Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Champlain College: Serious Games & Serious Fun

Champlain College: committed to electronic games and serious games

BURLINGTON, Vt.--Champlain College is building upon the success of some of its most innovative academic programs with the unveiling of the Emergent Media Center.

Directed by Ann DeMarle, who founded Champlain College’s Electronic Game & Interactive Development program in 2004, the Center will strengthen connections between the international game and interactive development industries, Champlain students and faculty, and businesses. The Center will advance the use of emergent media such as games, social networks, blogs and wikis for broader purposes. This includes collaborating with organizations to develop “serious games” -- games that harness technology for non-entertainment purposes, such as to enhance learning and training or to create positive change.

Champlain’s Electronic Game & Interactive Development and Electronic Game Programming degrees were among the first bachelor’s degrees in the nation modeled after the team-based game development industry. Now the Emergent Media Center will offer incubator support for student endeavors and faculty-led emergent media projects, and it will coordinate game industry partnerships and internships. The Center will also sponsor conferences and speakers and promote ties between Vermont-based and international companies.

Today, researchers and organizations are recognizing the power of serious games as an engaging teaching tool. In an October report, the Federation of American Scientists declared that video games and the skills they teach students have the potential to reshape education.

Organizations are invited to apply to the Emergent Media Center to collaborate on future projects. Projects currently under consideration include games that focus on environmental management, health care and economic development.

Champlain students have already worked on serious games: The “Mission Mercury”, created for Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
The Champlain students were tapped to create an animated video and a video game about mercury, a substance that can have devastating effects on humans and animals and is especially dangerous for pregnant women and children. This “serious game” project is believed to be the first of its kind. It was coordinated by the State of Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Supplemental Environmental Project.

“We decided to deliver mercury information through an animation and game because it is a way to target an important audience -- young people -- who can be severely impacted by mercury poisoning,” said DEC Mercury Program Coordinator Karen Knaebel. “The video will cover fundamental information on mercury in the environment and the video game will reinforce that learning.”

Beyond the technical challenges they deal with, the students were faced with the difficult task of developing story lines and characters that are engaging enough to appeal to a discriminating audience of middle-school children. Part of the development process has included game testing by students from nearby Edmunds Middle School. “We had to make it hip for eighth-graders,” said Eric Sample of the Champlain faculty, who added, “This is excellent training for our students.”

“We want to keep it interesting for the kids and then they’ll come away with some knowledge,” said Amber Anger of Colchester, Vt., a Champlain College senior who was working on the animation.

“Our program is attracting clients from the ‘serious game’ side of the business,” said Ann DeMarle. “We’re capturing technology and harnessing it for a good purpose.”

DeMarle has had a long career in computer graphics that includes creating multimedia programs for AT&T, video graphics for Lockheed Martin and 3D animations and illustrations for IBM Research. Much of her work has involved the integration of education and technology. She has been the director of the Governor's Institute of Vermont in Information Technology, and she trains Vermont teachers on using technology in the classroom to enhance student learning as an instructor and mentor for the Web Project and as an organizer of the Champlain College/VITA-Learn Dynamic Landscapes program. In 2004, DeMarle was named an Apple Computer Distinguished Educator.