February 24, 2014

World Jam @ USC

By Tian Zhou

USC hosted it’s first ever “World Jam” in the new Interactive Media Building this past weekend, running from February 14th until February 16th. Programmers, designers and creators from USC and across the gaming community were invited to participate in creating short, 5 to 15 minute experiences that will eventually be used to help sick children undergoing stressful procedures. Explained Marientina Gotsis, one of the organizers of the jam, “There’s nothing really used for this particular purpose right now. There’s a lot of games, but the narrative arc is not quite appropriate for the experience, the content is not necessarily appropriate, and the immersion is not necessarily high enough.” The goal is to create short, casual, fully immersive content that can entertain children as they wait for an IV or a long and tedious procedure, distracting them from the pain and boredom they might feel.


Gotsis, Center, Leads World Jam

The jam came about as the brainchild of Ms. Gotsis, an assistant professor of Research and Director of the Creative Media and Behavioral Health Center at SCA, and Dr. Jeffrey Gold, an associate professor in the Anesthesiology and Pediatrics departments at the Keck School of Medicine. They met at the USC Institute for Integrative Health, a collaborative effort between SCA and Keck that aims to unite health care and technological innovation, and discussed their work. Dr. Gold had been using Virtual Reality, or VR, for years in the treatment of his pediatric patients. Although the use of VR showed tangible benefits, the devices could be expensive and clunky. Remembered Ms. Gotsis, “One of the things Dr. Gold and I talked about was, isn’t VR cool? It’s not cheap and affordable, but why is there nothing [cheap and affordable]?” From this thought process came the idea to launch a “World Jam” at USC, to create a series of low-cost, mixed or augmented reality experiences that could be played on casual VR devices.

To produce the event, Ms. Gotsis brought in Erin Reynolds and her partner Michael Annetta, alumni of the Interactive Media Program and founders of the indie studio Flying Mollusk. They had developed an award-winning bio-feedback game called Nevermind, designed for anxiety management, and were interested in promoting more experiences in this particular genre. Explains Ms. Reynolds of the idea, “This World Jam is pretty unique, but game jams have been around for a while. The goal of a game jam is that you have a very small amount of time, usually a weekend, to create a game based on a concept that they give you at the very beginning.” Participants then split into groups to brainstorm, design and finally build their ideas. By the end of the week, the best ideas have been transformed into working builds. Says Ms. Reynolds, “In this case, the end goal is that all of the products that we make are going to go back to CHLA (Children’s Hospital Los Angeles) so that the children can actually use them and engage with them.”

By the end of the weekend, the participants had narrowed their concepts down to one – Balloon Island, a Donkey-Kong like game starring a squirrel monkey who soars through a fantastical island world by grabbing on to balloons. Each time, the squirrel monkey flies through a different island, allowing the user to experience a variety of unique, immersive environments. Over the next few weeks, participants will refine the game into a release prototype, which will then be put to the test in front of patients at CHLA. Another, unplanned benefit of the event was the identification of a list of titles, including AAA games, indie games and games by SCA students and alumni, that could be used to help young patients. At least one game studio has already agreed to provide free licenses for this purpose, and the Institute for Integrative Health is reaching out to other studios and designers to donate additional licenses. Says Ms. Gotsis, “Having just one game is not sustainable, the goal is to have multiple things and refresh.” Through the use of an ever-evolving list of titles, the initiative seeks to bring to bear the full promise and possibility of technology to make a difference in the lives of young patients.