Not too long ago, I was on the shuttle commuting to my classes at UCCS. The shuttle was very full, and being my outgoing self, I decided to strike up a conversation with the young man sitting next to me. Like most college students, I couldn’t think of a better topic to discuss than areas of study. “What is your major?” I witnessed the unoriginal words escape from my mouth. “Psychology” the young man replied. I tried to act interested “Ah! Yes! Psychology! Are you familiar with Freud’s work? Civilization and Its Discontents? Interpretation of Dreams perhaps?” The robotic young lad replied “no.” I thought to myself that he must be a new student. His tone was very flat. “Well you should certainly read Freud sometime. He’s fascinating. I highly recommend it.” The freshman’s automatic self-defense response ensued. “What’s your major?” A fair question – I thought that perhaps he would find it interesting that I am party to such an unusual degree program. “My major is Game Design and Development.”
“That’s a major?” The freshman looked at me and frowned. “Yes and it’s very hard!” I replied. “It’s a part of the college of engineering.”
“Why?” The freshman asked flatly. “All you have to do is design games.” My immediate reply to him was “Well, it’s a combination of computer science and the arts.” At the time I did not feel like going into much more detail. With Game Design and Development being such a new field, most people who I encounter and talk to respond like the young man on the shuttle and have no idea what Game Design and Development (GDD) entails. I am often embarrassed to talk about it. When I bring it up, some people genuinely think that I am speaking of sports or board games. Little do they know that I am studying the most cutting edge and complex computational techniques for real-time or near real-time simulation and visualization, while simultaneously engaging users and triggering emotional responses. If I was studying psychology like our young friend on the shuttle, I might have been very intrigued by this.
I am not the only one to experience social friction from my field of study. I like to say that my father was a pioneer in the emerging academic field of Computer Science (because the industrial field was already becoming quite established). He studied it at CU Boulder when it was first appearing as a collegiate area of study. It was so new that people back then didn’t know what it was or what it entailed. I’m sure he received a lot of the same questions that I get now: “That’s a major?” The similarities between our situations are limited however, because computer scientists were regarded as very smart engineers. People seem to not see game design and development as an engineering discipline. They are only partially correct. Game Design and development involves both a technical knowledge and expertise, as well as an artistic proficiency and creativity (in many cases non-visual art as witnessed, for example, in text-based adventure games like “Colossal Cave Adventure”). I would argue that masters of GDD have a rich understanding of psychology as well, as it allows them to communicate with audiences emotionally to achieve their desired effect. It takes many things to produce a good video game. Firstly, I would like to describe the technical aspects of GDD.
When I was a child, my father told me that video games were the most clever and sophisticated pieces of software in the world. My brother and I would play games with him like “Descent” on our Macintosh computer and “Sonic the Hedgehog” on the Sega Genesis. I still remember my jaw dropping the first time I saw my father play “Sonic 3D Blast.” After studying Game Design and Development for some time, I have acquired an understanding of why my father said what he did so many years ago. Games must perform an enormous amount of complex mathematical computations (Literally ‘complex’ because the often used Quaternions, which represent rotational data in 3D space, have imaginary parts.) Each pixel must be drawn precisely on the screen, updated, and drawn again at a rate of 60 frames per second. In between frames, physics must be calculated, Artificial Intelligence (AI) must be calculated, 3D models must be animated, sound must be played, the Heads Up Display (HUD) or Graphical User Interface (GUI) must be updated, user input must be received and processed, networking packets must be handled, and visual effects must be processed using several complex linear algebra matrices. In visual updating alone, surfaces must be rendered, transparency must be calculated, lighting must be calculated, shadows and reflections must be calculated, textures, bumpmaps, lightmaps, and more must be applied, processed, and rendered, for over two million pixels in one sixtieth of a second. This description is barely scratching the surface of computer graphics.
In regards to AI, entity paths must be calculated, behavior states checked and applied, collisions detected and handled, predictive behavior calculated, and much more. Multiply this by however many AI agents are active in the game, which could be hundreds. In short, there are a massive amount of moving parts working together that need to be both created and calculated extraordinarily efficiently to produce a video game which runs smoothly. A thorough knowledge of computer science is certainly required as well as an engineer’s spirit to figure things out and make them work. A smooth system to must be engineered to create an experience that will provide a suspension of disbelief and allow the artist to convey a message.
On top of the daunting task of developing the algorithms that will achieve the desired effects, an additional layer of abstraction must be considered. What a game developer does, in essence, is create alternate universes. The developer determines the laws of physics, what the universe looks like, and how it behaves. This is overwhelmingly clear in Bethesda Studios’ games like “Fallout 4” and “Skyrim” and in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) like “World of Warcraft” in which players are existing in a virtual universe. The developer creates a sensical, coherent, virtual universe to convey ideas, thoughts, experiences, and stories. This is why I often argue that video games have the potential to be the most creative artistic medium in the world at this point in time.
As a species, we have gone from still pictures, to moving pictures, to interactive moving pictures, and now to completely immersive experiences with virtual reality technology like the Oculus Rift. Video games have been at the forefront of these new interactive artistic mediums. So think twice before you call someone a nerd for playing a video game. What that person is doing, essentially, is taking time to exist in a different universe with different rules. That person is experiencing something that could never be experienced in our universe without the technology behind video games. The byproduct of doing this is learning and growth. Now there does come a point at which this is harmful – for example if a gamer plays the same repetitive game every day – a game which does not require much thought or problem solving, and relies mostly on fast reaction time. If a game inspires imagination, creativity, strategy, higher thought, and problem solving, it is wildly beneficial, and an amazing experience to behold.
There is virtually unlimited artistic freedom that comes with game production. While many producers are focused on finding the money-making formula with addictive mobile games, there are many indie producers who are focused on being innovative, creative, and novel – this is where game development truly shines as an art form. Just as a movie can move people emotionally and make them cry, a game can as well, but to a greater extent because the immersion is more intense when an audience member takes direct control of a character. It is my hope that eventually people of all kinds will embrace this new art form and appreciate the thought, technology, and sophistication that goes into it’s creation.