As I noted yesterday, my talented colleague Joel Jonientz, from the University of North Dakota’s Department of Art and Design, is crowd-funding his student-developed video game on Kickstarter. Before you read any further, go check it out here (and that means clicking on the link).
Yesterday, I mused how using Kickstarter to fund a student project brings a new dimension to how technologies like crowd-funding is expanding how we might understand student engagement in their academic programs. Seeking crowd-funding for a project breaks down the barriers between what happens in the classroom and the larger community of interested onlookers in a way similar to how MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) have expanded the audience for parts of the academic curriculum.
Today, in the second part of my interview with Joel, we talk more about the potential overlap between Kickstarters and MOOCs, discuss video games as art, and reflect on how a video game about mining might be particularly relevant on a state enjoying an oil boom.
Bill Caraher: I’m interested in process and some of the most exciting Kickstarters invite their investors to be part of the process even to the extent of influencing the final product. Will investors get to see how this project takes place?
Joel Jonientz: We have created several reward levels that would allow supporters to influence the game. We have a level that allows for designing characters and one that asks investors to envision their own level design. If the project is successfully funded we plan to create a web space where our backers can view the project’s process and help with the beta testing prior to release.
BC: Why is a professor of Art and Design the lead on this project? Is this a typical situation?
JJ: Many of the students involved had been interested in gaming, but had not wanted a computer science degree so had begun taking animation classes. UND does not have a formal game design program. There are a large number of students who are interested in gaming as a career path and at the time I suppose I looked like the most willing candidate to teach the class. I am not sure if this is a typical situation. I was asked by a group of students if I would help them make a game and I said yes. There have been days when I have regretted that answer, but not many.
BC: Has your position as a professor of art and design brought particular artistic influences to the game? What are they?
JJ: I would say that film, has probably had more of an influence than art on the gaming world. Many of the gaming titles being produced today are beautiful, absorbing near cinematic experiences. Artists have begun to play with elements of the gaming world, and commercial animation has certainly influenced the look of games, but the fine arts have not yet begun to influence gaming in my opinion.
BC: To my mind, the game has a cool vintage video game feel to it. Can you talk about how the aesthetic, music, and game play came together? You mention in the Kickstarter page Looney Toons of the 1950s, but are there other influences? The entire game seems nostalgic for what we experienced in our youth in the 1970s and 1980s, but this is a good bit before most of ours students were born. How can we understand this nostalgic aesthetic?
JJ: Early on in the game’s development, I realized that the students in the art group were not really ready to lead the process. This was a painful realization for me because up until that point I had envisioned my role in the project as mostly one of coordination. After we were forced abandoned several visual concepts the art students had developed (I believe the phrase “this art sucks” was used during one team meeting). I stepped in and acted as visual lead. All of the visual style seems nostalgic and of “our youth in the 1970s and 1980s,” primarily because I drove visual aesthetic in that direction. This is not to say that the students were not capable of creating the assets. They just needed to learn how to direct their skills. So the process became that I would design and create a key level for each zone that they would then dissect and use to inform the creation of the levels they were assigned. Once the visuals had been established, I believe the other groups were influenced by the retro look until it had overwhelmed the game design process.
BC: I’m a bit obsessed (like many here in North Dakota) with the Bakken Oil Boom. I kept imagining that the theme of mining would resonate with recent activities in North Dakota?
JJ: The majority of the students who have worked on the game are native to North Dakota and the recent oil boom may well have influenced them. In the early days of game development, I put a sole constraint on the game’s theme and that was that the finished project needed to playable in front of my Grandmother at Thanksgiving Dinner. So, there was to be no theft or murder and no gunplay of any kind. This meant that the game had to be rated G. This as much as anything pushed the game towards mining and beat the clock type puzzles. Of course my Grandma is dead, but they didn’t know that at the time.
BC: Ok, one more question. I can’t help feeling like this Kickstarter project has the potential to intersect with recent interest in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Classes). While only a small group of students will be working on this project, a larger team of investors will be behind it and in their own way participating in the team’s success. Does doing this project give you any ideas about how you might organize classes in the future?
JJ: There have been several projects in the animation community that utilize a large collective of artists to create a film or television segments. Bill Plympton’s “Guard Dog Global Jam,” comes to mind, but none that have tapped into the MOOC movement. Crowd funding as a model for creative development is in itself a fascinating phenomenon. One of the outcomes of the project for me personally is that I am trying to write about the experience as it is happening in posts on my website. The whole Kickstarter movement is so new that it is hard to find much that has been written about it beyond what the site itself has put out. So I am pursuing that in the process.
I have now organized and taught three separate gaming courses each more focused than the one that came before it, but I think that if I ever endeavor to do this again I would throw out everything I know about how I think a game should be created and let the students drive the engine until they need guidance. That was my first experience in game creation and to this point it still continues to be the best.