Rapid and dynamic technological changes have ushered in a new era where creativity is no longer limited by the traditional tools of artists and craftsmen. At the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater, those interested in the synthesis of art and technology find a home in the Media Arts & Game Development program- also known as MAGD. Offering three distinct areas of study within the College of Arts & Communication- Visual Media Design, Communication/Gaming, and Gaming Technology- MAGD has fostered a climate of collaboration along with a diverse faculty that exemplifies the department’s interdisciplinary approach.
We caught up with Assistant Professors James TerKeurst and Bill Miller to learn more about UWW’s MAGD program. Whereas Terkeurst has spent much of his career working and teaching abroad in game development and design, Miller teaches digital video and motion graphics while also overseeing UWW’s mocap studio. We hope you enjoy! (This interview was done via email and has been edited where necessary for length & clarity).
ACR: James and Bill, it’s a pleasure to speak with both of you. Like your colleagues, you come from different professional backgrounds yet you’ve found a home teaching at MAGD. What struck you most about the integrated approach that the program takes to media arts and games?
James TerKeurst: I’ve always been a believer in a multidisciplinary approach to any creative industries educational program, and this is especially important in interactive media in general and game development in particular. A big part of my belief in this approach comes from my background. I regularly see multiple skills and knowledge brought together to create a finished media product. We try to reflect this (at MAGD) in our project-based approach to teaching where students with different skills and knowledge come together to create larger projects that require true multidisciplinarity.
Bill Miller: As a visual artist that works with digital media, I’ve been interested in programs that integrate courses across disciplines. This is challenging in art programs because there is already a degree of cross-disciplinary work built into “foundations” programs. First year students often get a sampling of different art and design practices before choosing their path. In MAGD at UWW, the interesting difference is that the foundation approach is applied specifically to digital practices like imaging, coding, and interactivity.
ACR: So your students are also characteristic of this cross-disciplinary approach with regard to their strengths and skillsets?
JT: Yes. Our students have diverse interests, skills and knowledge and each of them brings their own strengths to the program. That said, we do require all students to take seven common (or core) classes that ensure they have a shared knowledge of the necessary fundamentals required for working in the industry.
ACR: Do your students often work collaboratively on projects?
JT: Our students work together from their very first class in the program, and continue to work together throughout the program. By the last two core classes they are working in teams (both large and small) almost exclusively.
BM: In some courses I teach, there are specific projects that require students to work together in small teams. Although it isn’t the focus of the courses, it is a way for each student to identify strengths and weaknesses while producing something that is a high quality in the short amount of time available in the semester. But most of the opportunities for working together in my courses come from in-progress and final critiques. Students talk about their work with each other in order to get feedback while they are working as well as when they have finished something.
ACR: Is it tough to strike a balance between teaching the latest tools of the trade while fostering their growth as problem solvers, creative thinkers and storytellers?
JT: In short, yes. Our approach to this has been to not teach applications but rather fundamental concepts and uses of core technologies. For instance, we spend very little time teaching typical software applications, but a great deal of time teaching students how to create their own custom applications to solve specific problems and help them realize their own solutions.
BM: This is a particular challenge for me. Students regularly want to work on things that have a perceived “real-world” application. However, I work from the perspective of a studio-based artist on a variety of animated and browser-based work. So although I use the same tools as the industry, I often have a different goal in mind and my work is more conceptual in nature.
The balance I’ve been working towards is between the development of fundamental digital media skills and historical, conceptual, and theoretical approaches to practices that include digital media and technology. It sounds a lot more complicated than it really is. My courses usually include plenty of studio work time and practical skills development that is complemented by reading, discussion, and critique.
ACR: The number of industries and applications that leverage interactive media professionals continues to expand. Does this complicate things from your teaching perspectives?
BM: It is definitely both complicated and exciting. One thing that is important in a classroom is that students develop the ability to be flexible and open to learning what comes next – or what they might need to learn to get the job done.
JT: I personally think interaction is the future of media, so I find the expanding use of interaction very exciting and challenging.
ACR: MAGD students team up with outside organizations to problem solve and create games beyond entertainment in the MAGD Game Lab. How do these opportunities come to fruition?
JT: We’re very fortunate because companies will often approach us looking for new ideas or creative approaches. We’ve also had some of our more senior students approach companies for help with developing and marketing their more developed ideas.
ACR: Each spring, you host the annual MAGD Expo where anyone is welcomed to submit an interactive media piece, animation, 2D art, sound art and more. Tell us a bit about it.
JT: The MAGD Expo is quite simply the best. It brings all of our students together and gives them a great place to show their best work. We bring in industry professional to judge the show and give talks, and the students bring friends and family to show what they’ve accomplished over the year(s).
Our Best of Show Award has gone to graduating seniors and even an outstanding freshman team. Most of the students participate and it gives all the students a great event to reflect on the work they’ve done and see the aspirational work of others as well.
ACR: Lastly, what do you want to see MAGD become… what do you envision for the program and its graduates in the next decade?
BM: This is a really difficult question but one thing that I would like to do is to continue pushing the students to develop aesthetically interesting and conceptually challenging projects. In a university, there is the opportunity to include more than just skill development or training and that’s what I want to make possible for our students. And, I’d also like to develop our Motion Capture Studio further and make it more available to students and projects on campus as well as to the broader public. It is another place where students can gain a lot of technical skills while at the same time explore creative and aesthetic potential.
JT: For myself, I see MAGD becoming two strong inter-developed themes – Media Arts and Game Development. Over the years, I believe we will produce graduates that are both creative and technically skilled – a rare combination but one that I believe will become increasingly important in the digital industries. I believe our graduates will find jobs in the digital industries, and that these jobs will be in emergent areas we can only imagine.