game development, and they leave with a fully functional game to take home.
“The end result is a game like ‘Super Mario Bros.,’ ” said Haddad, who studies game design and development with a concentration in production. Students create jumping and moving characters, adding enemies and platforms if they choose.
Haddad said he was inspired to start the GameCraft program because as a kid he always wanted to know how the video games he loved were made.
“It wasn’t until the middle of high school when I realized that [video game creation] wasn’t magic,” he said.
In 2012, while a student at Central Catholic High School, Haddad came across GameMaker Studio, free downloadable software that allows users to create their own games. From there, he essentially taught himself the software by “excessively Googling.”
After conversations in his family diner, where he has helped out for nine years, he realized everyone didn’t have means to “Google excessively” because they lacked access to computers.
“So I thought, if I have a family space I could use for free, and find some machines to use, I could fill this gap,” he said.
Once the diner closes around 1 p.m., Haddad moves furniture and sets up five desktops his friend, who prefers to be anonymous, donated. He downloads GameMaker Studio software on each computer.
Students can choose regular coding language called GameMaker language that allows users to build a game from scratch. The other easier option is a “drag and drop” method of game creation.
Haddad helps students use the option that lets them create a game from the ground up. Using a game he previously made using GameMaker Studio, Haddad gives students the code for it, with certain chunks removed.
“I take out important parts, and then go step by step teaching them what code to write in, and how what they are writing has a function in the overall game,” he said.
In usual game creation, he explained, designers simply use squares instead of art to get faster visuals and speed up the design process. This method, he said, makes for less exciting visuals and makes it difficult for students to see their progress.
Instead, using free art from an online package, students choose the characters they want their personal game to feature.
The only prerequisite to join the program is proficiency in simple arithmetic skills.
“The program’s whole goal is to serve underserved youth, but I don’t restrict it to any income bracket or demographic,” he said. “The way I look at it is, if you can make it, then you’re welcome.”
Since the program’s debut in May, nine students have participated in four sessions. One sponsor, Rainen Law Office in North Andover, diner regulars, donated $250. Haddad said the money will go toward better machines or a new space, once he raises more money. He doesn’t have any formal fund-raising effort but hopes to get more sponsors as the program progresses.
“I would hate to start a program to make the whole idea of [game design] accessible, and then make it less accessible,” he said.
The next GameCraft session is planned for the first week in August.
Elie “Eli” Haddad, Tyler’s father who runs the diner, said in a telephone interview that he is proud of his son for using the diner to give back to the community. He immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in 1976, when he was 5 years old.
“I thought [the idea] was genius. When [Tyler] put fliers up at the diner, people were very excited about it,” his father said. “He pretty much grew up in the diner. He was liked by all of our customers. They thought that he was a go-getter, and to give back to his community, well, it’s great.”Natasha Mascarenhas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @nmasc_.