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photo: ©RPI/Stanton

Game On, Video-Game Visionaries
By David King

RPI’s video-game-design program encourages students to think outside the control box


The crashing thunder of rocket fire echoes through the Heffner Alumni House at RPI. The crowd packed into the hall watches as a man carrying a type of gun normally attached to the side of a helicopter dodges left, then right, strafes a pillar and then hops in an elevator. The sound of bullets ricocheting off stone walls dissipates, and then there is a flash of yellow light and the sickening sound of exploding flesh. Pieces of entrails and splashes of blood fly through the air, raining down in a sleet of digital gore. The crowd moans, but the moans are quickly overwhelmed by an ominous voice that announces in a bloodthirsty tone, “You have taken the lead!”

Thus begins the Experimental Media Performing Arts Center’s presentation Fair Game on the campus of RPI in Troy. A crowd of hundreds has gathered to see how artists around the world are using the engines behind popular video games such as Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament to create their own works of art.

During the presentation, which took place on the evening of Nov. 29, artists from Work Space Unlimited (a collective of artists and programmers) demonstrated how they have taken game engines normally used to create virtual online killing fields and turned them into virtual museums, with exhibits that warp and bend reality in ways an artist could not in the physical world. Friedrich Kirschner displayed FEED, a work that he created with the Unreal Tournament Engine and that was inspired by the animation of the digital actor’s death throes in Unreal Tournament. The piece features a dark black environment where naked figures float twitching in spasms to the sound of booming, ominous noise. Kirschner originally created the work for Theatre Biennale in Venice.

The RPI event ended with a display of machinima, a new art form recently recognized by the Sundance Film Festival, in which gamers utilize video-game characters and settings to create movies. Besides being recognized at Sundance, machinima is regularly shown on MTV, and episodes of machinima created by various developers are downloaded by millions of eager viewers every week.

Not bored in the boardroom: Tobi Saulnier with staff at 1st Playable Productions in the RPI incubator.

photo:Alicia Solsman

Video games are quickly mutating past their simple, brain-rotting stereotype. And RPI has recognized this with a step that would have been laughed at a decade ago: It will begin offering video-game developing as a major next fall.

‘A big thing the students like to point to here is that the game industry has surpassed the movie industry in sales recently,” says John Harrington, associate dean of undergraduate programs at RPI. Video gaming’s popularity has not been lost on RPI, as it has offered a video-game-development minor since 2003. Interest in the minor was so strong (27 students graduated from the minor in its first year of existence) that the creation of the major soon followed.

RPI is one of a few schools in the country that offers a course of study in video-game design to undergrads. The program itself will encompass multiple subjects within the liberal arts, including animation, scripting, and psychology, as well as more technical studies such as programming and electronics.

Although there is plenty of work being done to create the best new shooter, role-playing game or side-scrolling adventure, the professors in charge of RPI’s video-game major want their students to take a page from the artists at Fair Game who manipulated video-game engines for their own artistic purposes. They want their students to see past the traditional restraints and uses applied to the medium. Some are even working on using the power of interactive simulation to enhance the lives of the less fortunate.

“My hope for this major would be the same as for any other good major, which is to produce students that have credentials for a job marketplace,” says Harrington. “At the same time, the product students are working on won’t be limited to the single-shooter game market. It’s not just games as media; it is edutainment and education as well. Our students are quite good at seeing the possibilities behind the medium.”

Harrington notes that despite gaming’s popularity, the major had to undergo the same scrutiny any other proposed major would. “I am not by inclination a big games player,” he says, “and I’m sure that our president, Dr. Shirley Anne Jackson, has very little time left to explore games media—but they have persuaded us. In fact, I think everyone is getting persuaded that this is the educational wave of the future.”

Harrington points out that the major is called Video Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences. “It’s not just educating young people. Medical schools are using this as a kind of training for surgeons. The most impressive kind I saw was fire training for firefighters and using simulations to plan for disaster management.”

It becomes very clear when speaking to the students currently in the video-game minor at RPI that they don’t need to be prodded very much to fly in the face of convention or to buck stereotypes.

photo: ©RPI/Stanton

Mike Stanton sits in a contoured chair in front of a flat-screen computer monitor and his IBM Notebook, under the flickering fluorescent lights of an RPI computer lab. He clicks a button on his computer and brings up a 3D image of a humanoid figure strapped to a chair. “So this is the beginning of my very little epic,” says Stanton as he clicks a button to zoom in on the chair. “It starts; you wake up strapped to this scary operation chair in this dimly lit lab. You’re wearing nothing.”

