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A new program at the School of Communication
makes promoting social change on serious
issues look like child’s play.

Interactive media student
Franklin Zhang works
on his video game
The Way of the Monk.


Driven by outrage over social injustice or moral wrongs, some may write novels while others may shoot a film or pen a protest song.        Lien Tran and Clay Ewing turn grievance into a game.        Leading thinkers in the field of social gaming, these assistant professors of interactive media take issues like immigration reform and public health and use them to create low- and high-tech games designed to stimulate thinking, glean insights, forge consensus, and solve problems.        One of Tran’s creations, Toma el Paso (Make a Move), deals with immigrant youth who are about to be released from detention and the various paths they could take through our complicated legal system (see page 23). Another of her board games—this one intended for adults—addresses how public policy can have dire consequences on public health; Cops & Rubbers has players take on the roles of sex workers to grapple with challenges to their health and human rights, such as the fact that in some places just possessing condoms is used as evidence of prostitution.

Like a journalist, Tran researches these games deeply, working alongside experts in medicine, immigration law, and a host of other fields. Like a playwright, she creates characters and weaves them into plotlines that can change and evolve with each choice the player makes.

“It’s definitely a form of storytelling—when you’re looking at issues, there’s usually a story to be told,” explains Tran, who has designed social impact games for the World Bank, the Open Society Foundations, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “Games are also systems, a system of thinking, and the world is made of systems. We’re not just creating entertainment with games. We really want people to understand that there’s critical thinking involved in solving our world’s problems, and one way of working at it is through games.”

Welcome to the cutting edge of 21st century communication, where emerging disciplines like Web design and computer programming are merging with more traditional fields like journalism, filmmaking, social advocacy, and public relations. That’s the thrust behind the University’s new Interactive Media graduate degree program, unveiled for Fall 2013 by the Department of Cinema and Interactive Media. (For undergraduates, the department also offers a course in gaming and a minor in interactive media.)

All of these options are housed at the School of Communication—an important distinction from many other gaming programs that seek backgrounds in computer programming and Web design. Techies are certainly welcome, but here the ability to write code is optional. UM faculty stress that they want to teach game design as a way of thinking that is applicable to many disciplines.

From left, Adam Edelstein, Ebby Wahman, B.S.E.E. ’13, and Franklin Zhang share their work with Clay Ewing, standing, who created Atlantis, left, with students Zhang and Rebekah Monson (not pictured).

From left, Adam Edelstein, Ebby Wahman, B.S.E.E. ’13, and Franklin Zhang share their work with Clay Ewing, standing, who created Atlantis, left, with students Zhang and Rebekah Monson (not pictured). Photo by Donna Victor

“The graduate courses we’re offering in game design are purely non-digital,” says Ewing. “We allow people to program if they can, but you can come in the class and have no computer skills at all and still make a game. Making a card game requires creating a system, but it doesn’t require anything other than a desire to learn.”

Tran and Ewing, who both came to UM in 2012 from Parsons The New School for Design, have collaborated on a number of games, including Vanity, aimed at teaching teenagers about the risks of indoor tanning; Extreme Candy Photo Bomb Scavenger Memory Saga, which won Best Overall Game and Best Candy Game at the Miami location for the Global Game Jam in 2014; and Humans vs. Mosquitoes, intended to help kids understand the implications of insect-borne diseases and climate change.

“The fact that you can teach people to design games that are about society, about ideas and social impact—and not just about entertainment—that’s very exciting to students when they first hear the concept,” says Ewing, who has also created games for international organizations such as Oxfam America. “In the School of Communication, when we first pull the Ph.D. and master’s students into our games, you can see their minds begin to work. They see it as a whole new way to create interventions.”

Atlantis is an official IndieCade Conference selection.

Atlantis is an official IndieCade Conference selection.

Visitors stepping inside Ewing’s lab need to rethink their concept of what a story or a game—or even a movie—really is. The work being produced here ranges from Zoo Rush, an adventure video game designed to raise awareness about sickle cell anemia, to Atlantis, which its creators envision will be played in a cinema where dozens of participants will control characters through personal mobile devices.

“In many ways games are becoming the movies of the future,” says Kim Grinfeder, A.B. ’94, who directs the Interactive Media Program. “They allow you to interact with complex, long-form storytelling, and have a multitude of characters that the viewers themselves control. I think games can be applied to anything, really. You can use games in education. You can use games in advertising. You can use games to promote social causes. The School of Communication is really the perfect place to teach this.”

