Game Changers

BUFFALO, NY - The word ‘gaming’ often evokes images of teenagers with their eyes glazed over from playing first-person shooter video games. But Canisius gamers are creating a new image. Students who study game design in the college’s Digital Media Arts (DMA) Program, develop games that not only entertain but educate and even enact social change. Brianna M. Blank ’14 is among them.

A leukemia survivor of 15 years, Blank jumped at the chance to work on

Nut Warz, a mobile game that promotes testicular cancer awareness. Blank, along with DMA majors Brian Russ ’13 and Jordan Smith ’13, developed the free mobile app for Android and Apple devices as part of the Check Yo’ Nutz campaign. The campaign was directed by Melissa B.Wanzer, EdD, professor of communication studies, in collaboration with Roswell Park Cancer Institute (Canisius Magazine, spring 2010). In NutWarz, Sammy the Squirrel battles obstacles to collect as many acorns as he can. Various messages about cancer prevention are revealed throughout the game.

“Positive social impact games like NutWarz take gaming to a different level,” says Blank, a digital media arts/communication studies dual major. “Hopefully we can start to change the negative stereotype about gaming.”

As a child, Blank played video games while she underwent chemotherapy treatments. Now she works to help children who endure similar experiences. With the guidance of Adam E. Kisailus ’97, MD, assistant dean in the Division of Educational Affairs at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Blank is developing a video game to help adolescent cancer patients understand their treatments.

“When Brianna approached me with the idea for a video game to help young cancer patients, I thought it was a phenomenal idea,” says Kisailus. “My role is to connect her with the appropriate resources at Roswell in order to ensure that her idea becomes reality.”

The object of the game is for players to defeat and destroy cancer cells using typical cancer-fighting weapons, such as chemotherapy. When complete, the game will utilize motion capture system technology, similar to the Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360. This technology senses players’ body movements so they are able to control and interact with the game, without the need of a controller.

“If patients can understand their diseases, they can often adjust to and tolerate their therapies much better,” says Barbara Bambach, MD, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Bambach treated Blank as a young cancer patient and now advises her on the video game project. “Brianna gives hope and inspiration to the children here who are going through the same thing she did years ago.”

Students interested in game design first receive a solid foundation in graphic design, interaction design and motion graphics through core DMA courses. The game design concentration then advances students’ skills in 3D modeling and animation, level design, character design, programming and game design theory.

“Students can supplement their specific interests with courses in computer science or fine arts,” says Przemyslaw (PJ) Moskal, PhD, assistant professor of digital media arts. “They can then apply what they learn in a variety of cross-disciplinary projects.”

These projects can include scientific simulations, educational games and interactive museum exhibits. Gravity Jump is a motion-sensing simulation game that “enables players to virtually experience what gravity is like on other planets,” explains Moskal. DMA majors developed the game for middle school students who attend Canisius Science Camp. Most recently, game design students collaborated with the Canisius Video Institute to incorporate Google Nexus tablets into the interactive museum exhibit 1812: By Fire and Sword, at The Buffalo History Museum.

Canisius students also receive outside help from the college’s close affiliation with Buffalo Game Space. The group is comprised of independent game developers who work to establish a vibrant local game industry. Through Buffalo Game Space, Canisius students hear presentations by industry professionals, collaborate with other gamers and make connections that can lead to internships.

Russ benefited from such connections as a student. He did freelance 3D modeling work and animation for Great Lakes Orthodontics and created virtual golf courses for simulation software during a part-time job for Perfect Parallel. After graduation, Russ landed a full-time position with the sports visualization and simulation company as a 3D modeler and environmental artist.

“The hands-on experience I obtained prepared me well for my job,” he says. “I was able to jump right in and get to work because I was already proficient in the software the company utilizes.”

Russ says it’s a ‘dream job’ that doesn’t feel like work because he creates games with a purpose.

“The projects are fun but as is true with all digital media, students learn and grow throughout the process,” adds Moskal. “When I can inspire students to use game design for social impact, I see the Jesuit mission come to life.”

Click here to view the interactive museum exhibit DMA students created for 1812: By Fire and Sword.

Click here to check out Gravity Jump, a motion-sensing simulation game that enables players to virtually experience what gravity is like on other planets.