While Stanton’s sci-fi horror setting may sound somewhat straightforward for a video game, what is not conventional is Stanton’s plan to present the game through Flash Media, which is normally used for small, cutesy Internet games such as Shoot the Pop Icon. He is developing the game for RPI professor of integrated electronic arts Katherine Ruiz, in her experimental game-design class.

Ruiz has been instrumental in the creation of RPI’s video-game major. She encourages all her students to approach game development in unique ways that challenge how players interact with the product.

Stanton wants his game to go beyond the scope of any other Flash game before it. He plans to release a series of installments online, in which the player has to solve multiple puzzles to advance deeper into an underground bunker complex.

Stanton clicks another button, types in a few commands, and suddenly the camera pans out to display an entire network of intricate bunkers and laboratories, which Stanton says will be filled with rooms containing more puzzles. “I want people to sit down and say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to play a Flash game,’ and then, bam! It’s terrifying, it’s involving. ‘Oh, it’s a real game.’ ”

The ideal scenario for Stanton would involve a series of online releases that would earn critical praise. “Maybe people would get to know the games and like them enough that they’d be willing to pay a fee.” He can also envision moving the game into the medium of film.

Students like Stanton do not have to get all their design experience in class or at home. Thanks to RPI’s business-incubator program, there are a number of fully functioning game-development companies in the area who actively recruit RPI students and grads. In fact, Troy has become a hotbed for video-game developers; it is becoming a sort of pop-culture pocket of the Capital Region’s touted Tech Valley.

The success of Vicarious Visions, a one-time RPI incubator business founded by RPI grads, helped prompt the creation of the games major. Recently purchased by national video-game giant Activision, Vicarious Visions has been involved in producing sales-blockbuster games such as Doom 3 for Xbox and Spiderman 2 for a number of hand-held systems.

Former Vicarious Visions Vice President Tobi Saulnier founded a company currently in the incubator, 1st Playable Productions. Saulnier stands tall in a dark black shirt and black baggy techno pants with red straps hanging from the back. She stands in a room with soft couches covered with stuffed animals and dolls and a table strewn with Legos, video games, consoles and action figures. “We have a little fun in here,” she says. The room functions as a boardroom as well as a playroom where local kids and teens come to test 1st Playable’s newest products.

Before getting involved in the video-game industry, Saulnier managed an R&D team at GE, where she earned 16 patents. Saulnier says that before working at Visions, she wasn’t really familiar with video games and had never expected to work with them. However, her time at Visions has given her a view of the medium’s future. According to Saulnier, she founded 1st Playable because “It’s much more rewarding to work for a small company.” However, Saulnier also inherently disagreed with her former company’s approach. Saulnier would rather market nonviolent, semi-educational games to children than produce bloody epics such as Doom 3.

All eyes on the screen: Professor Kathleen Ruiz and Mike Stanton.

photo:Alicia Solsman

While 1st Playable is currently developing games on themes like Cabbage Patch Kids for hand-held systems, Saulnier has a grander idea for the future of the company. She imagines hand-held, portable video-game units such as the Gameboy DS and the Play Station Portable becoming the educational machines of the future.

Saulnier picks up a Nintendo DS and opens it up in the palm of her hand. “Some schools can’t afford to buy computers for every kid, and even if they can, the machines break down all the time. These things don’t require as much maintenance and are much cheaper.” Her company is currently developing child-oriented games for hand-held units, but for the future, she wants to ensure her games become more a part of the mainstream. She notes that to buy most video games, you have to walk to a special section of the store, where the video games are behind glass. Saulnier sees a future in developing educational software toys that are available everywhere. “Some of the products aren’t that good, but a lot of money is being made,” she says. “That’s how you can tell the market might need some competition.”

Saulnier’s vision hinges on a belief she shares with Ruiz and Herrington, the belief that video games have become a part of the mainstream, of the very existence of our younger generations, and that as time goes on video games will go beyond being pop culture’s dominating medium. “My kids all have [online game World of] Warcraft accounts,” says Saulnier. “They have grown up with the game. When they come to me and tell me about their latest adventure, am I supposed to tell them it wasn’t real?”

