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Game Design at ODU

While most classes and meetings are online these days, some Gaming Studies classes are taking it a step further: classes are being held in-game.

The rapidly-growing Game Studies and Design major is often hands-on when meeting in person, allowing for interaction and collaboration in the classes. But when classes went online, professors Delores Phillips and Kevin Moberly worried that just watching them build and code would be boring for students. So they went in-game in Minecraft, the popular world-building game to give the students a virtual meeting place to actually use the game-creation skills they're learning.

"The idea is that if they're in game classes they should be building the games and their skills, not just watching us build," Moberly said.

One town built by a Game 240 class has homes, greenhouses, corralling animals, and other aspects of everyday life represented in the game. The same town also includes a large, virtual exhibit to consider aspects of gaming history, built entirely by students, including Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog and Pac-Man, statues of which loom large over the town.

"Students are taking full advantage of the potential to create exhibits that will be able to showcase in terms of having their research literally be animated," Phillips said.

Phillips holds weekly classes within Minecraft, and each Game Studies class is assigned its own town to build and assigned challenges to build different things to populate the town: books on the library shelves or a lava area and a cathedral that serves as the central meeting place for the classes.

"When students spawn into our world they're met by this big central cathedral, which we hope to have house various things, like a trophy case for students who win build challenges, that we hope to have house a library for best practices of game design and critical, that we hope to have serve as a congregating point for celebrations in the program," Phillips said. "This particular area intends to be a virtual space where the program can actually replace the physical gathering spaces for students."

Rollercoasters were another challenge, allowing students to test their building ideas to see if they would work in-game, which is the spirit of iterative game design, Moberly said.

"It showcases what the classes in gaming are about," Moberly said. "You build and test and build and test."

The classes have also moved away from the Blackboard interface to Discord, a chat program that allows for more real-time interaction. It's also a program that many of the students are already using and would use in their careers as game designers.

Each class has its own platform and office hours are held in Discord using Voice Over Internet Protocols (VOIP) and so far, it has allowed the students to be active in ways they often are not in class; to ask questions of each other about projects, share resources to make and improve games.

And the class, while fun on the surface, is an educational space, it does have academic and serious uses. Phillips and Moberly were inspired by the Uncensored Library, a project of Reporters without Borders that uses Minecraft to house the works of journalists around the world that are hindered by oppressive regimes and internet censorship.

"Given that Minecraft has this capacity for a certain kind of serious play, what Kevin Moberly and I decided to do was to actually use Minecraft's enormous creative potential not just to give students a mean of playtesting various designs, not just a space of comfort and fun, as a space that can allow them to preserve in a living fashion the research they're doing and to share it," Phillips said.

Although the in-game classes and chat functions were responses to the move to online classes, it will continue post-COVID. Ideally, each class in Game Studies will have a town that will function as an archive in Minecraft that incoming students can draw inspiration and information from.

"We're trying to meet students where they are, using technology they're familiar with," Moberly said.