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CPCC gamers conquer the Ivy Leaque

Will Isenhour, Danny Helms, Farhad Javidi, Nic Colley and Jonathan Head. align=left

A team of students from Central Piedmont Community College went up against the Ivy League and won in a prestigious video game competition. And they weren't playing the games - they were creating them. Yale University sent its best and brightest to Washington, DC a few weeks back for the Microsoft Imagine Cup. So did CPCC. "Oh yes, we felt some major intimidation," says Nic Colley who's on the CPCC game development team. "We're going up against students going for Masters and Doctoral degrees, and here are a couple of kids going for Associates." It just so happens they're going for associate degrees at the first college in the country to offer a state-approved degree in game development. That's right, CPCC was the first back in 2005. Of course, the rest of the country has caught up by now. But Colley and his teammates - Will Isenhour, Jonathan Mead and Danny Helms - still managed to make an impression that would soon pay off. Hollywood legend James Cameron, director of the 3-D film Avatar, stopped to see their game called "Sixth" in action before he hit the stage to speak. "We're sitting there and all of a sudden James Cameron mentions our game by name in his presentation," recalls Colley. "We were like, 'Oh my gosh!'" Cameron told the crowd the game Sixth was an example of the direction that "socially aware" games needed to go in presenting important information with a fun format. After that, it wasn't such a surprise when the game created by a quartet of community college students from Charlotte was crowned winner of the U.S. Imagine Cup. Every entry had to address a global issue. The name "Sixth" represents the idea that one in six people in the world live in a slum today. In the game, you follow the story of Sahir - a 12-year-old boy lives in the slums in India. Every step you take sends little clouds of dust up behind you. The world of Sixth is a filthy trash heap. Your character uses a golf club to fend off rats, "cause one of the problems of living in the slums is you get attacked by rats," says Colley. You don't get points for killing rats, though. You just get to survive. "Our game is National Geographic meets Legend of Zelda," says Colley. "Legend of Zelda" is an old-school video game where you wander a fantasy world on a magical quest. In Sixth, you're not looking for magic. You're out to find random trash you can salvage and sell for money so you can buy purified water from the slumlord. The CPCC team came up with the story line watching the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" and doing research online. None of them has been to India. Colley admits, with a laugh, that they came up with the character's name "Sahir" by searching for "popular Indian names" on Google. He and his teammates say they'd probably have invented a more traditional shoot-em up video game had it not been for those competition rules about addressing issues like poverty or hunger. Will Isenhour says they worried about coming off too preachy. And like "learning games," he says "socially aware games" run the risk of being not very fun. "It's like, 'Hey, let's learn to spell!'" jokes Isenhour. "No, I think I'd rather go over there and nail my hand to a table." So they made sure Sixth was fun, first and meaningful, second. The mix they came up with was enough to impress James Cameron. It may also be enough to make them some money: The team is negotiating to license Sixth for different game platforms like X-box and Play Station. Their professor Farhad Javidi thinks they may want to aim a bit smaller - like the iPhone. A fun little game with a conscience is just the kind of time-killer people with smart phones seem nuts about. They don't even have to sell the game, says Javidi. If they put it out as a free "app" and enough people downloaded it, Apple may take note and offer to market a new version of the game the team could sell. That would be the ideal scenario, and it's not entirely far-fetched considering they already beat the odds when they toppled Yale. Watch a video demo of the game.