CSC News

October 07, 2008

Not All Fun and Games

Note - This story originally appeared in NC State magazine, which is a benefit of membership in the Alumni Association.

In the auditorium at Wayne County Community College in Goldsboro, four teens are onstage playing Rock Band, a video game that enables users to perform popular music; it’s like karaoke with fake instruments and the ability to rack up points. The waifish female singer, her voice wavering, struggles through the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Upstairs, crowds of caffeine-fueled teenage boys and young men move from room to room playing games such as Gears of War, Madden 2008 and Halo 3.

It would be easy to dismiss the third annual Carolina Games Summit as geek stereotype writ live, down to the Star Wars devotees dressed as storm troopers and a performance by a band that plays songs from video-game soundtracks. But there’s opportunity here.

The morning seminar session—dubbed the “educator’s panel”—features Michael Young, an associate professor of computer science at NC State, and colleagues from schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill and Pitt, Piedmont and Wake Technical community colleges. They’re discussing the kind of education a student—high school or college—might need to break into the video-game industry. In the exhibition hall, companies such as Destineer Studios, Icarus Studios and Red Storm Entertainment are using the event as a mini job fair, and some have notebooks filled with job listings and descriptions.

There’s a definite demand for video-game developers and strong interest from students. Schools such as the University of Southern California and Michigan State University have concentrations in video-game development. And according to Young, more than 60 percent of undergraduate respondents to a survey by the NC State Department of Computer Science said they would be interested in a video-game concentration. “There have been a number of other schools that have created concentrations around game development in the U.S.,” he says. “They have all seen a remarkable rise in enrollment.”

It was enough to get NC State gaming. This fall, undergraduate students in the computer science department, part of the College of Engineering, will be able to choose a major with a concentration in video-game development. They will take courses in subjects such as artificial intelligence (AI) and computer graphics and supplement those with electives such as English classes in science fiction and fiction writing and a course in the use of computers to compose music.

Surely video games aren’t worthy of higher education, right? Don’t scoff. NC State researchers in August received a $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant to study how video games can help elementary school students learn science concepts. More than a dozen NC State faculty members—from computer engineers to social scientists to education specialists—work with video games. And graduates who pursue concentrations in video-game development will crack an industry that is an economic powerhouse and attracts the creative, high-paying jobs economic developers crave.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has predicted that the worldwide industry will grow from $41.9 billion in global revenue in 2007 to about $68.3 billion in 2012. A 2006 survey by Game Developer magazine reported that the average annual salary for a programmer with three or fewer years of experience was nearly $53,000. It isn’t unusual for a company to snap up skilled students—including those in two-year degree programs at technical colleges—before graduation. The approximately 30 games-industry companies in the Triangle alone employ about 1,000. Employees in Electronic Arts’ Morrisville office developed that company’s NASCAR 2009 game. The engine that runs Unreal Tournament, a popular title from Cary-based Epic Games, is used widely in the development of other games.

At the end of the 2008 spring semester, design and computer science students presented the games they’ve created to a standing-room-only crowd in the College of Design’s Burns Auditorium. Some, like a snowsled racing game, are purely for fun. Others, like an educational game that teaches principles of chemistry, do something different. At NC State and elsewhere, students and faculty are doing more than trying to develop the next blockbuster game or iconic character like Mario, Lara Croft or Solid Snake.

“I learn things, especially complex things, from manuals and reading and things like that,” says Tim Buie ’88, ’98 mid, an assistant professor of industrial design who collaborates with Young and whose students presented at the showcase. “A generation after me learned things from video, from movies. I think the next generation is going to learn more from interacting.”

Sitting in his Engineering Building II office, Young explains how he’s trying to loosen the constraints in video games. He’s tall, 40ish, with a small, silver hoop earring in one ear. His speech is measured, his manner relaxed. On his desk, a just-out-of-the-box Mac, with its massive flat screen, sits next to a laptop computer.

He wants you to imagine a video game based on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Playing as the dour Dane, you must exact revenge on your murderous Uncle Claudius, who has killed your father, married your mother and eventually will try to off you. But what if you want your Hamlet to storm straight from the encounter with his father’s ghost at the start of the story to kill Claudius? “That would totally ruin the rest of the [game] play,” he says.

Consider a game, though, that allowed you the freedom to choose when and how you killed Claudius. One that could remake itself as you played, creating the storyline in real time and leaving you with almost limitless possibilities. Behind the scenes the game adapts to get the user to the same point through a different route. The game creators could also prevent the user from taking particular actions, perhaps preventing Hamlet from killing Claudius at the beginning. Still, the freedom would give you a much more compelling experience, he says, because you helped to construct it. “A story-making engine behind the scenes [of a game] would . . . build up a dynamic story that the player could play through that has never been seen before,” he says.

