Game on: how video games are changing the way we work and play

Gaming is storytelling. From a design perspective, a good game presents a world that is both accessible and fantastic; at its center are good characters.

The cross-discipline educational opportunities for gaming at CCA combine the latest tech with back-to-basics instruction on character development and world building with the goal of training designers to create a fully immersive experience for the player. From this simple model, infinite variation emerges.

“Animation instruction hasn't really changed since it was taught with pencils and paper in the 1970s,” says Animation Adjunct Professor Ken Cope. What has changed is the speed at which certain steps in the process can be accomplished and the variations in style afforded artists through digital tools like Photoshop and TV Paint.

Cope is a big believer in “going wide”; becoming a jack-of-all-trades, he says, is a good way to ensure steady work. Likewise, he says it’s important to stay current on the latest technology and to think creatively about how to use tools in new ways to tell stories or add new elements to gameplay. He highlights new technology like “augmented reality,” which takes gameplay off-screen and superimposes it onto our three-dimensional reality—so the baddies that used to scroll from one side of the screen are able to leap at players from the walls in their living room, not just with goggles, but with smartphones.

Student Creates a World with New Tech Tools

CCA students like Kellyn Borst (Animation 2016) are already making use of these new technologies, as is evidenced by her prototype, Dredkuld. In the world on screen, everything is white. The wind is high, and hidden in its howl is the voice of a goddess. All you have to guide you through this blizzard are your wits and spells. Your avatar is a shaman, a manifestation of the goddess who shares a name with the game, trapped in a snowstorm. Borst's vision is still developing.

As it stands, the snowdrifts that impede your movement are white blocks you can disperse by grabbing onto them or by casting spells, depending on their size. Even in its beta phase, Dredkuld is an interesting digital interaction, and you can sense Borst is creating a sort of spiritual successor to games like Myst and Shadow of the Colossus. An Xbox controller moves your avatar forwards, backwards, and side to side, but there's an element to the movement that's not so familiar. In order to cast spells, one must abandon the controller in favor of your hands alone.

With the help of a Leap Motion sensor, a rectangular device one-quarter the size of an iPhone, your real-world hands are recognized and digitally represented on screen. So when you open your fingers to let fly a bit of magic, you can see them spread apart in the digital world as you push the snow blocks out of your way. In its final form, Borst intends for the game to operate using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, meaning the user will be in the middle of a 3D environment.

ID Course Teaches Playfulness

Digital platforms are where many see the future of games headed, but the reality is something different. Perhaps because games are fundamental to human interaction, we crave all kinds of ways to play. “People learn through play,” says Interaction Design faculty member Catherine Herdlick. They've been with us a long time in the form of sports, cards, and board games, but video games are something of a shift. They've become the prime mover for new ways of thinking about play, interaction, and game design.

Video games have gotten so big that the technology used to build them is leaking out into the greater world, pushing the boundaries of what's possible for individuals and for industry. They'e at the forefront of design education being taught across disciplines at CCA.

Video games have gotten so big that the technology used to build them is leaking out into the greater world, pushing the boundaries of what's possible for individuals and for industry. They're at the forefront of design education being taught across disciplines at CCA.s. She's the director of the San Francisco Come Out & Play Festival, an event that converts the city into a giant playground featuring all-original games for people of all ages.

For Herdlick, fun is serious business. She's spent 10 years as a creative lead in the gaming and the consumer web industries, working for companies like LimeWire, Zynga, and GameLab. She gets gaming, all kinds, and is passing her knowledge on in her classroom. Like all artistic endeavors, making games is a balancing act. “It's critically important to train students to be socially responsible in their design,” she says.

Game Design Instructors with Complementary Skills

A healthy balance of self-confidence and generosity helps game designers avoid building a system that, to the player, feels like it's them versus the designer (a game of control). Having some distance—and a scientific approach to the design—is very beneficial, but most important is the designer's sense of empathy.

This quality becomes especially important with games involving virtual and augmented reality, like Kellyn Borst's Dredkuld. The worlds these technologies make possible are stunning, and they can have a somewhat hypnotic effect on the user—which is why CCA students are fortunate to be in the hands of faculty members Chris Platz and Rob Hamilton, the self-described “good cop, bad cop” tandem game-design teaching machine. Platz and Hamilton are longtime friends and collaborators. “We have very unique skill sets that make us a good team,” Platz says. “Rob handles music, coding, and visual design. I'm a traditional artist with a background in traditional gaming (he's created interactive stories and worlds for Dungeons & Dragons for over 30 years), illustration, and character modeling. Without Rob, I'd be stuck making a bunch of pretty things that couldn't do anything.”

Hamilton is equally generous to his collaborator, saying, “I've done a lot of graphic and visual work, but I can't touch what Chris can do. Our classroom is great because we can run around and tag team. I can demonstrate Leap while Chris can teach better ways to design environments and characters.”

Their classroom is future-forward, as the instructors make sure students get comfortable using the 3D game engine programs Unreal and Unity and virtual-reality “wetware” like Oculus Rift. Platz and Hamilton agree that these technologies are the future, and not just for gaming. “Devices like Oculus give users the ability to go beyond the two dimensions,” Hamilton explains. “Large data sets represented in 3D may allow people to sift through, manipulate, and engage data in new ways.

Gaming Tools Assist Architects

Unreal and Unity are already influencing modern architecture practice by giving architects a more efficient method of constructing 3D models. CCA's own T. Jason Anderson, associate professor of Architecture, explains how using these programs in the classroom allows for discussions centered on digital perception. “What does it mean when we engage in these engines?” he asks. “How does it change the way we think about space and architecture?”

From a theoretical perspective, Anderson believes such technologies call into question certain definitions of architecture. “They're tools that allow people the ability to create their own narrative in a space. That's a very different process that opens up the way we perceive the design process. We're able to consider more of the entire building or environment than is accessible from a single view offered by a picture.”

But these engines aren't just contributing to theoretical shifts; they're also having an impact on how things are built by allowing faster updates and information sharing with clients. “Now we're getting to the place where we can put in the hands of the viewer some decisions about what they want the space to look like. Still, I think we're looking at all this pretty early on,” Anderson says.

Collaboration Is Key

Across disciplines, the consensus seems to be that the future is not yet here. As remarkable as the new technology is, we're only just scratching the surface. Hamilton and Platz are optimistic about where it's going, as is their student, Kellyn Borst. After years of development, virtual and augmented reality are finally becoming affordable, with a host of new devices hitting the market in the near future, promising the ability to visit new worlds and superimpose digital constructs on top of our regular old reality.

For Borst, the immersive quality of gameplay offered by a combination of these technologies has a lot of implications for interactive storytelling. “We can move games beyond a win or lose format. They can be designed with different consequences besides 'Game Over.'”

Platz talks about being able to sculpt in a 3D environment using a virtual-reality headset while friends in other places across the globe do the same thing, so they can work on the same project simultaneously. “Who knows where it's going to go?” says Platz. “There's no predictability beyond the fun stuff we can do with it.”

Part of the unpredictability is due to the market, which encourages experimentation and diversity of ideas—something Platz and Hamilton stress in their classroom. “We tell our students to go indie. If you want to work at a big studio that's great, but we encourage students to work together, and see what happens when they put their skill sets together.”

It's the element of collaboration that makes the difference,” Hamilton says. “Being able to do a little of everything means you can make a prototype.”

“And these days you can publish,” Platz grins, “more than ever. Make a prototype and put it out. Games are art. You can earn a living at it.”

Hamilton adds, “A two-person team in a garage can ship a game worldwide overnight."