Playing for real

Playing for real

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Engineering students design video games to help conquer the world. (Or maybe just fix it.)

The game is on!

At Rowan University, that phrase is taking a whole new meaning as students create a series of animated video games designed to replace time spent in traditional engineering labs.

Intended to help budding engineers read closer and think clearer, the video game program is a collaboration of faculty from Rowan’s colleges of Engineering and Education with key instruction from Dr. Ying (Gina) Tang, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Dr. Xiufang Chen, Assistant Professor of Reading.

Working with professors Tang and Chen, students are using Vizard, software for constructing 3D virtual reality environments, to build scenarios for real-world problem solving.

"I enjoy coding but I never wrote game code before," said senior Richard Jassel, 21, an electrical and computer engineering major from Carneys Point. "This has been great because it's given me the chance to learn a new type of coding."

Known in the video world as RPGs - role-playing games - the finished software will enable students to become characters on-screen who must solve engineering dilemmas.

In one game now in production, tentatively titled The Mystery of Traffic Lights, students must fix an outdated traffic light pattern in a historic town after rapid development causes roads to become clogged.

Dr. Tang believes gaming is a paradigm students will embrace and respond to primarily because so many students already play video games. Plus, the game format can be designed with features like chat so users may collaborate on problems across campus or around the world just as they might in a traditional lab.

“ ‘What does this problem ask’ is an oft-repeated phrase of engineering students given a problem to solve,” Dr. Tang said. “Although faculty always strive to teach problem solving, it seems that a deeper and underlying cause of the (disconnect) is students’ reading comprehension. Research has shown that providing students with explicit reading strategy instructions improves their comprehension and learning.”

While the games are being designed to help engineering students better understand complex challenges, an emphasis is being placed on reading comprehension so the challenge itself is clear, Dr. Chen said.

Dr. Chen, a co-principal investigator for the project, said she initiated the collaboration with Engineering to help achieve that goal.

“I am in charge of identifying the problems, helping develop the games, collecting and analyzing the data,” Dr. Chen said.

How the game began

Begun in September with a grant of just under $200,000 from the National Science Foundation, the game design program is geared toward students in two fundamental courses - Digital I, a freshmen course related to computer design, and Networks I/II, a sophomore course related to circuit analysis.

Full development is expected to last three years but a beta, or test program, could be in use by summer, Dr. Tang said.

"Once the games are finished they will replace the traditional laboratory components of those courses," she said.

Lab time for those classes, like others within Rowan's Engineering currucula, is often up to three hours per class per week.

Repackaging lab assignments in a game format will not necessarily make them easier but will challenge students in an environment that many already know and like, Dr. Tang said.

"These are real engineering problems," she said. "The difference is, instead of doing them on the board they will play the game."

The game design program is developing along two themes, Digital Adventure and Power Up, and there will be three sub-titled games under each theme.

The first phase under development, Power Up, will include the sub-titles Need For Power, in which students determine the energy required for an electric car; Weakest Link, in which they identify problems in a network; and Blackout, which involves power distribution from a grid.

Along with Jassel, senior Jason Sheldon is helping write the software as part of their senior clinic work and other students will likely become involved over time.

While neither student necessarily seeks a career in video game development, both see the experience as something they can draw upon.

"I've done code throughout my courses at Rowan but not for video games," said Sheldon, 22, of Branchburg. "(Once complete) this will introduce a field of learning that's not really out there."

In addition to Drs. Tang and Chen, former Rowan engineering professor Dr. Sachin Shetty, a faculty member at Tennessee State University, is a co-principal investigator involved in the programming aspect of the program.

Tang said their goal is to design the games and disseminate them as executable files so students from Rowan, Tennessee State and other colleges and universities can use the software to learn outside the classroom without any additional cost.