Appleton: Sanger teen wins video game design award

The Fresno BeeApril 11, 2014 


A Sanger student recently made some waves in the gaming world.

Cody Haugland, a 17-year-old senior at Sanger High School, was one of 16 students to win the third annual National STEM Video Game Challenge.

Cody's "The Amazing Game" beat out nearly 4,000 other games for the STEM, which is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

The inaugural competition was announced by President Barack Obama in 2010 as part of his "Educate to Innovate" campaign.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, the nonprofit educational organization responsible for "Sesame Street," runs the competition.

Cody's prize was a brand new gaming laptop with game design and educational software, a $2,000 grant for Sanger High School and an all-expenses-paid trip to the Games for Change Festival in New York, where he and the other winners will be honored on stage. He plans to bring his school's deputy principal, Leo Castillo, along for the ride.

The win came as a complete shock to Cody.

"I learned about the National STEM Video Game Challenge from my video game design teacher, and he encouraged me to submit a game," Cody writes in an email. "Honestly, my teacher and I did not expect for me to win just because it was nationwide and students can spend the whole year working on their games."

Cody's "The Amazing Game," which took only two weeks to create, was his final for Robert Heinrich's video game design course. He couldn't think of a name for the game, so he called it "The Amazing Game" on a whim. I doubt he ever expected to see the title plastered on websites and newspapers.

The budding game designer got his start by augmenting a classic.

"I really started by using the creation kit for "The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind" to create modifications to actors and weapons," Cody says.

This doesn't surprise me at all. More and more gamers are taking game quality into their own hands by using kits, programs or computer code itself to create a different playing experience. The developers of a few games, including "Minecraft" and "EverQuest," are giving players the keys to the car by supplying them with the original developer kits used to create the game. Some of these "modders" have even been offered jobs by the parent companies.

Cody loves the Elder Scrolls series, but modding the series didn't inspire "The Amazing Game."

"There was no game that really inspired my process of creating my game," Cody says. "My game was just more go-with-the-flow style."

The game centers around a tiny motorcycle bent on cleaning up the environment. The player must destroy boats that are polluting a lake and factories that are belching smoke. The final level pits the player against a massive plane that has been impeding his or her progress.

Cody plans to speak with Microsoft (a sponsor of the competition) about distributing a free version to the public. The platform he used to design the project, Kodu, has both PC and Xbox gameplay capabilities.

Cody, who will graduate from high school in June, plans to enroll in the graphic design program at Fresno State. He also is working on a huge new modification for "The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim" and a clone of the mobile sensation "Flappy Bird."

I'm really glad to interview Cody. I've been on the lookout for aspiring video game professionals in the central San Joaquin Valley. Too few of them exist here.

We are sandwiched between three of the largest gaming hubs in country. Games are big business in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. In Fresno, they are just a hobby.

Maybe this is starting to change. I applaud Sanger High School for offering a video game design course and for encouraging its students. This course allowed Cody to find out that he is not just good at something, he is one of the best. That's really important for anyone, especially a high school student.

I hope that other schools — and the entire Valley — can follow this example. Video game design is a legitimate occupational goal, and it is only one of many new-age jobs that some kids want to learn more about. I hope they get their chance.



Rory can be reached at or @RoryDoesPhonics on Twitter.

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