Young, who has a Ph.D. in intelligent systems from the University of Pittsburgh and a background in theater, has been a leader in the university’s effort to grow research and teaching in video games. When he came to NC State, he says, he became intrigued with developing interesting stories with sophisticated character dialogue, building on his graduate-school work in computational linguistics and reasoning about actions and plans. Co-director of the university’s interdisciplinary Digital Games Research Center (DGRC), he’s working on research rooted in AI, which a National Science Foundation CAREER award, given to promising junior faculty members, has helped to support. The DGRC, a campus clearinghouse for researchers working with video games, includes other faculty members in computer science working on AI, a communication professor who studies mobile gaming and design professors who teach digital illustration, among others.

Young aims to use AI to make games more engaging for users. On a Mac laptop in his office, he runs a video clip of a short first-person shooter game. In it, the antagonist, a thief, is supposed to run into a bank, take the manager’s keycard and use it to access a vault and steal gold. During one sequence, the bank vault is opened before the thief can get to it. The game adapts, so instead of swiping the keycard, he runs into the vault and steals the gold as the protagonist, a cop, gives chase. In another sequence, the cop tries to shoot the thief before he enters the bank. The AI prevents this by directing the bullets to always just miss the thief. Finally, a clip from Westworld, a student-created, Western-themed game, shows cut scenes—breaks in a game that resemble clips from film and advance the storyline without player manipulation. But this scene—a cowboy walking down the main street and into a bar—wasn’t preprogrammed but instead produced in real time in response to what the player did in the scene before.

While it’s the play Young is trying to advance, the AI technology he and his students are working on is a natural fit for the serious games genre, which focuses on training and education. Integrating the infrastructure into military training games, for example, could present users with different obstacles—an improvised explosive device, perhaps, instead of a gunman—each time they play, keeping soldiers from training to the game. In a more pedestrian application, a mathematics-tutoring program could adjust itself to account for areas a user already has mastered and those where he’s weak. “It focuses on presenting challenges that test the edge of their understanding,” Young says. “From observing what they do, [it] reconfigures the tutorial plans so they get just the targeted material that’s really needed.”

The DGRC’s other co-director, design professor Buie, says he and Young considered using a word other than games in the center’s name. After all, the work of its faculty focuses on more than games for entertainment, though that’s what many associate with video gaming. Games had been a loaded word, Buie says. “You had to be careful or you wouldn’t be taken seriously. . . . I thought it was important to keep that term in there because that’s what it is. We’re not trying to couch it inside some other [words], simulations or virtual reality. It’s about play.”

An assistant professor of education, Len Annetta wants to get more video games in the hands of kids. It’s early June, and in a large conference room at the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, about a dozen students from Centennial Campus Middle School are tapping away on laptops, refining the video games they’ve helped to develop.

The goal for the three-hour morning session, Annetta tells the group, is to try to get all the objects the students want in their games into the right places in their virtual worlds. The lead principal investigator for the HI FIVES project—Michael Young is one of four co-principal investigators—Annetta wants teachers to use video games as instructional tools to help in teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics, subjects known as STEM disciplines. Students and teachers work together to build games that focus on STEM-related content. One teacher this morning works on a game that requires students to answer mathematics-related questions to advance.

Funded by a $1.2 million NSF grant, the program began in summer 2006 with teachers from Wake, Durham, Guilford and Lee counties as well as Chapel Hill learning the basics of game programming, integrating the games they created into their classrooms and collecting student feedback. Whether the game was good or bad, Annetta says, the students loved them. “When we don’t bring those types of [technologies] we consider toys in the classroom, we’re disengaging with our students.”

Last summer, a new group of teachers participated and brought students recruited from their classes to help with development. The students were given the tools to work on their teachers’ games and make them more fun. The teacher was the facilitator, making sure the game’s storyline stayed intact. That kind of collaboration through technology, Annetta says, helps students. Research has shown that students do better in a participatory learning environment than in a teacher-centered one. And, a collaborative model more resembles life in the work world. “In education, we’ve been missing the boat in the sense that we’re teaching the same way we’ve taught in the last 40 or 50 years,” he says. “Today’s students are multitaskers. . . . We see from the students in HI FIVES that they’re chatting, they’re watching TV, they’re playing video games. They are doing this all at the same time. They’re in a connected world, in a collaborative environment.”

The seeds for the HI FIVES program and Annetta’s other similar research were planted when he taught high school science and math in Maryland. He would assign homework—the standard questions one through 25 at the end of the chapter—but the students weren’t doing it. “On a certain level, I couldn’t blame them,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to do it either.”

A football coach, he asked his players one day what they do after they leave school. Play video games, they told him. So he created what he describes as a simple, Pong-style game to teach physics. “I brought it to the classroom and the kids were loving it,” he says. “I was like, this is terrible. I had Sega at home and was playing Madden [a football game], so I knew the quality of game that was out there, and this wasn’t anywhere near that. [But] the students were really engaged.”