In RPI’s game department, the goal is something far beyond enhancing current, entertainment-based games or providing new game developers to a hungry marketplace. “When people think of video games, they think of Grand Theft Auto, games like that,” says Ruiz. Like Saulnier, Ruiz has something in mind for gaming’s future that has very little to do with the random, simulated violence of Grand Theft Auto or the carnage and chaos of a first-person shooter. Ruiz hopes to use virtual realities to help the handicapped better navigate their realities.

Ruiz sits at a table surrounded by students who have volunteered for her CapAbility Games Research Project. The students, who will receive no credit for participating in the project, and who come from different majors and backgrounds including music, animation and psychology, represent the diversity of studies that RPI believes should apply to the creation of video games. The group has come together with Kim Purcell, director of the Adult Day Services Technology Center at the Center for Disabled, to design a video game that can help handicapped individuals learn to perform everyday tasks that may be challenging to them, such as cooking dinner or getting dressed.

The group has met with handicapped individuals at the Center for the Disabled to find out what works for them. Jim Luther, who is the director of technology for the Center for the Disabled, plans to work with the CapAbility group to help its members get a better sense of what will work for his clients. Luther sits in a plastic chair next to a computer touch-screen and a number of metal arms that have big red buttons on their ends. He pulls one of the arms close to his neck and then presses his head against the big red button at its head. “Socks!” responds the computer. Suddenly socks appear on the feet of a partially clothed image of a young man on the screen. This is how some of Luther’s students go about playing a video game.

“The biggest challenge they are going to have to face is that we have students at all levels of capability. Some of them can move only their heads. There is a wide range of disability that needs to be taken into account,” Luther explains as he applies a reflective metallic dot to his glasses. Then he cranes his neck to the left. On the computer screen in front of him a cursor moves with his neck. Luther contorts his body and struggles to pull the cursor over the program he wants. These computer interfaces Luther is displaying are the only means a number of students at the center have to interact with technology. Luther has spent a great deal of time trying to find programs that can work for handicapped people at all level of physical and cognitive capability.

“They had this contest called, where game developers around the world were challenged to come up with games where the interface is the click of one button. Some of the games are decent—some of them work—but I don’t think the developers really had an understanding of the people who would be using them,” Luther reports.

Luther hopes to help Ruiz’s group to better understand its audience. He foresees a game that would adjust to all levels of capability, from someone who could watch and perhaps click a button to someone who could enjoy all levels of interaction and understanding.

Big screens, big guns: RPI students show off 3D gaming engines at Fair Game.

photo:Rick Marshall

The current game proposal would take the player through a shopping trip at a local Price Chopper. The simplest interaction would just introduce a player to the environment, to allow them to see what a supermarket is. The next step up would put the player in a bit more control of the game, allowing them to choose items from the shelves. A person of greater capabilities would probably experience all the pieces of a trip to a local supermarket, including choosing items, conforming to a budget and even checking out and interacting with a cashier. Luther would also like to see a function that allows the player to be digitally mapped into the game so that they could see themselves interacting in the environment.

Besides having to allow for all levels of interaction with the game, the development group also will have to take into consideration the limitations of the technology that the Center for the Disabled has available. Although the group’s original intention was to utilize a video-game engine from a high-tech, first-person shooter, it turns out that cutting-edge software won’t run on the technology the center has. “We might have one or two computers that are up to date now,” says Luther. “When I’m downloading games online, I look for those that are simple enough for any of the students to play and that will run on the lowest common denominator of the computers we have here.”

Despite all the limitations and caveats, Ruiz believes the developers will be able to come up with something that can fit the center’s needs.

The group is likely to be working on the project for a good portion of next year. However, Ruiz is already thinking past the original parameters of the project. “Through the game, we could demonstrate to people what it might be like to have a certain handicap,” she says. Luther agrees that a game that allowed the player to experience what it is like to suffer from a certain handicap could promote understanding and help educators better aid the handicapped.

Ruiz also thinks that in the years to come, video gaming will change and become a medium far more powerful and integrated into our society than it is today. Her personal vision of the future of gaming sees users from around the world mapping programs with their own personal traits and languages, their hometowns and their lifestyles, and then sharing their world with other users to promote better understanding. “They would be able to experience a whole other way of looking at the world,” she says.

Ruiz cautions that her vision is not definitive and it is not her work and beliefs that will define video gaming’s next evolution. That, she says, will be up to her students. “We don’t know what it is yet,” she says. “We can’t name it yet, because it isn’t here. But our students, the ones in our major, are going to be the ones to create it. They are the ones who will get to name it.”

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