Video games studied for various college programs

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MINNEAPOLIS — Topping off the tank of your flamethrower might not sound like the best way to start a master’s thesis in architecture, but it worked for University of Minnesota student Benjamin Lindau.

He’s part of an emerging academic field in which the technology underlying video games is used for serious academic pursuits. Lindau played a few different games before picking the software behind “Unreal” to design his student pavilion.

For the uninitiated, “Unreal” is a game in which the player personifies a space soldier armed with an improbable amount of weaponry to blast and torch a variety of space baddies.

That’s not what he told his parents, though. “I just said I was doing my thesis on game technology and applications of it,” he said. “They were fine with it. They were confused, of course.”

Lindau said he wasn’t much of a game player before he started his project, but found the “Unreal” software superior to traditional methods, including wooden models, and much cheaper than standard architecture software.

He said the software, technically called the “UnrealEngine2 Runtime,” allowed him to walk people through his pavilion in the same way the hero of the game could stalk a space ship.

“You can really test out and experience the building,” he said. “A lot of time an architect tries to create an experience for someone of what it would be like to be in this building. What the game technology does is really bring it to life.”

Although the finished product looked a little creepy, it was that word “game” that drew some negative comments from Lindau’s thesis evaluators. Although a majority of the evaulators approved the project, some said it trivialized architecture.

That’s a perception a growing number of academics around the world are trying to counter. In Minnesota, much of that work is happening at the year-old Game Research and Virtual Environment Lab, or GRAVEL, and its partner at the University of Minnesota, the Institute for New Media Studies. Researchers there worked with Lindau on his thesis.

“Largely we are trying to evangelize that the digital game environment is well worth academic attention,” said Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies.

Using game software to design buildings is just one use for the technology, she said. A broader look at gaming yields other areas of study, particularly among the games where players interact with each other in cyberspace, as in the games “Everquest” and “The Sims.”

For example, the “Everquest” world has developed something of its own economy. People are selling artifacts acquired in the game world on e-Bay for real money, Paul said.

And the games can raise legal issues, too. If someone’s alter-ego in “The Sims” universe sexually harasses someone in the virtual world, can the person clicking the mouse in the real-world be held responsible?

“There is almost no academic discipline that cannot be explored through games,” Paul said.

Some academics aren’t convinced of that; they think games are silly. Paul’s solution: Teach the skeptics how to play the most common types of games on a hot-rod computer donated by Best Buy.

“We will bring in a small group of academics and try to get them to understand not only the complex environments created in that space, but the kinds of attributes that the player needs to be successful,” she said.

The topic is bigger than some might think. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 50 percent of Americans over the age of 6 play computer games, and the industry had $11.4 billion in sales in 2003, more than the film industry.

“This is a huge industry and people are interacting and identifying themselves as citizens of these worlds,” Paul said. “I just think it could be kind of an interesting petri dish.”