Monday, April 9, 2007

Games and Academia: An Unholy Union?

This week’s post is dedicated to reflecting upon gaming’s place at USC. In accordance with the College Dean’s call asking students, “How would you go about making the educational experience at USC College even better?”, in hopes of proposals suggesting change to the curriculum within the College. Given the Dean’s inquiry it would be more than fitting to take this opportunity to propose changes in the way game development and game design are studied. In undertaking this task, first one needs to contemplate gaming as an area of study at USC and what strengths and weaknesses the program has; and how to best address these weaknesses while solidifying the strengths.

Currently USC is one of few major research universities that has a gaming program and performs game research, and in fact has two separate majors dedicated to gaming. The Computer Science School offers the B.S in Computer Science (Games) which provides studies in, “game production, visual design …, computer animation, videogame programming, game hardware architectures, game engine programming, serious game development, introductory and intermediate game design”. This offers a programming intensive track strongly focused for Parallel to this offering is the B.A in Interactive Media, website shown above, offered by the school of cinematic arts which aims to, “provide leading edge research and a hotbed of ideas for future professional storytellers… [and] offer unprecedented opportunities for students to explore media convergence in an environment that leverages the natural advantages of its Hollywood setting”. For this more artistic approach the curriculum is at its core, dedicated to game design and development but focuses more on the “story-telling” tradition of games. Having two disparate departments offering degrees in gaming shows a seriousness and dedication to gaming as a viable area of academia however this also leads to confusion for the student and a thinning out of resources that could be more concentrated. I propose that the Computer Science School and the Cinema School offer interdepartmental degrees in gaming that could pool the schools resources and draw from each others strengths to create a richer experience for students without the confusion of having to choose one over the other. With these two separate departments collaborating, students are given the opportunity to see the convergence of the stronger focus on game programming from the Computer Science School and the emphasis on game design and story telling provided by the Interactive Media Division. This would allow for students with more programmer heavy aspirations to be able to have a concentration in game programming while allowing for greater understanding of the gaming universe from a research and artistic perspective and the converse for more artistically geared is also true.

The adjunction of these departments toward a more unified game study experience would also create greater funds and a more powerful presence within the University and academia in general; this would lend a hand to bold and revolutionary moves. One such action I propose would be the establishment of the first Game Library and Lab. This library would be dedicated to providing a one-stop shop for all tools necessary for gaming students to study and produce games, from books on game programming to cutting edge game consoles. The library and lab would consist of three major components: a comprehensive book and information collection, workstations for game development, design and play and an extensive selection of video games themselves. Having books, games and workstations in an integrate environment would allow for students to have the same advantages students in other fields such as Cinema Production students. The Cinema School facilities provide students with a collection of books dedicated to the art and history of film, complimented by a vast collection of films and stations at which to both watch and edit films. I am simply suggesting the same for gaming; this library would facilitate the study of game history and cultivate a love for gaming that all game designers and developers should have. Such an opportunity doesn’t exist in academia currently but as Games develop more clout in the scholarly realm, it will become a necessity and is inevitability. The libraries implementation would put USC further out in the forefront of video studies and would do wonders for the experience of students within major.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Mario: Can He Inspire the Next Generation?

At TheUniversity of Southern California, where I attend school, graduation impends, and with it thoughts of the next step after college occupy the forefront of our minds and students are forced to ponder the question, what should I do with my life? In response to and in recognition of the passage into a new realm the University selects a remarkable acheiver from the intimidating world of postgraduate existence to address the students. The selected speaker is conferred an honorary degree by USC to “honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities”. Today's post is dedicated to selecting the person who is most deserving of the honorary degree for this year’s spring commencement. Recently USC began to offer a degree in “Interactive Media” through the renowned School of Cinematic Arts, which is largely dedicated to game design. The school’s high regard for gaming as a discipline is established and expresses a sincere desire to see USC graduates make an impact in rapidly expanding feilds such as interactive media. With the current success of the game industry and the recent support at USC for students who choose to pursue game design, I feel that it is fitting to choose somone from within that discipline; and that person is Shigeru Miyamoto, whose fansite is depicted to the right.

Miyamoto’s career in gaming is not only exemplary because of the success of his titles, most notably, the Mario and Zelda series, Mario is pictured below, but also because of his dedication to innovation and maintenance of the lifeblood of game development. Both of these are among the best selling titles of all time and Mario in fact tops this list with over 193 million games worldwide. These products only touch on the vast amount of industry changing work he has been responsible for over the years. His accomplishments speak for themselves and already earn him the right to be honored. USC's criteria for the award dictate that the recipient will be a person, "who is widely known and highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor". He clearly falls within this category however his philosophy and approach toward game development are what truly set him apart. Another highly esteemed developer, Will Wright, creator of the Sims, considers Miyamoto as the one with the most “creative impact” on games and praises him, “because he has always remained focused on what actually matters in a game: the player's experience… His insistence upon simplicity and his appeal to our inner child recognize that play is an important part of being human.” Wright’s words not only validate Miyamoto’s status as a game maker but also qualify it with what truly sets him apart; his vision of games is truly unique and he is wholly dedicated to what makes them a unique medium for not just entertainment but creative expression.

James Freedman, former president of the University of Iowa, raises the issue that the, “purpose of honoring distinguished personal achievement has been widely modified . . . to flatter generous donors and prospective benefactors,” or “trivialized” with awards to “mere celebrities”, resulting in an “ill-chosen” recipient. Though I think it is fair to say Miyamoto is not a “mere” celebrity, there is an argument to be made that he could be ill-chosen. He is perhaps an obvious choice, already having been bestowed with the lifetime achievement award at the 2007 Game Developers Conference. And he is as much of a celebrity that one can become as a game developer. When Miyamoto made his first public appearance in america, “More than 2,000 gamers lined up Sunday outside the Nintendo World store in Rockefeller Center to get an autograph”; most game designers cannot make this claim. However, I do not feel that this detracts from his viability as a candidate. Fame, in most cases, is not dispersed aimlessly: he has earned it. Simply because he is widely recognized that does not negate his impact or importance. USC stipulates that honorands should be considered, “whether or not they are widely known by the general public,” in order to support nominees who may be less prominent, as this does not always ensure true worth. However the converse is also true and fame surely does not equate to triviality.

His accomplishments are astounding, but the honorand not only needs to exemplify excellence professionally but also have a message pertinent to the students; a message to send them off into the “real” world. In his first public appearance in America Miyamoto gave the following advice to the youth in an interview with MTV, “See what you personally can create and what you personally can bring to the world… The more you can step off that path, the more you're going to grow and the more that you can experience in the world.” He preaches what he practices: dedication to one’s field, love of a career, the importance of creativity, and the value of perseverance. These qualities can all be seen through Miyamoto’s example, but his words are just as beneficial and significant to the students of this generation. Students faced with the tremendous burden and excitement of taking the next step, are also given an opportunity to experience more. In accordance with Miyamoto's credence they need to take full advantage and provide the world with personally significant work, as this is the only way to be truly successful.