RIT students create pro-social games on pandemic life for ‘game jam’ competition

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HENREITTA, N.Y. (WROC) — If you thought creating a video game was hard, try creating one in only a matter of weeks. For one class of Rochester Institute of Technology class, they were up to the challenge.

The class — “Games for Change,” taught by Pr. Owen Gottlieb — took part in what is known as a “game jam” for IndieCade. This event by the game festival, which Gottlieb says is like “Sundance but gaming,” is called “Jamming the Curve,” and it challenged teams to create video games that either modeled good pandemic behavior, flatten the curve, or bring to light an issue that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The class was broken up into four teams, each of whom made their own game. All of these games are free to play at the links below. Descriptions were provided by RIT:

  • Reaching Out — “Players talk with and help out their neighbors, while maintaining social distance.”
  • Groceries, Please — “As a grocery store cashier, players must balance their mental health, customers, and trying to not get infected.”
  • Flicker — “Players struggle to keep their candle flame alive as they walk in isolation through the map.”
  • Month to Month — “A resource management game about racial inequality and how the pandemic impacts low-income families.”

According to RIT’s website, “five winning teams will each receive $1,000 and be showcased at the IndieCade Anywhere and Everywhere Festival. They will also have the opportunity to further develop their idea to win a $20,000 game development grant. Winners will be announced Oct. 16-18.”

News 8 spoke to the some of the creators of “Month to Month” and “Flicker.”

Month to Month

Andrew Cambridge, one of the developers of “Month to Month,” says that he and his team of fellow students, Dorry Chen, Aster Patscot, and a score by students Cormac Kenny and Eli Straut — said they wanted to take a different direction than other creators.

“I want them to see part of the pandemic that they may not have seen as a result of everything that has gone on,” he said. “Bringing awareness to it was important, and potentially — hopefully — get players to reach out to their congressmen, reach out to people in charge to convince them that this something that needs to be dealt with immediately, and needs to be taken seriously.”

The gameplay itself seems simple; players drag different notes which represent certain values (like -1, 14) that represent soemthing a family needs to budget for, like food or a doctor’s visit. The player has to make sure that at the minimum, the family stays in the house so they don’t get evicted.

Gottlieb says it’s one of the few games he has ever played in which all of the characters are Black.

“We wanted to highlight what was happening to these underserved populations that were overrepresented in rent issues, higher infection rates, and who have a lot of essential workers,” Cambridge said. “The fueled this game, and it shows in our characters.”

Flicker

This game is a simple and sparse puzzler. The player holds a candle, and has to go through their maze-like home to light all of the candles.

“It’s themed around light and the presence of light,” said Calise Jin, a game design and development major. “Our original idea where it represented the monotony of daily life in quarantine or isolation, like when you repeat specific tasks… But we realized we had overscoped, and we wanted to change it something more hopeful.

“It’s almost paradoxical — the feeling of isolation is mutual amongst so many people, so we’re not truly alone despite the chaos of our surroundings. The hope is that players will take away the knowledge that there are other people out there and they are not alone,” Jin added.

In addition to changing the feeling fo the game, for the team — Clara Pakman, Haley Rogers, and Cori Mori, as well as composers Josh Farrin and Mya Gaspar — the game took another unusual turn.

“I think the beauty that I find in Flicker is that it’s really more of an abstract representation of the original things we hoped to encapsulate,” Pakman said. “We tried to take the monotony, hopelessness, and loneliness that comes with quarantine, and turn it into a smaller scope representation of those feelings.”

Pakman says that this focus allowed them to hone in the emotional aspect of the game; which could create a challenge for the composer.

“There’s something (about) composting for games that’s unlike anything else,” Gaspar said. “Seeing the impact that a score can add to game, but doing it in a way where the balance is so important, especially in a game jam like this, where you don’t want it to overshadow the game.”

In all, the team says they reached their goal.

“The message at the end is that you’re not alone, and that’s what we want people to take away from the whole experience,” said Mori. “Yes, we are going through a really tough time right now, but you’re not alone. What we want people to do after the game is maybe check in with friends, and see how they’re doing too.”

Mori also adds that Rogers, who couldn’t be on the Zoom interview, did more than the lion’s share of the programming and coding through the software base Unity, and that this project wouldn’t be possible without her.

Lessons Learned

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a class project if the students didn’t learn something:

Jin: “The importance of knowing your limits and where you should cut down, if necessary because you can’t get it all done at once.”

Pakman: “Most of my game projects in the past have only been working on it, working in a team, that experience has been invaluable, because learning how to compromise with other people when it isn’t working out… Because you really want this detail, and learning how to scale that down and making a project you can still be proud of in the end.”

Mori: “I think the one thing I learned is ‘don’t be afraid to ask for help.’ Just because when you’re working with a team, you will eventually reach your breaking point, and if you’re the only person doing a job, so don’t be afraid to say that I’ve had enough, and can somebody else help me now.”

Gaspar: “I would say that trial and error is really important, and that you learn a lot pf continuously trying, and if something doesn’t work, you try it again, and eventually you’re going to hit the sweet spot: what works best for you and your team.”

Cambridge: “Finding a balance between speed and clarity. You cant spend too much time thinking about ideas, but you also need to get those ideas down pat as soon as possible, so you can actually to make the stuff you want to make.”

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