BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Baseball is a game. Football is a game. Even pinball is a game. So is jacks. But games built on digital programming are not necessarily games in the traditional sense. In these games, there may not be rules, points or even winners and losers.
GJ Lee, an assistant professor and division coordinator for game design and programming at Bloomfield College, said all games have constraints, but some have scores and some are measured only by an emotional response. The college has recently been ranked by the Princeton Review as the No. 1 undergraduate school for students wishing to major in game design and programming.
“There are games where having fun is not the point,” Lee said recently at the school. “It’s evaluating the experience. Sometimes there are no points.”Game design at the college begins freshman year with design problems considered by groups of students. By second semester, a student is working on nine individual projects and is introduced to game programming and “game asset programming.”
Game assets are the visual and sound effects enlivening a game. Also by the second semester, game development is stressed, Lee said, so that the student can begin determining if they are more interested in designing, programming or game assets. All this is very hard work, she said.
“We want the students to fail in a supportive environment,” she said. “That’s the best way to learn. Students have a preconception of what a game is. Failure is not a surprise. We especially teach the student this.”
Learning about games falls within the curriculum of the Creative Arts and Technology Division. Other CAT majors are: animation, music technology, graphic design, interactive multimedia and expanded media. Lee said one mission of the division is to create independent thinkers.
Designing a digital game begins with learning about nondigital games and collaboration because digital games require a team of specialists. Students also learn at the outset how to build a framework, or rules, for a game.
But students do not always create a game from scratch. Sometimes they are given one that already exists and asked what makes it fun or not fun to play and told to improve it. And, because the games are always being tested by the students for weakness and strengths, class attendance is very important. All Bloomfield College faculty members, Lee said, are either in the game design industry or have their own studios. Her studio is in Jersey City.
B.C. game design students are taught UNITY, the basic engine many professional studios use. Progressing through the curriculum, they eventually will spend an entire semester on a single project. The goal of this project is to release a game on the Internet were there are sites for them to be viewed and played.
The college in January was a site for the Global Game Jam, a worldwide competition at which game jamming sites around the world tried to make the best game based on a given theme. Among the games developed by fourth-year students at the school was “Pitch,” which involved a player’s decisions while attempting to make a successful movie pitch to a Hollywood producer. Another game was called “Troyjam,” whose goal was to kill as many of the enemy as possible.
Lee said creating a game requires responsibility.
“You have to make sure you’re designing for the best experience possible,” she said. “Students develop their own design philosophies. It’s very important to expose them to a very diverse range of games.”
Although not being necessarily made at the college, there are also games that address depression; one called “DYS4IA” that follows the journey through hormone therapy; and “SWEETXHEART,” which asks this question: Can you get through a week in the life of a modern black woman? Another game, released on the internet, is called “That Dragon, Cancer” and was made by a family as a memorial to their child, who died from the disease.
“A game can be a form of release,” Lee said. “It is possibly a relatable story.”
Lee made a game for herself very quickly after her cat died, and called it “Hairballs.” This reporter played it. It is an animation with graphics similar to a child’s drawing of a cat that spits out hairballs. These are caught — or not — by a human tongue and swallowed. First time playing it, “Hairballs” seemed more like a repetitive toy than a game. But after playing several times, subtle changes were discerned, suggesting that it was really a game of chance.
Lee said games can be made for self-expression, just as a musician would release emotions by playing an instrument.
“Because tools for games are so accessible, you’re getting games that wouldn’t have been made 20 years ago,” she said.
Currently, of about 125 B.C. students majoring in game design, almost 90 percent are male. Lee would like to see more girls and young women taking an interest in game design.
“Middle school,” she said, “is the best starting point.”