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Art students design, make and manufacture virtual-reality board games


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People are trapped inside Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting, Guernica, and they’re trying to escape.  


Welcome to a unique collaboration between art history and design students that has resulted in eight digitally-connected board games with real boards, plastic pieces, instructions, info cards and a box—all manufactured by a real company. Games are being unveiled this month and will be on display on the first floor of Ennis Hall, through Wednesday, Dec. 11.

“I don’t want the study of art history to be a passive learning experience, where students are sitting in chairs and listening to lectures and taking notes,” said Dr. Elissa Auerbach, professor of art history.

“I want my students to be active learners, to be collaborating, to be problem solving, to be critically thinking and this project is making all of that happen.”

Sophomore Gabrielle Haynes gets suggestions from Professor of Art, Dr. Elissa Auerbach.

Last spring, a guest speaker came to campus to talk about technology in teaching. That gave Auerbach an idea. Assistant Professor Matthew Forrest’s students were already designing game boxes and using 3-D tools to make game pieces. This semester, Auerbach merged her class with his to expand the project. Art history students chose historical themes and researched information for playing cards. Design students transformed ideas and concepts into images.

To boost it further—professors added a digital component. Few commercial games deal with art history. Even less incorporate digital content continuously throughout a game. As far as she knows, Auerbach said, no existing board games incorporate this level of digital technology.

Players move pieces along a board route, using cell phones to scan QR codes they land on. Codes connect players to digital information via weblinks. On a website, players might see students acting as TV anchors, reporting news from World War II. They might hear voice overs about paintings and prints from the French Revolution. Or codes might connect to existing images, videos and demos online.

Students learned to use 3-D virtual-reality headsets, as well. When doing tasks that mimic real jobs, students become more engaged in learning. They also retain more. Game playing brings this element into deeper focus.

“How this project helps prepare students for the future, for me, is really clear,” Auerbach said. “Games are a teaching tool for building 21st-century skills.”

“Games are fun,” she said.  “They're competitive. By their very nature, students readily immerse themselves into games. They want to do well. They want to win the game. And then, in the process, of course, they’re also learning.”

Haynes edits her game design.

Students were given free rein to choose a topic and determine how information is used. Art history students needed to accurately communicate their ideas and goals. Design students created images, based on information given. Like most working relationships, however, things didn’t always turn out perfectly on first draft.

Colors were wrong, images not detailed enough, entire sections of boards historically inaccurate.

Junior graphic design major Jenna Bryson admitted the work could be frustrating at times. Her team created a Sixties Scramble game, where three players impersonate historical artists. They move around a board, divided into three historical time periods. Before the final version, two sections, depicting minimalism and commercialism, had to be cut.

Junior Allyssa Clements writes notations for design element changes.

Bryson was in charge of designing 50 cards and putting information on those cards. So, the late change was daunting—some cards had to be removed, while others had to be completely redesigned.

“For me, that’s like changing the artists and five works they have in the game and all the information that goes along with that,” Bryson said. “That’s quite a process, but it’ll be really worth it to have a board game at the end of the day that speaks to the Sixties and our goal.”

This is what real artists do: refine draft-after-draft. Students need opportunities involving separate tasks and shared goals, Forrest said. They need to find answers on their own. For this project, groups met outside class to collaborate. They texted each other questions and answers. Some even made paper replicas of games for test runs.

Junior Jenna Bryson works with Assistant Professor of Art, Matthew Forrest.

“For them to work individually and together is a huge part of the liberal arts practice of creating independent thinkers,” Forrest said. “One of the core things in liberal arts is the idea you have to get outside your comfort zone.”

“You have to be willing to work with others,” he said. “You have to respect other points-of-view, compromise and come to some sort of conclusion at the end. That’s incredibly hard for a young artist to do.”

Sophomore Maya Whipple and Junior Stephanie Johnson collaborate on
game design.

Junior fine studio arts major Stephanie Johnson found the assignment “overwhelming at first.” It took a lot of time management. In the first QR code of her team’s game, the weblink shows players being trapped inside a painting by Picasso. Players get points for acquiring art knowledge about the artist. Whoever gets the most points, escapes and wins.

Coming up with a complete board game—concept to finished product—was challenging, Johnson said. It was also a lot of fun. She’s looking forward to putting this on her resume. She thinks it’ll set her apart from other job seekers.

A teammate, sophomore art studio major Maya Whipple, agreed. These games are unlike anything she’s ever done at school.

“This will be very beneficial in the real world,” Whipple said. “We made the cards. We made the pieces, the box, the board—everything, we produced as college students.”

“It’s a real eye-opener of the things you can do,” she said, “even if you don’t picture yourself as doing those things. To be able to produce something this amazing is life changing.”

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