By Travis Trombley
Every Wednesday at 1:00 p.m., a small group of students meet in the Learning Café in Olin to collaborate on a multi-semester project. Some of the students try to think of possible improvements for their venture, others work on fixing existing problems and the rest discuss “Bioshock Infinite.” It’s just another day in the process of making a video game.
While Albion lacks a Computer Science minor, students interested in digital cultures are still finding ways to explore. For students interested in gaming, Guy Cox, director of the Ferguson center for technology-aided teaching and learning, in collaboration with a few students from his 2011 FYE class, started the quarter-unit pilot class “Intro to Game Design.”
“The class has a schedule, there are milestones and there are assignments and responsibilities, but the big part of the learning in the class involves project management,” Cox said. “It’s about thinking something will take you so long, then realizing you’re wrong. These aren’t traps, but they help you learn about planning, re-planning and how you work, so there’s a lot of self-discovery.”
Cox, who gained his experience with video game technology while working as a consultant for Hewlett Packard for 20 years and associating with game-makers in Silicon Valley, was able to offer the class three times on a trial basis. Though he designed the class with a syllabus and a textbook in case anyone needed them, Cox meant for the class to be a more relaxed introduction into the development process.
Since the crux of learning in the class concerns the process of designing rather than actual development, the class assumes no knowledge of programming skills. In lieu of actual coding, the class employs a game-making program called Multimedia Fusion.
“Whereas big game developers have the coding involved, a lot of our work is just simple actions that are pretty much already coded in,” said Dylan Danowski, Highland sophomore. “It’s simplified so you can pick an action rather than writing a code. We don’t have to type any coding, but we do have to understand the program.”
Since computer science skills are not required, Cox appreciates the fact that students from various academic disciplines can come together to celebrate their love of games through this class.
“One of the things about gaming that’s really exciting is that it’s interdisciplinary,” Cox said. “You need music, aesthetics, visual art. You need computer science and mechanics and logic, and then serious games need to have a social element, so there’s a philosophical and ethical dimension to games, too, and that’s true of any design activity.”
Austin Jones, Livonia sophomore, can attest to that diversity because he knew little about the production of games before walking into the class.
“A lot of people we have now also don’t know that much about making games and programming,” Jones said. “Many of us, myself included, have to learn from the students who had the class before.”
Another important component of the class is that, as a quarter-unit, students take it on a pass/fail basis—there are no formal grades. Both Cox and the students think this is important to the feel of the class.
“I told them, ‘if this class gets in the way of your other work, we’re doing something wrong,’” Cox said. “If it’s causing you to lower your GPA in your major, you need to back off.”
But Danowski insists that the lack of regular grades in no way diminishes the productivity of the class.
“I’ve definitely gotten a lot from the class, but it’s a different atmosphere that a typical class,” Danowski said. “I do enjoy the club-like atmosphere while still getting credit for it because I am doing work, and I am learning about gaming companies and what they would go through.”
Carl Jones and Kyle Albrecht watch as Jake Fredericks manipulates parts of code to fix their tower defense game on a computer in the Learning Cafe. “We are basically trying to see if we can do things more efficiently in the hopes that that will lead to less problems,” Fredericks said.
The class may become a thing of the past after this semester. Cox said that he was only allowed three trial offerings of the course, so now he has to decide whether to work with the registrar to make it a “real” class, or to end it now on a high note.
“The students want me to continue,” Cox said. “It’d be gratifying and scary at the same time if I got a lot of people who want to take the class. But it would be a little unsatisfying for me and the current students to keep doing introductory stuff, so we’d have to figure out how to integrate people.”
Whether he continues the class or not, Cox says that such digital classes may soon become more prevalent at Albion. He notes that professors across disciplines, from Art to Communications and Math to English, have an understanding of game mechanics and an interest in incorporating digital studies into classes.
“I think there is an interest on campus for more digital cultures classes and activities, but it’s in that early investigation space,” Cox said.
Photos by Travis Trombley