In a computer lab at UC Santa Cruz’s Silicon Valley campus in Santa Clara, graduate students Rutul Thakkar, Janelynn Camingue and Sai Ruthvik Thandayam spend the afternoon playing a virtual reality game called Spellcasters. The students are not goofing off. They’re taking part in a new master’s degree program, launched this fall.
Waving a virtual magic wand, the player casts “spells” to ward off incoming fire, or to shoot tiny rubber ducks at targets in the distance. Each virtual duck emits a little “quack” as it flies.
“It’s almost a Donald Duck kind of a sound, so it’s really cool,” Thakkar says.
The university says the new master’s degree program is the first of its kind in the nation—focused on what are known as “serious games.”
Engineering Professor Michael John, a former senior creative director with Redwood City-based game manufacturer Electronic Arts, leads the program. He said serious games are best defined by what they are not.
“It isn’t a game built strictly for entertainment purposes. It's a game where the purpose goes somewhere beyond that,” Professor Michael John said.
“It isn’t a game built strictly for entertainment purposes. It's a game where the purpose goes somewhere beyond that,” he said.
The students are adapting the Spellcasters game as a physical therapy tool for stroke patients, who will be able to use gestures with the magic wand to re-learn basic movements.
Sai Ruthvik Thandayam came to UC Santa Cruz from India to pursue his interest in virtual and augmented reality. He believes that turning the often overwhelming therapy into a game can make the therapy more effective.
“The Harry Potter stuff and all that casting spells is kind of cool, so they would want to try it more,” he said. “Even though it is kind of painful, they will still try, which can help them in their therapy.”
Other serious games operate as teaching tools for everything from basic math to complicated subjects like science and economics. They are also used to explore difficult social issues. A popular game called “Papers Please,” created by independent game developer Lucas Pope in 2013, put the player in the uncomfortable position of an immigration officer forced to decide who can—and cannot—cross the border.
“Games are really good at representing complexity in a way that other media struggle with,” John said.
In announcing the Serious Games Master’s Degree program in January, UC Santa Cruz’s Jack Baskin School of Engineering estimated that the market for serious games will grow to $15 billion “in the next few years.”
“There is a certain amount of demand for it, for sure,” John said. “Some of it is coming out of nonprofit. Some of it is coming out of government. A lot of it is coming out of the health care industry.”
While plenty of other colleges and universities offer courses in serious games, UC Santa Cruz claims to be the only school offering a master’s degree in the field. The program lasts five academic quarters, which means the first degrees could be granted by December of 2020. By offering the program exclusively at its Silicon Valley campus, UC Santa Cruz officials hope to give students and faculty better access to the many technology firms and industry leaders nearby.
“Everybody learns to program. It’s something that we just believe in,” John said. “In addition, there are some foundational notions of game design.”
While those concepts are part of any gaming curriculum, developers of serious games must learn how to direct their skills toward goals beyond merely creating something that is fun.
“How do you take math or science and how can you turn that into a mechanic that works well on a game,” said Eddie Melcer, a professor with the program. “I talk all the time about this concept called ‘learning mechanics,’ which is basically when you play the game, you’re learning something.”
Rutul Thakkar, who came from India to pursue his second master’s degree, hopes to eventually open his own gaming studio. He sees serious games as a crucial part of any product offering.
“I didn’t want to restrict games to just entertainment purposes. I see other sectors, like businesses, like hospitals, other areas which can benefit really from games,” he said.
Janelynn Camingue of Santa Rosa, who earned her bachelor’s degree at UC Santa Cruz’s main campus in Santa Cruz, is more interested in the narrative aspect of games, including creating compelling story lines. But she also feels a personal connection to therapeutic games such as Spellcasters.
“I was a clumsy child, and I’ve gone to physical therapy so many times, and they’ve always given me, like, a sheet of paper with pictures of exercises to do. But I just didn’t feel motivated. It felt like homework. So, this feels more entertaining and more engaging,” she said.
“We have students ranging from what people would define as hardcore gamers, like the first person shooters, to people who are really interested in visual novels, narrative games, to people that actually have no real game experience at all and are more just interested in the possibilities of games,” Melcer said.
Professor John said he hopes to expand the program well beyond the ten students who enrolled this fall. He also wants to expand the program’s research component, studying what makes a serious game effective.
“How can I put it in front of people, try to assess the extent to which they understood or have come to some different knowledge or skill based on the game that I put in front of them,” John said. “Adding all of that, actually, is on top of all the understandings of how to make games that we teach everyone.”
When it comes to serious games, it is not just about winning or losing. It is also about whether the game gets results.