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May 28, 2009

Interactive Showcase

M.F.A. Thesis Works Forge New Boundaries

By By Charles Benimoff

The latest projects from Interactive Media Division M.F.A. students fill the Carson Sound Stage from May 9 to May 15, 2009 during "Look and Feel" the 2009 thesis show.
When the Interactive Media Division presented its first master of fine arts thesis showcase in 2005, student projects set the precedent for challenging and propelling the bounds of game, immersive and mobile content. Taking place from May 9 to 15 on the Carson Sound Stage, ten titles in this year's Look & Feel exhibit pushed those bounds to new creative frontiers.

"I was very impressed, many of these games deal with some serious themes, the students really took their creativity to another level," said IMD Professor Anne Balsamo, curator for the show along with Research Associate Professor Perry Hoberman. 

Pluff by Diana Hughes is one such game. Deceptively cute and simple at first, the project incorporates an actual stuffed animal with sensors built in ("e-textile technology") that inform the game program of how and in what way the user is petting the creature. On the game screen, one sees a display of Pluff's (the creature's) mood. As its mood changes, the user must physically care for the stuffed animal to prevent it from growing depressed.

In designing the piece, Hughes had a direct goal in mind: "It's sort of an empathy trainer for autistic kids, to teach them how and when to interact with others," she explained. In a way, the game was comparable to tamagotchis, a Japanese toy/key chain on which the player pressed "hug," "feed" and other command buttons to keep a creature on the tiny screen placated. But using a game mechanic that was once the nemesis of elementary school teachers in the mid-'90s, Hughes has turned the technology into a tool for special education instructors.

Jamie Antonisse, M.F.A. thesis student, continued this line of thinking with Spectre, which aims to examine life, memories and the things that make us who we are. The player controls "an old man looking back at his life. You choose the nine memories, from childhood to old age, that make up the story of his life," Antonisse said as he demonstrated the game. Each time the player selects various choices, the life of the main character is shaped and shifted.

Besides Pluff and Spectre, Look & Feel also featured AquariYum! by Al Yang, By Nature from creator Mike Rossmassler, Carte Blanche by John Brennan, Minor Battle by Andre Clark, Nahui Ollin by Andrea Rodriguez, On the Shoulders of Giants by R.J. Layton, Runesinger by Ethan Kennerly and The Tree: A Storied Experience by Maya Churi.

Describing the games in this year's show as demonstrating a "special degree of maturity," Balsamo said that quality stretched beyond the game concepts and into the creative culture behind them. When asked what lessons each student took away from their experiences, the almost-unanimous verdict across the board was "collaboration." Swallowing their pride and appreciating the feedback of their fellow classmates and teachers, as well as returning the favors with their own, was listed among the most valuable learning experiences of the process. 

"I hope the students come away from this with an appreciation for how much cooperative work goes in to making these things work," Balsamo said.

"My classmates' tips were amazing, their insight was crucial to the game turning out the way it did," said Kennerly of his Korean language trainer Runesinger. Since the game is heavily music based, it would not have even been possible without the help and cooperation of fellow students, chiefly those from the Thornton School of Music, he added.