May 16, 2006

Cornell's 2006 Game Expo demonstrates students' expertise and whimsy

"Chuck kumquats!" "Defeat baboons!" "Repopulate the world and eat anything that stands in your way!"

These were typical of the slogans, from whimsical to gross, displayed in abundance at the 2006 Game Expo presented May 10 in Upson Hall by the Cornell Game Design Initiative. The event exhibited games created by students in CIS 300, Introduction to Game Design, and a follow-up advanced course. The games were created by teams of programmers, art and music students.

"We are looking for ways to reach out to more art students," said lecturer David Schwartz, who teaches the game courses. "They are an extremely important part of the team."

Many of the games on display belied their student origins -- perhaps a bit shorter and simpler than games seen at an arcade but often just as impressive in their art and storylines. A hundred or so students, accompanied by quite a few grade-schoolers, lined up to play.

The games included "Restless Moon II," a 10-level shooting game along the lines of the best-selling "Doom" in a 3D environment simulating lunar gravity, and "The Last Lemi," the aforementioned kumquat-collecting game. "Green Eggs and Pan," Cornell's winning entry in the national Games for Girls competition in April, attracted many players, including grade-school girls. An appealing feature of the game is cooperative play in which two players work together to overcome obstacles. At the other end of the emotional scale, "Eat Your Young" involves predators, prey and occasional splashes of virtual blood.

A couple of games included features the professional game companies haven't come out with yet. One, "Banana Brawl," incorporates artificial intelligence (AI) that learns the player's moves, making the game harder each time the player returns. Two or more players can save their AIs, and eventually the AIs can be set to play against one another.

Another innovation on display was a motion-sensitive version of the handheld Game Boy Advance. Equipped with an add-on device created by the Ithaca firm Kionix, the palm-sized game box becomes sensitive to its position, so that a player can maneuver a game piece by tilting the game. Students have created games for the technology, including a driving game called "Ring Racer."

CIS 300 is more than just fun and games, Schwartz pointed out. It trains students to work in interdisciplinary groups that include nontechnical students, he said, adding that there are rapidly expanding employment opportunities in the game industry. Also, Schwartz said he sees gaming as an avenue to attract young people to technology careers. To that end, Cornell students are teaching game design to community middle and high school students through the Learning Web and Finger Lakes Unschooling network.