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The State of NoVa
Posted at 05:01 AM ET, 05/04/2012

GMU students design anti-gang video games for kids


Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli navigates one of the anti-gang video games designed by students at George Mason University's Computer Game Design program. He looks like he’s about to be jumped in by MS-13. The game's creators, (from left) Stephen Berrigan, Daniel Paquette, Steven Fernandez and John Murphy celebrate another recruit. (Tom Jackman - The Washington Post)
For those who see no upside to offering a Computer Game Design major at George Mason University, Thursday brought a pleasant response: The rollout of three intelligent, immersive video games for kids that show them how people start in gangs, how they can work their way out, and what happens when you stay in.

The Mason undergrads partnered with Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office, which will help distribute the games to schools throughout the state. Cuccinelli was in Fairfax for the announcement. The launch is expected this summer, with the games to be available as apps for mobile phones and tablets and also for desktop web-browsers.

A number of different proposals from the students in the course “GAME 232 Online Gaming and Filesharing” were submitted to the AG’s office earlier in the semester, and Cuccinelli’s staff picked three, but not until late March. That only left about a month for the three winning teams to conceive, write, design, score, integrate and produce a multi-option story line that was both educational and non-hokey for the jaded video-playing youths of today.

What they came up with was remarkable. Games entitled, “A Second Family,” the term gang members often use to recruit teens with subpar home lives; “Influenced,” where the player uses a variety of tools to fend off gang influences; and “New Kid on the Block,” about a teen dealing with new pressures in a new town.

Here’s Cuccinelli talking about the project and more about how the students devised the games after the jump.

Cuccinelli’s office, as it did under Bob McDonnell, puts a lot of resources into gang fighting, and has produced another harshly realistic documentary about urban gang life in Virginia, “The Big Lie.” McDonnell’s office also produced a terrific, graphic documentary, “The Wrong Family,” in 2008.

“We always have to think up new ways to stop the recruiting and dry up the pipeline,” Cuccinelli said.


George Mason sophomore Austin Fain of Fairfax introduces his team's anti-gang game, "Influenced," created by Fain, Tiffany Nguyen, Con Son and Lamesha Coley. (Tom Jackman - The Washington Post)
The students said they watched documentaries, read gang research, and drew on their own experience growing up in Northern Virginia. Then they had to design the various paths of the stories. The main character in two of the games follows a narrative, and then has to make decisions about whether to join in the fight, or walk away. To carry a package across town for someone, or go home and shoot hoops.

In “Influenced,” the player tries to keep his personal rating up by accomplishing positive tasks — removing graffiti, joining an after-school club — and avoiding opportunities for violence or drugs. The game was created by Austin Fain, Tiffany Nguyen, Con Son and Lamesha Coley, all game design majors.

Son said she hoped to take her degree and create the next “Halo,” the mega-popular first-person shooter game. Coley said it was her goal to someday create memorable characters for the games.

In “New Kid on the Block,” sharp-eyed NoVa natives will spot images in or near W.T. Woodson High School, the alma mater of the writer, Stephen Berrigan. Team producer and music composer Daniel Paquette said their story of a teen trying to assimilate into a new school, with plenty of people trying to lure him into their groups, has a many tentacled storyline. John Murphy, Devin Gibson and Steven Fernandez also helped create the game.

Also trying to fit in is “Justin” in the game “A Second Family,” by Romel Ramos, Michael Katz and Brandon Miller. Ramos said the class spent the first half of the semester learning how to use the program Game Salad, which helped them assemble all the pieces. The second half of the semester was the writing and coding and designing.

The State of NoVa of course had to try all three games, because we used to play a little Madden back in the day. (Which is a totally lame thing to say to anyone who is an actual gamer.) All three were actually fun and fast-paced, which will be most important to the target audience of 12- to 17-year-olds, and they were smart: The characters speak like real teens, and the situations are realistic.

The choices at each juncture would seem kind of obvious. “Yes, go to chess club.” But it was always fun to decide to blow off my after-school activity and instead head over to the hangout with several of these new guys who all wear blue. And that mischief will keep kids playing. Sorta like seeing how many people you could run over in Grand Theft Auto. Back in the day.

Are video games a legitimate learning tool? I don’t see why not. Although Cuccinelli said his kids didn’t play video games (good for him), most of the rest of us have been weak and allowed Super Mario and Call of Duty to occupy chunks of their lives. They like them. Doing something they like might lead to learning. It’s not a new concept, really.

George Mason hopes to have the game available as a free app on iTunes, Droid and for web browsers this summer. Here’s the trailer for the attorney general’s latest anti-gang documentary, “The Big Lie.”

By  |  05:01 AM ET, 05/04/2012

Categories:  George Mason University | Tags:  Computer game design, George Mason University, anti-gang video games, Ken Cuccinelli

 
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