Mason Students Fight Gangs with Video Games

Posted: April 27, 2012 at 12:59 pm, Last Updated: July 31, 2012 at 10:39 am

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By Catherine Probst

Ten student teams competed for the chance to have their games selected by the Virginia attorney general’s office to educate kids about gangs. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Remember being a kid and reading books where you made the decisions and chose your own adventure? Many years later, kids are still enjoying these popular adventure-style games, but they are being played in a whole new way — either on a computer or smartphone — and they are being used to educate kids about some pretty serious issues, specifically, the dangers of gangs.

In a novel approach to combat the rising gang activity in Virginia, students in Mason’s Computer Game Design program are partnering with the Virginia attorney general’s office to create interactive and educational computer games or mobile phone applications to teach kids about the consequences of joining a gang.

To recognize the partnership and introduce the games to the public, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will join students and faculty in the Computer Game Design program on Thursday, May 3, on Mason’s Fairfax Campus.

The entire Mason community, Northern Virginia elected officials, educators and law enforcement officials from the region are invited to view demonstrations beginning at 11 a.m. in the Johnson Center Dewberry Hall. The following student-designed games will be featured:

  • “A Second Family,” created by Michael Katz, Romel Ramos and Brandon Miller. The game tells the story of Justin, who is trying to fit in at a new school and becomes involved with some questionable individuals. He is forced to rely on his friends and mentors to overcome these negative influences.
  • “Influenced,” created by Austin Fain, Tiffany Nguyen, Con Son and Lamesha Coley. In this game, the player uses a variety of institutions and community interactions, such as schools, city headquarters and libraries to help combat the influence of gangs in the community.
  • “New Kid on the Block,” created by Stephen Berrigan, Steven Fernandez, Devin Gibson, John Murphy and Daniel Paquette. In this game, the player has just moved to a new town and is faced with assimilating into a new school and with new friends. He or she must make the right decisions in order to find a trustworthy group of friends.

“We feel strongly that our partnership with Mason’s Computer Game Design program and the games produced as part of this partnership will help expose kids to the dangerous truth about gangs and help prevent them from joining gangs,” says Cuccinelli.

Game On

Photo by Alexis Glenn

The project got under way in December 2011 when Assistant Attorney General Shannon Dion and Computer Forensics Unit Director David Graham approached Scott Martin, director of Mason’s Computer Game Design program, to ask for help on a new venture. Through their research, Dion and Graham discovered that if they wanted to reach their targeted age group of middle and high school students, they would need to get a bit more creative.

“These days, kids are basically living on their cell phones and computers, so if we want to get through to them, we need to find a way to infiltrate where they are spending most of their time,” says Martin. “That’s where our Mason students come in. They know how to design fun, interactive games that will catch kids’ attention and also help them see the implications of the decisions they make.”

At the beginning of the spring semester, students from two sections of the course GAME 232 Online Gaming and Filesharing began working on the project. Taught by Mason adjunct professor Matt Randon, the course teaches students about the history, practice and design of online games and smartphone applications.

The students were divided into 10 teams, with each student taking on the role of writer, designer, producer or programmer. Following only a few specific guidelines given by the attorney general’s office — games should utilize kids’ decision-making skills, include realistic scenarios and not identify real gangs — the students were free to use their imaginations and creativity.

Choose Your Own Adventure

A big part of the project was learning how to develop the essential elements of a compelling story. One of the initial tasks was to come up with various scenarios that would be presented to the player and result in good or bad decisions.

For instance, in any particular game, a player can make a bad choice that has serious consequences, such as being arrested and sent to jail. If the player makes a good choice, good opportunities follow, such as making a sports team or establishing healthy friendships.

After the students developed realistic situations, they began fleshing out all of the details by writing a script and creating a storyboard for each scene. For the rest of the semester, the students used two video game development software engines, GameSalad and Unity, to work on everything from art and sound designing to programming and coding.

“This project is exposing students to the invaluable experience of working together as a professional team,” says Randon. “They are getting a taste of what it will be like to work with a real client, create a game with an end user in mind and present their finished products to a public audience.”

Final Presentations

By mid-March, students had developed prototypes for their games and were ready to present them to their clients — Dion and Graham. Most of the two- and three-dimensional games are similar to anime-style and graphic novel artwork. A few ambitious students even created original musical compositions for their games.

The students walked through every step of their games with Dion and Graham. Throughout their presentations, the students explained how they came up with the concept, why they made certain choices, how each scenario would impact a player and everything in between. They also discussed their approaches to designing and programming the games.

“Working as a team can have its fair share of challenges, but we were able to combine all of our strengths and create something we were all proud of,” says student Michael Katz. “This experience also taught me that while I may not always agree with a client’s preferences, my job is to do the best I can and always give it my all.”

After reviewing all 10 games, Dion and Graham chose three teams whose games they wanted to be fully developed and showcased to the public. According to Dion, they based their decisions on the games that displayed the most creativity and professionalism.

“It was an extremely difficult choice because all of the games were so well done. It was evident how much effort went into the development of players and the world in which they lived,” says Dion. “Ultimately, we chose the three games we felt showed the most promise in educating kids about the dangers of gangs.”

The final step of the project is to get the games through the review processes for the Apple Store and Android Marketplace. Randon says that he will guide the students through this process even after the semester ends.

With this successful partnership under its belt, the attorney general’s office foresees future partnerships with the Computer Game Design program that would result in additional games that address other challenges, such as drug abuse and bullying, that kids face.

Write to Colleen Kearney Rich at ckearney@gmu.edu

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