A reader recently wrote asking me if I could put his nephew in touch with someone in the video game business, in order to provide some direction and encouragement. I've received similar requests before, but oddly enough I really don't know many designers any more. I stopped doing features and previews years ago, which limits my coverage to pure opinion journalism. This means I really don't interact with designers like I used to. That was a deliberate choice, because I found my friendships with designers occasionally interfered with my ability to cover their work. Now I just deal with PR people, and that's probably for the best.
But it also means that I didn't have any concrete connections to offer this gentleman, or others who have asked similar questions. What I would like to offer, however, are a few resources and words of advice for parents who have children with an interest in this industry.
Don't discourage them. There are more aspirants than jobs at this point, but the jobs are there and growing, particularly in the area of mobile and web-based game development. (Rovio, makers of Angry Birds, is advertising for 8 new positions.) I was discouraged from becoming a filmmaker when I was young, even though I had displayed a natural aptitude for it. I pushed ahead anyway, went to NYU film school, and worked in TV and film production for a little while (until I realized that writing was a lot easier and less time consuming). I hated the fact that adults kept trying to steer me towards a more "sensible" profession. To hell with that. Let the kids dream big and, if they fail, they fail. At least they took the shot.
There are a lot of things that can help a teenage get a sense of the profession and give them a head start if they ultimately decide to pursue it. The most important thing is to just do it. It's a pretty simple thing for an 11 or 12 year old to get started making games, if only small ones that will show them the process, which can be dull and frustrating, but also quite rewarding.
Towards that end, I recommend The Game Maker's Apprentice, which provides a step-by-step guide for making a variety of little games using the Game Maker software from YoYo Games. (Game Maker can be downloaded for free, and is also included in a disc bound with the book.) There's also a sequel, The Game Maker's Companion, which picks up where the first leaves off.
Visual Basic Game Programming For Teens is a decent next step, although I wouldn't spring it on a middle school student. Game Programming for Teens also has some good parts, although the BlitzMax software it uses is not without problems. Experienced developers may scoff at the idea of making real games with the tools described in either of these books, but that's not really the point. It's simply important that kids get a sense of the process of designing, programming, and troubleshooting. If there are better tools, tutorials, or programs out there, by all means use the comboxes to recommend them. I'm always looking for new things.
It's more important for a young person to get some experience and perhaps build a portfolio than it is for them to make a viable, marketable game. Some colleges even open their game programming classes to high school students, which could provide a structured program for learning the basics.
We also just gave my son Anime Studio Debut 7, and animation software that's very easy to use, yet very powerful. Computer animation in a natural companion for game design, and Anime Studio is a great way to learn the basics and make nice little films.
As a parent, I'm encouraging my son to pursue his interest in making games by using these tools. He may find that the reality of "making games" is less enticing than the fantasy, and turn his attention to something else, thus preventing a false career start later in life. Or he may find that he loves the process and has a natural aptitude for it, and thus have a head start on the hard work of learning how to do it.
Right now, he's partway through Game Maker's Apprentice, and the jury is still out. He has a natural aptitude for this kind of thing, partly due to his high intelligence, and partly due to the peculiar wiring of the Asperger brain, which tends to be heavily biased towards interacting with and understanding machines and technology. Right now, I'm just encouraging him to explore the process. He'll decide for himself whether it's something he wants to pursue in the future.