Johns Hopkins Gazette | May 4, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 4, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 33
Video-Game Culture Injected Into Academic, Social Scene

Students gather in the Gaming Lab that's open to all Homewood students. This console was designed by staff and students and filled with old-school arcade games.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Mouse in hand, sophomore computer science major Jack Anderson jetted a short, pudgy Italian guy in space suit (think Mario) across the computer screen in an attempt to suck up trash — bottles, banana peels and even a couch — with his vacuum gun. He appeared to be faring well, but those pesky spacebug pirates certainly weren't doing him any favors.

Anderson was playing a video game called Space Waste, but don't bother to look for it at Best Buy, yet. The game, currently in development, is a group project for four students in the new Introduction to Video Game Design course.

The Department of Computer Science hosts the course, which covers the technical and sociological aspects of video games, and Digital Media Center staff teach the co-requisite lab, which covers the artistic aspects.

The course is just one component of a gaming initiative at Homewood, an effort spearheaded by the Digital Media Center, the Department of Computer Science and the Center for Educational Resources. In addition to the Video Game Design course, the DMC this spring added a gaming lab, a game lounge, a video game and console lending service, and gaming events, such as Guitar Hero Night.

Peter Froehlich, a senior lecturer in Computer Science, proposed Video Game Design in response to a Center for Educational Resources call for interdisciplinary courses.

"Gaming is a very interdisciplinary thing. I thought we could get people from the arts, such as those from Peabody and the Writing Seminars, together with programmers and other engineers and have them build games," said Froehlich, an unabashed fan of gaming.

For assistance, Froehlich sought out Joan Freedman, director of the Digital Media Center, who said that working with the Computer Science Department on a video game course seemed like a natural fit.

"One of the things that the DMC is known for is that this is the interdisciplinary place to be. We have students from every major coming here to work on projects for academic purposes, entrepreneurship or just for fun," Freedman said. "In the past, we had a number of students who wanted to work on games, whether it was for their iPhones or a flash game. We felt the gaming course was a nice opportunity to do what it is we do well, and to partner with an academic department."

For the course, the Computer Science Department and the Digital Media Center created a Johns Hopkins Gaming Lab, a fully equipped development and testing lab to support course-related and independent game development and exploration by JHU students. Located in the Mattin Center adjacent to the Digital Media Center, the lab contains high-end workstations, including Nvidia graphics cards and an array of cutting-edge development software, as well as a large-format Samsung screen and 5.1 surround-sound system for testing and game play.

The students in Video Game Design come to the lab once a week to design and test their games.

In the Computer Science portion of the course, they learn such elements as the history of video games, archetypal game styles, computer graphics and programming, and in the DMC lab, they learn interaction design, graphical design, character animation and development, and integration of music and plot.

Interdisciplinary teams of three or four students design and implement an experimental video game as part of a semester-long project. Each team has a mentor, an industry professional who gives the students feedback on a regular basis.

Team Space Waste includes computer science, biomedical engineering, Writing Seminars and psychology majors.

Charles Gibby, a junior in the Writing Seminars, dreamed up the premise for Space Waste, set 50 years in the future when the Earth has ran out of room for its garbage and shot it all into space. In order to clear the path for interstellar exploration, a bureau of space sanitation was created. Enter the space janitor.

"It's a silly, lighthearted plot coupled with social commentary on human waste disposal," said Gibby, who, like his colleagues, had never designed a game before.

Anderson said the janitor character is a mixture of Mario the plumber and a rocket scientist.

"We were thinking he went to Johns Hopkins. He's a really smart guy, but in the future somehow he's a janitor/scientist who has to clean up trash in space all day," Anderson said.

Gibby interjects: "But that is not really written into the game yet."

Freedman said that the initiative was intended to integrate gaming into the academic and co- curricular lives of Homewood students. She said that the popularity of video games, played on everything from cell phones to gaming consoles, offered both educational and social networking opportunities.

For the social aspect, the DMC, in conjunction with Homewood Student Affairs, transformed the space between its offices and the Gaming Lab into a student-friendly game lounge. The space features comfortable furniture arranged around a series of gaming stations, including a Wii area; a flat-panel display with parabolic speakers for directed sound that can accommodate a number of different game consoles; and a classic arcade-style gaming table. The space also has a beta-test kiosk that can be used for console play or to display student-developed games.

Those who want their games to go can borrow consoles and nearly 100 popular game titles from DMC Circulating Resources. The games and equipment were acquired in conjunction with the Sheridan Libraries. Circulating items can be checked out for free by full-time Homewood students for up to three days.

In addition, the DMC sponsors a number of game-related events, such as game night, offered every semester; for these, all the DMC's workstations are converted to a cybercafe for networked multiplayer gaming. Other events include guest speakers and project mentors from major game companies.

Resources for these initiatives were gathered from existing stock at the Digital Media Center and Department of Computer Science, together with personal donations from staff, software purchased by the Milton S. Eisenhower Library and a grant from the Smart Family Foundation managed by the Center for Educational Resources. The initiative also received in-kind donations from Nvidia Corp. and a partnership with Valve Inc.

For more information about the course and a calendar of gaming events, go to the DMC Web site at


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