From its idyllic perch overlooking the Hudson sits Marist College, a private liberal arts school long recognized for its academic excellence. Originally founded to cultivate the Catholic Marist Brotherhood, today the college welcomes students of all faiths and backgrounds but remains committed to its founders’ humanist ideals and service to others.
Marist’s compelling Media Arts Department within the School of Communications offers numerous areas of study that readers of ACR would do well to take a closer look at. Included in the offerings is a Bachelor of Art in Interactive Media & Game Design that we were eager to learn more about. Despite this busy time of year as fall semester gets underway, we caught up with Assistant Professor Karen Schrier to pick her brain on the unique ways in which Marist approaches interactive media, the changing faces of the game industry, and the attributes that tomorrow’s industry leaders will need to possess. (This interview was done via phone and has been edited for length & clarity).
ACR: Karen, thank you for participating in our newest spotlight Q&A. I know we have readers eager to hear about Marist’s Interactive Media & Game Design program. To start, what type of student does it target and why?
Karen Schrier: We’re looking for someone who is very well rounded and interested in storytelling, being creative, having an inter-disciplinary focus and thinking about people. Designing media requires perspectives from the humanities and social sciences, in addition to computer science and art. As a designer, you have to make the most compelling experience for your audience: you need to think about people, what they like and don’t like, how to entertain them and how to educate them. To some extent, designers need to be a “people person” -- someone who cares about what people want and uses technology to address social needs.
ACR: To achieve that, the program takes a blended approach that encompasses the arts and humanities along with technology. Your own background is quite cross-disciplinary, too, isn’t it?
KS: Yes. Design is one of the ultimate interdisciplinary pursuits. If you’re doing it right, you’re bringing as many different perspectives into it as possible. My academic background and prior work experiences were also interdisciplinary so that’s the approach I naturally take with my students. I was always interested in games and in science; I was a psychology major in college; I’ve worked as a media producer and designer; my masters from MIT is in media studies which is very multidisciplinary; and my doctorate is in education. I’ve always sought ways to combine different perspectives and Marist’s focus on this is one of the main attributes that drew me to teaching here.
ACR: How do you ensure that your students have the technical chops while laying the foundation?
KS: There has to be a balance. [Students] need to develop skills to go into a job but they also need to evolve their skills over 10, 20 or 30 years. They need to know how to continue picking up new skills, while still maintaining a strong, liberal arts foundation. What’s great about Marist is its liberal arts approach. All students take history, science, ethics, language, literature… and thank goodness because how could they create compelling interactive media and game experiences if they only studied just that? You need to be constantly questioning and learning about the world and about people in order to do (this) well.
Marist has four thematic areas that are emphasized: cultural diversity, civic engagement, quantitative reasoning, and nature and environment. These are recurring themes that run across all of our students’ classes. They learn how to tell stories and think in complex, systematic ways while building technical competency. It’s about leveraging technology not for the sake of technology but for the sake of making the world a better place.
ACR: Sounds like they’re learning about problem-solving, which habitually ranks at the top of the must-have skill list from industry people we speak to. What do students think about the curriculum?
KS: They’re very interested in it. Many of our students are thinking about games for purposes beyond just entertainment. In the Fall, I’m teaching a class called Ethics and Games, which has already become popular, despite having never been taught yet. I already have a waitlist! We’re going to be talking about a range of issues in games from gender and race to addiction, issues of business practices and advertising and distribution. But we’ll also flip it over because often people get caught up in the notion that games are unethical, so we’re going to look at the potential of games and how they can help us practice ethics.
More broadly, my students learn how to apply the design process to different kinds of problems. My Interactive Media class this year looks specifically at the environment and how we can support sustainability practices and deepen our understanding of the natural world through interactive media. Last year, I taught Interactive Media II and we looked at ways to support civic engagement projects. One of the students created a game to teach Italian to students headed to Florence, Italy for a study abroad.
ACR: Is it fair to say that you focus more on developing attributes that will help students succeed long-term versus skills that they might use for a few years?
KS: Yes. The kinds of jobs we prepare students for are the jobs of the future. Some already exist but some are just now being created and are very innovative. User experience design, game producer, game designers--these (roles) already exist. But there could be jobs, like location-based media experts or social technologists, that exist in the future but we haven’t even conceived of them yet because the world is changing so rapidly. I try to prepare students for this new global economy. We need to combine different disciplines because the world is increasingly that way. We hope in the future we can solve problems not in silos but in combination with technology and the arts and humanities.
ACR: Do students typically collaborate on projects or work solo?
KS: We want to find a way to bring students together, but it depends on the class. They need to be able to work in teams because that’s what they’ll be doing in their careers. Pedagogically speaking, it’s a lifelong skill. Depending on the nature of the design problem, I sometimes give students the ability to work in teams or individually, but mainly they work in teams. Students work in teams of 3 or 4 in my Intro to Game Design class, but we have a capping class, which is one of the final classes students take, and they typically work individually.
ACR: I imagine class sizes are fairly small at Marist?
KS: Yes indeed. Our classes are capped generally at 18 students. Marist is great that way… even the intro classes usually have no more than 20 students.
ACR: Marist is enviably close to New York City. Do students leverage the location for internships?
KS: Definitely. Marist has a great internship program and a designated office to help students get them, and many offer college credit. It’s integrated into the curriculum and supported by all faculty. Many of my students in the department get internships in New York. One of them interned as a user experience designer last year at a media company and now she’s working there full time. Others have interned at Facebook, Nickelodeon, and many independent game companies. Getting internships is a great way to get your foot in the door and gain experience.
ACR: Any interesting plans on the horizon for the department?
KS: Quite a few! In the Fall, I’m launching the Play Innovation Lab, which will help students gain experience creating games and media. We’re in the process of creating games for a field day of outdoor games, which will take place in September at Marist. We’re also creating a networking event for students to get to know each other better and collaborate on projects. If other departments want a particular game made for an event, we’re going to be working on those for them. So it will be educational and also civic- and socially-oriented.
ACR: As a woman in the game industry, what changes have you witnessed in your life and career with regard to gender? And where do you see it all headed?
KS: Many of the students in my classes are women and a lot of new majors are female. Just as many women as men are interested in games. The difference is that men come in already interested in majoring in games, whereas women in our department more frequently take an intro class, liked it, felt empowered, and realized they could major in it.
I think what often happens is that people--men and women--hear the word ‘games’ and automatically think of the programming and technical aspects; but I explain that it’s also about designing experiences for people and storytelling and the history of games and it opens their eyes to it. If we just design technology for the sake of technology, it marginalizes it and makes it less interesting for everyone. But if you’re making something and designing technology for a need and a purpose, which is how you should be designing anyway, it brings in (and requires!) everyone.
Ultimately, play is intuitive and human. The more people that can design playful experiences, the better experiences we’re going to have. I have always played video games, starting from an Atari 2600… it never crossed my mind that my interest was considered different until I went to MIT for my masters and people started calling me a ‘girl gamer’ and acting like it was unique. But it’s really not a unique interest. Statistically, 99% of all high school students today play games, so at what point does gender become a non-issue? Making all my students, including my female students, feel empowered is critical.
ACR: Fantastic. Closing question: what do you value most about teaching at Marist?
KS: Marist has such a strong liberal arts foundation, and a focus on values and ethics. Embedded in its mission is to care about others. I think that it positively affects my students so that they want whatever it is they’re doing to matter. They’re students, but they can affect the world outside of the classroom.
I love teaching. For me, there’s nothing else I would rather do.
ACR: Karen, thanks again for speaking with us during this busy time of year as fall semester gets underway!
KS: Thanks, Bonnie.
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.