Some school districts haven’t welcomed the project—they don’t want video games near the classroom—and Annetta says he has met some skepticism from parents. Still, the reception has been mostly positive. “Generally, what we heard was, ‘I’d rather see my child playing an educational game than something that’s not so educational.’”

So is it making a difference? Annetta doesn’t know yet. Teachers have used the content they’ve developed in different ways, sometimes as a one-shot activity and other times as a recurring component of the curriculum. The latter has been more effective. He points to anecdotal evidence such as improved attendance and a decline in behavioral referrals, but he says it’s difficult to tell whether gains are a result of the games or good teaching. He plans to bring in an outside evaluator to help to build an assessment tool to see what’s giving students a boost.

While Annetta is trying to use video games to enhance science instruction, another education professor, Aaron Clark, is using the medium for slightly different aims: getting students in grades 10 to 12 interested in careers in game development and keeping at-risk kids from dropping out. In partnership with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), he’s creating a video game development curriculum for high school students.

Clark had done research in visualization in the College of Education’s technology education program and decided to branch out to find a carrot that might help keep kids in school. “Game designer,” he says, is one of the most popular career choices for middle school students. Game development also helps to reinforce STEM subjects, he says, marrying such subjects as computer science, mathematics and design. And it cuts across all 20 technological literacy standards set by the International Technology Education Association, including the understanding of topics such as engineering design, information and communication technologies, and the roles troubleshooting, experimentation and invention play in problem solving.

“We’re no dummies,” he says. “We know most of these kids will never go into gaming. It’s an avenue that keeps them interested in school and keeps them coming to school, which I think is just as important as producing people who want to become game developers.”

The students in Clark’s program—it was piloted in two Guilford County schools—use primitive game engines that are either low-cost or free. All that’s needed is a good computing lab. The first phase of the curriculum—called “Game Art and Design”—teaches students about the history of video games and how to build their own. As the end of the first course approaches, students design their own 2D game that their peers evaluate.

In his Poe Hall office, he loads one of a dozen student-designed video games on his desktop computer. It’s called Battle Against the Robots and is archaic looking, with cascades of squares moving up and down and left and right. Its gameplay resembles the late 1970s arcade classic Space Invaders. The bad guys quickly overwhelm Clark, who admits he prefers games like Hangman to Halo 3.

“Talk about being outnumbered. Oh my Lord. This is worse than Braveheart,” he says, referring to the scene in the Mel Gibson film in which Scottish warriors battle the massive army of Edward II.

In the second phase, still under development, students will learn more advanced techniques, study subjects such as marketing and business, and design a 3D game. Clark says he hopes to present the curriculum for approval to DPI in 2010 and that students who choose to pursue an associate’s degree in game development will get credit for these high school courses.

He says he has had to turn down schools interested in getting involved in the pilot programs. But like Annetta, Clark has also heard of administrators rejecting the idea of bringing video games into the classroom. “Most people think gaming is all about art and entertainment,” he says. “It’s all about first-person shooters. We hear so much bad publicity. . . . [Grand Theft Auto:] Vice City. That’s a lot of negative. That’s not something we would support or even consider using or showing in schools. What we show is how you relate this to serious games because we believe gaming has a future in not only the art and entertainment area, but we believe it’s going to go in the educational area of how we train and manage people.”

That’s the future Jerry Heneghan sees. It’s one NC State could help to build.

On this spring afternoon, the chief executive officer of Research Triangle Park-based game company Virtual Heroes surveys students working in a darkened computer lab on the south Raleigh campus of Wake Tech. Some of his employees guide the students as they build virtual machines that will simulate the production of pills and will be used in training at the Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC) on NC State’s Centennial Campus.

Virtual Heroes specializes in serious games and, Heneghan says, has hired students from NC State. The company contributes to America’s Army, which the U.S. Army uses in training, and has developed games for the health care industry, government agencies such as NASA and the Secret Service, and companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Hilton Hotels and Toyota. “Anything that can be done to train people more effectively, faster, better, cheaper with a higher rate of retention, is a very good thing,” says Heneghan, an adviser on the HI FIVES project.

The challenge in creating serious games, he says, is building something that is engaging and fun but that teaches certain skills, whether it’s how to operate a pill-making machine or how to dispose of ordinance in a war zone. But a recent study by the Advanced Distribution Learning Initiative, part of the Department of Defense, suggests it’s worth it. It showed that the test scores of university students who used games to supplement their classroom instruction were on average 12 points higher than those who didn’t.

It’s students like the ones at NC State, and the faculty who guide them, who will help to advance technologies used to create games that provide countless hours of entertainment and help fuel a multibillion-dollar industry or games with very different aims, perhaps even helping the out-of-work prepare for jobs in a changed economy.

“People displaced out of other industries, like textiles, manufacturing, tobacco, are being retrained [using video games] to go into things like pharmaceuticals and health care,” Heneghan says. “If we can put these existing technologies to use, that’s good.”

By Chris Richter - associate editor of NC State magazine.

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