Lauren Woolbright serves as Assistant Professor of Game Design and New Media Studies at Alma College in Michigan
Every now and again, we stumble across stellar game design programs in perhaps unforeseen places. While larger universities and institutions may snag a lot of the press, the advantages of learning within smaller communities can be more compelling for many prospective students. Alma College, situated in the heart of Michigan, is a private liberal arts school that boasts an enviable Game Design concentration within its equally alluring New Media Studies program.
Though it’s a small school with well under 2000 students, Alma’s New Media Studies major has been recognized as one of the leaders in higher education alongside the likes of M.I.T. With a constantly updated curriculum, engaged faculty from across disciplines enjoy small classroom sizes and the support of Alma’s tight knit community. Assistant Professor Lauren Woolbright teaches Game Design students within the New Media Studies major at Alma and, like her colleagues, brings her enthusiasm and passion to the classroom and beyond. In this interview, Woolbright explains the merits of Alma College, as well as her goals when it comes to educating the next generation of game designers. We hope you enjoy!
ACR: Lauren, thanks for participating in a Q&A with us. To start off, Alma College’s New Media Studies undergraduate degree offers a Game Design concentration. Tell us briefly about the major and the Game Design’s genesis.
Lauren Woolbright: Hi Bonnie! Thank you for asking. New Media Studies (NMS) began as a collaboration across disciplinary lines including faculty from Communication, Art, Computer Science, Music, and English. With student interest in digital communication climbing, it became a major in its own right in 2012. Filmmaking was the first formal track of study within the major, and Game Design and Social Media were added in 2016 when I arrived at Alma. The faculty contributing to the NMS major recognized that games are an increasingly significant medium in our daily lives; games made sense as a next medium for study and design in the program.
ACR: So the New Media Studies program is intrinsically interdisciplinary. In what ways does this benefit your students within the Game Design concentration?
LW: For game design, as with any media production, it is absolutely crucial to have many different perspectives and skill sets represented at the table, so we love to see students with a variety of interests, backgrounds, and goals in a class. Students interested in game design and majoring in NMS often double major (or at least dabble) in Art, Computer Science, or English---which correspond to the aesthetic design, programming, and writing aspects of game design, respectively. Job postings in the industry tend to reflect these three “pillars” of game design.
Within any course that includes a game design project, students work in groups of 3-5, and I encourage them to be open with each other about their skills so the group can define what a successful project will look like for them. Additionally, students set their own learning goals for the term and evaluate how well they are meeting those goals for each project; they can be very specific about what they hope to achieve in the class. My project assignments are always open-ended in terms of content, so students have a lot of freedom to try new things, challenge themselves, and work together with others to create something new.
ACR: This interplay between art and technology is prominent in the program. How does the curriculum marry the arts and sciences, and why does this produce more capable game designers?
LW: I often point out to my students that NMS coursework teaches them how to make the “box,” but not what to fill it with; they have to decide what content they want to communicate, and often that comes from their passions, personal experiences, and other coursework. The liberal arts model of exploring a broad range of subjects rather than focusing mainly on one means that NMS majors are exposed to the many ways of looking at the world and the problems facing it.
As for bringing together technology and arts, media production thrives on that partnership: creativity and innovation go hand-in-hand. Sometimes - as with VR gaming, for example - the technology needs time to catch up to the creative vision developers have for it, but that vision drives innovation and can even bring it about sooner. This is what we hope students experience as they create games together and bring their learning from other courses into their NMS work.
Beyond the lofty, philosophical stuff, students need to understand how to communicate across disciplinary lines in order to work effectively in teams after graduation. Artists need to know how to ask what programmers are capable of, and programmers need to be able to understand artists when they explain their ideas. It’s amazing how much disciplinary jargon and separate ways of looking at problems can drive a wedge into communication, so it is absolutely essential that students know how to think like someone from a different background than themselves.
