Education - Page 5 - Games Are More Than Just Child's Play

- Page 5
Games Are More Than Just Child's Play
Students and professors embrace the role of games in teaching, education and future careers

By Sarah Cavill, Contributing Writer

It comes as no surprise that today’s college students, native users of technology since they learned to talk, are investing more and more time and energy in gaming as an educational tool. Burgeoning majors like simulation and digital entertainment (SDE) at the University of Baltimore (UB), and two undergraduate tracks at UMBC, under the GAIM (Games, Animation and Interactive Media) auspices, are taking gaming out of the basement. While it may sound suspect at first, the idea of tuition dollars going to kids sitting around playing video games, it is fundamentally about the application of art, coding, development, math, cybersecurity and engineering, among others, across various fields and disciplines.

“Students in the SDE program are driven by the fact that their skill sets can be utilized across science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM). They are interested in finding out the usefulness of games and simulations in various other fields such as medical, diagnostics, engineering, sciences, cyber and space technology,” says Sujan Shrestha, assistant professor at the college of science, information arts and technology at UB.

Within the SDE program, students can focus on various aspects of gaming and game creation. Some students focus on game writing, while others create programming languages. The technical art track at UB is engineered for students with an interest in animation and 3D modeling, and game design theory is an intensive approach to understanding user preferences and usability. Students in the SDE program also have access to the UB GameLab.

“The UB GameLab is a multi-purpose research facility that supports students and faculty at the University of Baltimore in interdisciplinary research in STEAM education. It is a new kind of learning lab that complements classroom learning for students and allows faculty to engage in research and creative exploration through experiments and creative practices. It supports the role of learning through innovation and discovery,” says Shrestha.

Students have the opportunity at GameLab to work in collaboration with teachers on interdisciplinary research designs. Shrestha has involved his GameLab students on projects ranging from math and science concepts in games and simulations, to mapping historical artifacts, to the physical construction of a CAVE virtual reality environment.

Students at the GameLab also produce a quality portfolio that they can use post-graduation. For the students in Aaron Oldenburg’s Frontiers of Game Design class at UB, the challenge is thinking outside of their comfort zone and implementing original ideas.

“Frontiers of Game Design is a course with a revolving topic, focusing on an emerging or experimental concept and/or technology in game design. Last fall the topic was sensory deprivation and augmentation through audio-only game design. Students used a non-visual approach as a constraint, and explored audio for its own robust expressive and locative properties. The goal was to create games where the player’s main source of sensory feedback was audio. Players could not rely on visuals to find their way around,” says Oldenburg, associate professor of science, information arts and technologies. The projects were later critiqued by Karl Belanger from the National Foundation for the Blind. His expertise is in game and web accessibility.

Oldenburg stresses that any game design program has to offer students varying specializations, particularly since work in the field is usually team-based. At UMBC, a similar drive toward diversity within the specialty was a factor when creating the two game-development focused programs now offered. “We created two programs, the game development track in computer science and the animation and interactive media concentration in visual arts. In both cases, the students get a degree in the primary discipline, a B.S. in computer science or a B.A. or B.F.A. in visual arts. The track constrains their electives to ones that are used in the games industry,” says Marc Olano, associate
professor of computer science and electrical engineering.

Olano is also conscience of how hiring often works for large teams building games, with the majority of jobs going to programmers and artists, which is another reason for the focus of the two programs. However, many students won’t ever work in gaming, and instead take the skills to other places. “The other educational benefit from programs like ours is as a great motivator for learning knowledge that can be applied in many different areas. Every one of the classes in our game development track would be extremely
useful for someone with no intention of working in the games industry at all. Even the game project class gives students the chance to experience work

Games, continued on page 8

Women and gaming continue their growing alliance

Jacqueline Wojcik is a senior in the Honors College at UMBC. She will graduate soon with a B.F.A. in visual arts with a concentration in animation and interactive media and a minor in computer science.

“In the next academic year, I will complete a Fulbright research grant in Oslo, Norway titled ‘The Gokstad and Oseberg Burials in Digital Space.’ I will create digital models from two Viking Age ship burials and place them in interactive, game-like environments so that people can see how the artifacts would have been used in the lives of their
owners. The project will explore the intersection of games, learning and archaeological visualization,” says Wojcik.

As a member of the UMBC Game Developers Club, Wojcik has seen first hand the impact that games can have on learning and different skill sets. “They are absolutely
useful in learning to understand complex systems and seeing things you have learned about in action,” she says. The club participates in networking events, aimed at connecting students and industry professionals. Wojcik would also like to work in the gaming universe, so she joined the club to grow her portfolio. She is currently working on the game “Legacy of the Shards” as a character artist, rigger and animator.

Wojcik considers herself both an artist and a gamer. She is more of an artist and a visual designer, than a technician, and she sees that often her fellow female student tend to do less programming and instead focus more on the aesthetic and visual aspects of a game.

“I suspect this stems from broader issues of gender inequality in the STEM field. In several of my programming classes, I have been one of three or four women in a class of
30. These numbers can be really daunting, but overall they seem to be shifting toward more equality. I would absolutely encourage any girls or women interested in game development to pursue it,” says Wojcik. •

Above left: From left to the right, undergraduate students Derek Schoengold, Elijah Fernandez, Hank Jones, Abigail Ostrander and Boma Jack from the simulation and digital entertainment program at the University of Baltimore test their game product in the CAVE automatic virtual reality environment.