A RE@L Re-Visit to the Future of Computer Game Development: Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center - Don Rawitsch, RE@L VP of Product Development
“In the fall of 2014 I was invited to visit Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) in Pittsburgh, which provides a formal preparation program for future technology-based game designers. The structure of the ETC program, the faculty, and the student work that I observed were impressive.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to reconnect with ETC, resulting in a one day visit in April 2017, as the guest of Drew Davidson, ETC’s Director. The program had grown in 30 months!
The ETC occupies most of five floors of its own building with classrooms, offices, and meeting rooms. The hallways and office walls are covered with pictures and statues of well-known cartoon, movie, and game characters, all to stimulate creativity.
Students, both undergraduate and graduate, come here to take classes on various game development skills. At the end of their two-year program, they form groups that each spend a 15-week period developing a game concept and prototype. Faculty critique is provided throughout the process. Each group presents their progress several times to faculty and other students.
The term “game” is used flexibly here. A group might develop a simulation or a tool as well. Some of the groups choose to work on a game for education, and they are paired with a teacher and his/her class in a local school. The class serves as a “test lab” that provides real kid feedback during the development process. Some of the ETC faculty have educational careers, including educational game development, which makes them good mentors for educational game groups.
My visit began with a series of meetings with student development groups working on their projects. The first student game I saw was designed to teach arithmetic skills. When I pointed out that there were hundreds of games for that, the team explained that they were working on a design for students with behavioral problems or mental disorders. Many were behind grade level in math and needed a special form of motivation.
The prototype they showed me took an interesting approach to linking the counting of objects to using numbers (symbols) to express arithmetic “facts.” They had tried addition with their test students and were about to move their development into the area of subtraction. Different ways for different learners are needed in K12.
A second group had created a game to let students explore the addition and subtraction of angles. In a jungle environment, angles can be formed by directing a beam of light onto a crystal, which deflects the beam in a different direction, forming an angle labeled with its measure in degrees. The students had used a “progressive” design to create about 40 levels of difficulty, moving through addition and subtraction of angles. Game play was fun and the work of the team’s artist made the game attractive. Another difference was to learn.
My final team experience was with a Virtual Reality group. They were experimenting with new ways to teach software coding by allowing the user to create a structural model of a computer program using objects arrayed in space. The coding in programs is modular. You might have an input module or a display module, for example. Cleverly, these modules are used repeatedly as needed, forming multiple layers in the code. Languages designed to teach kids coding, such as Scratch software, let the coder create and structure these components through keyboard work.
After I donned my VR helmet (for my first time ever), I was able to define geometric objects as modules and then place the objects in a desired sequence.
They hovered and orbited in different areas of my 3D universe! I could readily see how this makes coding more visual and tactile than typing in code.
But then the idea really struck home: so much of learning is combining ideas in certain patterns. Were these students actually creating a “learning machine” that could be used to describe the relationships found in a novel or history book? Was it helping the user to organize his/her thoughts for better understanding?! Whatever. The potential is clearly there.
As a co-inventor of the popular Oregon Trail computer game, I was then asked to make a class presentation on that famous game’s invention and history. Even though Oregon Trail came to life 45 years ago, some aspects of the invention process still ring true for today’s game developers. A game concept and educational purpose had to be determined. A game play model was then developed, coded and tested with students.
The biggest difference between then and now is that the technical work in 1971 was done on a text-only teletype with acoustic coupler modem! I stressed the value of educational games delivering multiple levels of learning. We included:
• strategy learning, (a plan on how to succeed),
• topic learning (history, geography),
• process learning (kids creating their own group play practices).
The current explosion in the computer gaming industry does not mean that the gamification of schooling is inevitable, however. Cooperative projects are needed between schools and developers, like RE@L, who are equally committed to make this change happen.
Games are an effective method of stimulating learning in ways that will always be in demand:
- providing students with challenges,
- presenting them with new information,
- engaging them as an active part of the learning process,
- motivating them with enjoyment.
In summary, I found that young people at the Entertainment Technology Center have a driving passion for future game development. They are being well-prepared to create future games which will deliver both entertainment and learning, expanding opportunities in school and beyond.”
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