ACR: While some programs make students wait to start exploring game design until second year or beyond, Alma’s first year students get to jump right in to creating their own games, don’t they?
LW: They do. The best way to learn how to make games is to make games. Trying new things, learning from mistakes, and moving on to new projects is a wonderful way to pick up game design skills and see what works and what doesn’t. This is why NMS emphasizes Doing and Making alongside the Knowing (Critical Thinking) that makes up most majors (with thanks to Aristotle for the tripartite educational model!).
ACR: Walk us through some of the first year classes that allow Game Design students to dive into their field of study, Lauren.
LW: NMS majors should take NMS 101: Introduction to Digital Media in their first year at Alma. The course includes four projects: creating a podcast, designing a poster, recording and editing a short film, and making a game. Visual and audio design are fundamental to game development, and the final project gives students an opportunity to spend 4-5 weeks leveraging their new skills to create any sort of game they like. I allow them to design digital or analog games, and even though it is a short amount of time to develop a game, designing around a simple idea or core mechanic can make for a very strong game.
Another class they can take in their first year is Interactive Media, which is offered every Fall. It takes a broad approach, looking at many diverse examples of interactivity from augmented reality apps to museum exhibits and art installations with a focus on how interactivity changes user engagement with media. Unsurprisingly, games are a major topic in the course. Students may choose to design a game for their final project (which is to create a piece of interactive media and justify their design decisions in writing and a presentation). Game Design I & II are 200- and 300-level courses respectively and follow this course naturally.
First-year students can also take my course on world building in tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) in which we play Dungeons & Dragons as well as other similar games, and then students create their own TTRPG setting document based on a world of their own creation or from another medium. My favorite final projects from that class have used worlds based on Rick and Morty, the God of War game series, and Steven Universe. Funny story: the year after I taught it for the first time, my students made Rick and Morty into a setting. Wizards of the Coast (makers of D&D) announced their intention to release a D&D setting book for Rick and Morty, which they did in 2019. Go figure!
ACR: I understand there’s a new building on campus that game design students will get to take advantage of. What is the ‘Block House’?
LW: Our most exciting facility, the Block House, is just coming online this Fall! It is located in Alma’s downtown, just a short walk from campus and next door to the Opera House- an historic building that the College has renovated into student housing, meeting rooms, and large event space. Alma College’s esports team practices and competes in the Block House, which features 30 high-end gaming computers as well as an assortment of consoles (PS4s, Nintendo Switches, and XBoxes) and a VR Vive station.
Many of the game design engines that game developers use professionally, such as Unity and Unreal are available for free to students, and these are installed on the Block House machines for students to use in courses that meet in that space or when the machines are available outside of esports practices.
Students in game design classes or participating in the PAGE (Pop culture, Anime, Gaming, and Entertainment) student organization which includes a subgroup of students who host workshops and design games outside of classes can choose which engine(s) to gain experience with. With Block House opening fully soon, we hope to also host a workshop series focusing on specific tools such as game design engines and animation programs such as Blendr so that students have as many opportunities as possible to use these tools.
ACR: Very cool! As to their off-campus learning, students complete internships in which they get to put theory into practice. What opportunities are available to them?
LW: We encourage students to use their Venture grant funding, which supports travel for experiential learning opportunities, for their internship so that they can go off-campus and gain real industry experience. There are few robust internships programs in the games industry that meet our standards of mentorship, but one excellent one is Schell Games Studio in Pittsburgh. They have a close relationship with Carnegie Mellon University and stand out among other game devs in that they are partly a client-based organization; folks approach them with projects, and they undertake them in partnership with the client. PBS worked with them to create the Daniel Tiger mobile kids’ games, for example. Jesse Schell, the studio’s founder, started his career at Disney, and is notably pushing the envelope in the area of VR experiences in particular. Jesse has been kind enough to visit my game design classes virtually for the past few years to field students’ questions about the games industry, finding jobs, and his design philosophies, and that has been a valuable experience for students. We hope we can develop relationships like this with other studios in the future.
