Game Design Initiative Will Use Gaming as Motivation

Released: 12/2/2003 1:10 PM EST
Source Newsroom: Cornell University
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Newswise — Most parents -- and not a few teachers -- think computer games are a waste of time. David Schwartz, Cornell assistant professor of computer science, thinks they can be a powerful teaching tool -- especially if you get students interested in creating their own.

So Schwartz, aided by Rajmohan Rajagopalan, Cornell instructor in computer science, and Rama Hoetzlein, who graduated from Cornell in 2001 with a dual major in computer science and fine art, is teaching an experimental course in computer game design. The course is part of an overall plan Schwartz calls the Computer Game Design Initiative. He hopes that game design eventually can become a tool to interest high school and elementary school students in science and technology, while teaching a little physics, writing and other skills along the way.

Members of the public will be able to play games created in the course at an open house Wednesday, Dec.10, from 3:30 to 6 p.m. in 319 Upson Hall (the Computer Science Undergraduate Lab) on the Cornell campus. This semester's projects involve several multi-player networked games, strategy- and arcade-style games and demonstrations of technology used to create games. Along with traditional role-playing and spaceship-combat games, students have created an electronic version of Foosball and the whimsical "Nuts of Justice 2" -- the project's first sequel game -- which pits squirrel against squirrel.

The interdisciplinary course, Introduction to Computer Game Design, includes nearly 50 students in computer science, art, engineering, music and English, who work in teams to design real games. Part 1 of the course includes classroom work covering an overview of the game industry and social aspects of game-playing, leading up to the creation of a game. Part 2 is all game-building. Part 1 and Part 2 run concurrently each semester.Most students earn three credits, although a few who join in briefly to create music and art for the games may receive fewer credits. This year, for the first time, team participants include four high-school apprentices from Ithaca's Learning Web, along with community volunteers.

Schwartz uses "People like games" as a catchphrase. "And in creating games," he says, "you have to learn programming and some physics about the way objects move. You have to write a story for the game. Later the students have to create a technical report, so there's technical writing practice."

A few universities have courses in game design, Schwartz says. What's different here, he says, is the interdisciplinary approach, bringing in students from several colleges to contribute art, music and programming. The current course is a prototype with funding from the General Electric Foundation. Schwartz has been teaching the course in various forms for five semesters and will continue it in its present experimental status through the spring. Then he is proposing to offer it as a "real" course starting next summer and continuing in the fall of 2004. He expects some skepticism from his colleagues, but he points out that gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry, and preparing students for careers in that industry makes as much sense as teaching acting or cinema.

If he can find funding, Schwartz hopes to send teams of his students out to local public schools to teach game design, even offering simple approaches in pre-K and elementary schools. "Kids love games," he says, varying his catchphrase. "This is something we can capitalize on. Most of the educational research involves applying a particular game in a topic area. We propose to allow the children to pitch their own ideas, which should help motivate them to learn."

The plan includes a special initiative to interest girls. Women are still underrepresented in computer science, and Schwartz says research indicates that they get turned off on computers somewhere around fourth grade, possibly because computer games tend to emphasize guns and violence. "We'll find women students who'd be interested in paying jobs to teach game design, and have them work with teams of young girls," he explains.

He also hopes to work with sociologists and psychologists to study such questions as how the content of games affects players. "We can give them games with a 'knob' that lets them turn the violence up or down, to watch the effect," he suggests.

Previews of games to be shown at the open house, along with games created in previous semesters, are available for downloading from the course Web site at