Game Design Brings Virtual Reality to Class

Video games have come a long way from Atari’s Pong, introduced in 1972, and the United State’s release of the original Nintendo in 1986. Consumers now have a slew of consoles to choose from, multiple genres of games to play, and can even explore different realities thanks to virtual reality gaming. With all these options, it’s no surprise that gaming remains a prevalent part of people’s lives in the United States. According to a recent study, 155 million Americans play games regularly (three or more hours per week), four out of five households own a video game console, and the average number of years gamers have been playing games is 13.

Given that the wide majority of Americans fire up their gaming consoles on a regular basis, it’s fair to say that video games are an integral part of our culture. Whether it’s classics like Mario Bros. or Pac-Man or more recent releases such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, these games are more than just a form of idle entertainment. From educational tools, to rehabilitation therapies, to job training, the usage of video games has greatly expanded from the early days of practicing your shooting aim with Duck Hunt.

In order to reap the benefits of this form of entertainment, the industry needs video game designers to develop video games. According to a 2014 economic impact study by Economists Incorporated, the video game industry increased by more than nine percent, which was four times the growth rate of the U.S. economy between 2009 and 2012 - clearly, there is a need for video game professionals to sustain this growth.

There are many schools across the country that offer video game design as a major, and SUNY Canton has joined that list. Recently, SUNY Canton President Zvi Szafran announced that the college received approval for its new four-year Game Design and Development program.

"We are offering a comprehensive program focusing on the design and production of modern video games," Szafran said. "This new area of study is a solid and logical development for our college."

Building a Digital World in the North Country

The program is housed in a new state-of-the-art game design lab which opened at the beginning of the fall semester, and Dean of the Canino School of Engineering Technology Michael J. Newton notes, "it will enable students to learn, collaborate, and transform their ideas into a finished product." Students in the game design program will learn about the most recent technologies and programming skills to develop video games on a number of platforms and devices. Furthermore, "in addition to theoretical learning, students will have plenty of hands-on experience creating video games," according to Dean Newton.

Classes will take place in the aforementioned gaming lab, which is equipped with a virtual reality system, high-speed computers with ultra-high definition monitors, interactive smart boards, and flat-screen monitors.

"This room is very similar to a gaming development company," said Qi Zhang, assistant professor in game development, and the experience students gain in this program will earn them jobs in fields such as mobile gaming, traditional gaming, and more serious simulators, which are used in the medical and military industries.

The tools in the gaming lab will also prepare SUNY Canton’s students for their careers. A portion of Canton’s graduates may go on to develop games that help others excel professionally. For instance, some major hotel chains utilize a simulator that allows front desk employees to experience how common problems and their method of solving issues can affect other areas of the hotel, from the front desk to housekeeping. Astronauts, car salesmen, and even ice cream scoopers also use specialized video games to improve their skills.

Another beneficial element of the game design program is SUNY Canton’s inclusion of cross-disciplinary course offerings through the Technological Communications program, which will begin in the fall of 2018. "We’re doing research together, we’re storyboarding together," said Alainya K. Kavaloski, assistant professor of humanities. "We’re thinking about how literature moves into the digital." The program was designed by faculty members in the college’s English and Humanities departments and will offer courses including podcasting, gender in media, and social identity. Advanced internship opportunities are becoming available with local organizations such as Little Red Dog Games, which is an independent developer of games for desktop and mobile platforms.

A goal of the program is to expand the boundaries of game design, as it is traditionally a white male occupation. "One of things we’re doing is de-colonizing digital spaces — bringing in more women, more people of color and getting them to create games that look like them," said Professor Kavaloski. Students who take courses within the technological communications program will have the opportunity to channel their unique worldview through interactive stories and web-based narratives, with the hopes of diversifying the types of narratives found in today’s video games.

“We are joining a multi-billion dollar industry,” said SUNY Canton Provost Douglas M. Scheidt. "The students in the Game Design program will gain marketable high-tech knowledge and skills that will be beneficial to their careers and entrepreneurial endeavors."

From Classroom to Reality

“The new state-of-the-art game design lab will enable students to learn, collaborate, and transform their ideas into a finished product.”

- Michael J. Newton, Dean of the Canino School of Engineering Technology

The use of video games has expanded well beyond mindless entertainment into the worlds of education and professional development.

The U.S. Army adopted video games into their development programs by utilizing multi-purpose combat simulators and virtual reality combat training. These games provide scenarios that the Army cannot recreate while letting the troops become more familiar with the weapons and equipment they’ll use while serving. In some games, players have to give commands and directions to their team, and other games even provide language and cultural training.

Beyond a soldier’s training, video games are also used to assist those returning to civilian life. Many soldiers experience or witness traumatic events while serving, which may lead to having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but research has found that playing the video game Tetris can reduce the onset of PTSD.

Similar efforts to these are taking place at other SUNY schools as well. University at Buffalo’s education program shows how beneficial virtual reality can be for educational purposes. A new program at UB features a tool to help education majors become stellar teachers: state-of-the-art virtual reality technology that simulates difficult student behavior. The University likens the virtual reality program to a “flight simulator for teachers,” aiding in the training process for future educators.

Students at Hudson Valley Community College are able to work with virtual reality in a learning environment, thanks to an internship partnership with SpaceoutVR, a mobile Virtual Reality developer.

In addition to virtual reality, video games are also used in the classroom to show students how to code and program a computer, experience a rocket-ship simulator, and build machines. Educational games teach users new skills and discover new passions, which may turn into a career down the line.

With colleges like SUNY Canton implementing game design and development majors into their curriculum, graduates will use their classroom knowledge to make an imprint on an ever-growing industry. Whether used for entertainment purposes or to help rehabilitate a patient, there are many uses for video games. As video game technology advances and becomes less expensive the opportunities for creating impactful video games are seemingly endless, and we think our students are up to the challenge.

Published December 2017