NMS students also operate a client-based production company called Bitworks which accepts projects from folks affiliated with the College as well as outside of it. Students are paid for their work, which typically entails video editing, filming, photography, or graphic design, and working together in this way builds their community. Many of them work at the Digital Media Commons on campus, and it is not unusual for NMS students to start their own businesses even before graduation. One pair of 2018 NMS graduates, for example, created a company that takes on game design projects as well as other media work.
ACR: Aside from the entertainment-based work opportunities, the skills of a game designer are leveraged by a variety of industries and organizations today. Does the expanding list of work opportunities alter or impact how and what is taught to your students?
LW: Absolutely. When I first arrived, I was given a great deal of freedom in determining how my expertise would manifest in the major, and I decided to support interactive media rather than just game design because the lines between games and social media, augmented reality and virtual reality technology, app design, and even film and TV production are blurring. We are seeing playable television experiences on Netflix, visual novel games, playful art and museum exhibits, and playable advertisements on mobile devices. We are also seeing numerous intellectual properties transmediated into new forms, like the explosion of Star Wars mobile, console, and augmented reality games. Dozens of industries need gameful thinkers to imagine ways to make their content invite and respond to active engagement from audiences, and NMS graduates with a focus in game design are prepared to offer that.
ACR: Switching gears a bit, inclusive game design plays a large role in your own work Lauren. Where are we in the present ecosystem of games with regards to equal opportunities for both gamers and game designers?
LW: The state of the industry concerns me very much. I can look back at 2014 when I was writing my dissertation and GamerGate was in full swing and say that we got through that (for the most part), yet sexism and racism are persistent problems in our culture; they don’t go away overnight, or even in a few years. I do think that the industry learned that women developers and journalists in the industry as well as players will not be silenced; devs have to think carefully about how their work will be received, and they can expect to hear from folks if they make mistakes. This is how we grow.
We have seen a lot of progress in recent titles like The Last of Us Part II, which foregrounds three complex female characters, two of whom are playable protagonists; the other side of that is that the game split the fanbase over those design choices, so we are not out of the woods yet. I am excited to see how Cyberpunk 2077 turns out; the expectations for that game are enormous. There is always, of course, hope for the future, but the industry’s problems run deeper than the level of artistic and narrative representation of a diverse cast of complex characters.
ACR: How do you address those challenges in class with your students?
LW: I speak candidly with students about the challenges and, at times, outright toxicity of work conditions in the industry. I also talk them through alternatives to working with a major studio, such as smaller studios and independent (indie) teams. I want them to know all of their choices, to see numerous pathways to success, and to make decisions that suit their needs and dreams. I hope that their education and their work will prepare them to be agents of change in the industry, whatever shape their careers take.
ACR: As a small college, do you find that the culture within the major and school as a whole is more inclusive? And are there co-curricular, outside-of-class organizations that your students participate in?
LW: Yes, NMS students and faculty have a very close-knit community with one another which we foster not only through collaborative project-based courses, but also through student organizations outside the classroom and regular social get-togethers. The game design group on campus is part of a larger group called PAGE; their main goal this year is to form teams to participate in a game jam, generally a 24- or 48-hour event in which small teams create a game around a theme and then share them. Eventually, we hope to host game jams in the Block House space.
ACR: Lastly, Lauren, what would you want a prospective student to know about Alma College and its New Media Studies program that you feel differentiates it from others?
LW: My favorite thing about being at Alma is its size; our tight-knit community is a core strength of the College. All the faculty know each other, not just in a passing way, but we are aware of what each of our programs is doing, what our priorities are, and what opportunities for collaboration exist across the curriculum. I work closely with the Environmental Studies program, for example, and I love having students majoring in ENV at the table with NMS students; they have such a wealth of knowledge and such different experiences to share with each other, and that difference yields stronger work. This richness comes about because I’m close with my colleagues.
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.