And Miami may be a promising market for program graduates to find a job or launch a start-up. Already widely known as the entertainment gateway between the U.S. and Latin America, the city is home to a small but growing number of game entertainment companies.

And the global video gaming industry is expected to earn $111 billion next year, according to Gartner, a technology research firm. Mobile games, those played from phones and other portable devices, are projected to nearly double in revenue from $13.2 billion in 2013 to $22 billion in 2015.

Earlier this year, UM’s program earned a prestigious top 25 ranking on The Princeton Review’s 2014 list of the best graduate schools to study video game design. The ranking was based on a survey of 150 programs at institutions offering video game design coursework or degrees in the United States, Canada, and some countries abroad.

Assistant professor Lien Tran trains staff at a facility for immigrant youth to play a game that explains the U.S. legal system.

Assistant professor Lien Tran trains staff at a facility for immigrant youth to play a game that explains the U.S. legal system. Photos by Han Chang

From Detention to Comprehension

Assistant professor Lien Tran created Toma el Paso (Make a Move) to educate young unaccompanied immigrants to the United States about the U.S. legal system. Designed with the help of an immigration attorney and translated into Spanish, the board game is now being used in South Florida in conjunction with a University of Miami-helmed program called the Immigrant Child Affirmative Network, a collective of faculty, students, and community agencies who are working with undocumented and unaccompanied minors being held at a juvenile facility in Miami Gardens. The gaming board depicts a juvenile facility, where all players begin their journey. First, players must “meet” with a case manager, who explains their three release options: reunification with a U.S. sponsor, federal foster care, or voluntary departure back to the homeland. Players roll the dice and land on various spaces representing a case manager, a lawyer, a phone, or specific documents to collect requisite cards. Each card, which has information on the particular step in the process, then goes into a packet. The object of the game is to collect enough cards to fill a submission packet and ultimately be released from the detention center. Tran says children at the Miami Gardens facility have enjoyed playing the game. “The overall goal is to bridge the information gap these undocumented and unaccompanied immigrant minors face due to their status and lack of resources,” Tran says. “Because they’re not citizens, they do not have access to legal representation, and have to face a complex legal situation by themselves. It’s hard enough for an educated adult, let alone a child who may have had a transient life.”

—Joshua Stone, ’15

“The program touches a lot of bases in the digital world—game design, graphic design, the philosophy behind gaming systems—and that’s what I found so interesting,” says Joshua Vega, one of 25 graduate students currently enrolled in the Interactive Media Program.

Like many millennials, Vega grew up playing games across many platforms, but he never learned to write code. In one of his first UM classes he created a game called Crappy Boss. The idea is to give students a taste of what the real world is like—especially with a bad boss—after you graduate with a prestigious degree but without any idea of what workplace dynamics are like.

“It’s very loosely based around working in an office site,” explains Vega, who has an undergraduate degree in finance. “You can get suspended from work for doing a poor job, or win more rewards by getting your work done on time. But you have to deal with the ‘crappy boss,’ of course, and things like workers spreading rumors about you and damaging your reputation.”

Student Fan “Franklin” Zhang was looking for a program that would combine visual design with his formidable programming skills. He has a more traditional background in software engineering but finds the teamwork in classes with liberal arts students to be one of the more exciting elements he’s encountered.

So far he’s worked with Ewing and Ebtissam “Ebby” Wahman, B.S.E.E. ’13, on Zoo Rush, a project commissioned by the Miller School of Medicine that won a Silver Award from the 2014 International Serious Play Awards. Zhang also is involved in building the cinematic multiplayer game Atlantis and a more traditional entertainment action game called The Way of a Monk.

“At first, I came here thinking I wasn’t going to get a lot of inspiration from classmates or the professors for game ideas, but it’s been the opposite,” says Zhang. “There’s a real emphasis on using games to help others see things from different perspectives. It’s very important in game design—something I didn’t even realize coming in.

“That’s the most fascinating thing about this program—the collaboration, the teamwork, getting to know these other students who come in from all kinds of different backgrounds,” Zhang continues. “It’s not just, ‘I’m the programmer, I’ve created this game, and nobody else is going to touch it.’ This culture is very collaborative. Gaming is very collaborative. That’s where the creativity comes from.”

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