Gaming in Class? Required!
Assistant Professor of Computer Science
At Andrews since January of 2014
What are your teaching areas?
Artificial intelligence, data structures and algorithms, mobile application development—Android programming, formal theory of computing and game design.
What program do you use for game design?
The Unreal game engine, a pretty high end game engine.
Did you study gaming design in grad school?
No. This is really more of an excuse for me to learn how to write games. You know, if you want to learn how to do something you teach a class in it (laughs). I always wanted to write games. When I was a freshman in high school, I learned how to write little, simple games. This was the old days when graphics were just triangles and squares and such. In college I also played around making Windows games. I had a little dungeon crawler with bitmap graphics. Then I graduated, and didn’t have time for many years because I was either working as a professional or was in grad school.
In game design I suppose there’s a technical side and an artistic side. How does that manifest itself in the class?
We start out a little bit on the artistic side, just so students can build enough of their game so they can have things moving around in it. We start out with 3D so people can see what all the Unreal engine can do. We create little 3D structures from geometry, and then landscapes, and then we start learning about the “volumes” you can use to simulate water and different visual effects. “Volumes” are boxes that change how the game plays when the player is in them. So there’s little boxes that can keep the player in a region or out of a region, boxes that can change the laws of physics—water, lowered gravity or no gravity at all, boxes that change what you see. Most of the class focuses on how to program the game.
Do your students make rules for their games, scoring, levels, those sorts of things?
Games can vary an awful lot. We start off the class trying to define what a game is, which is trickier than you might think. A lot of different things can be considered games, from really complex first person simulations, to something simple like hide and seek. You might have points or not. You might have a clearly defined goal, or a little more creative environment. Take Minecraft. You can work towards a goal or you can just be creative and build stuff. There’s a group called “Games for Change” that focuses on games that make some kind of social statement. For instance, they had a game that tried to capture the experience of illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico, where you can play as an immigrant or as a border patrol officer. The game raises awareness of the issues involved. My students today were talking about a game called “That Dragon, Cancer,” developed by a father and mother whose child died of cancer. You are experiencing the parents’ journey as they discover and deal with their child's illness. This is one of those games that people who are skeptical about the value of games should play.
How do people become game designers?
There’s a lot of different types of jobs in game development. Fairly simple games can be created by one person; more complex games usually have teams of programmers and artists and game designers. You can have hundreds of people working on bigger budget games, with lots of specialists. Last year I went to the game developers conference in San Francisco, along with 20,000 to 30,000 other people. They had different tracks for people focusing on the audio aspect of games, people focusing on designing the idea of a particular game in the first place and how the game should function, people focusing on the artistic side. So you can come from the arts or the technical side. One guy I talked to had a PhD in physics, and was hired as a data scientist by game companies to write programs to look for people who were cheating (in multiplayer games over the Internet). And there’s the marketing and business side of games too. You can get into the industry from a traditional university background, but there are also for-profit schools that have shorter term game design tracks. And there are schools that have begun game design degrees, that have multi-disciplinary tracks, pulling together areas like communication, graphic design and computer science.
What’s the final product that students in your class produce?
For the “final exam” we have a project demo, where everyone shows off their game for a few minutes. I showed off a few of the games created by last year’s students at the Ice Cream Social in the fall.
Do you ever play games on your own time?
It’s research. I have to (laughs). But honestly, I don’t have much free time. I’ve played Starcraft for research purposes, because I’d like to do something with it. It’s a strategy game. Somebody reversed engineered Starcraft so that you can create little Artificial Intelligences that can play the game, and then they have competitions at artificial intelligence conferences where one person’s AI competes against another’s. Or AI’s play humans. And people sometimes learn how to develop AI’s in games and later adjust those skills to using AI’s to do processes in factories, or driving cars, or what have you. They’ve had robotic cars driving around San Francisco for a number of years.
Gaming in the Christian world often has a negative connotation—games of violence, wasting time. What are some good things about computer games?
You can use them for teaching. There are lots of educational games out there. When I was in elementary school I played Oregon Trail and Number Munchers back in the 80s. It’s a way of making education fun and getting ideas across. Then there’s simulations: interactive applications that help you learn how to fly or understand physics problems. And there’s the broader application of “game-ification” to mundane tasks. One of the aspects of games that draws people in is where they’re able to get into a “flow state,” with heightened awareness and concentration. If the activity that you’re doing in that state is constructive, then it’s really great to be in a state of flow. This has happened to some extent in the field of fitness. Adventist World Radio, just to take one example, has been working on an app that combines fitness and evangelism.