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USC raises video games to an art form

Merrill Balassoneby Merrill Balassone
Project Holodeck's lead developer Alexander Silkin, left, and Janice Chang try out Wild Skies, an immersive 360 degree virtual reality program. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)
Photo: Project Holodeck's lead developer Alexander Silkin, left, and Janice Chang try out Wild Skies, an immersive 360 degree virtual reality program. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)

In the gaming world, mega-franchises dominated by high-powered weaponry and high-speed chases have long ruled the marketplace.

But the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) is leading the way in efforts to elevate video game design to a high art.

The school has helped develop a number of “indie games” that have found viral success on the Internet, have been commercialized as best-selling games and have brought light to serious social issues, including the genocide in Darfur.

Richard Lemarchand, an associate professor who helped develop Sony’s Uncharted video game series, presented some of the school’s most influential “indie game” work on Jan. 29 at “GLIMPSE: A Digital Showcase,” a daylong USC event that presented timely technologies across the university.

One of the games was flOw, which originated as a USC master’s thesis project and eventually was developed into a best-selling game for Sony PlayStation.

A pioneering effort in the field of “serious games” is Darfur Is Dying, which has signed up more than 2 million online players and seeks to spread awareness about the crisis in Sudan.

Walden, which was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, uses 3-D to simulate philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s “experiment in living” at Walden Pond.

Peter Brinson, assistant professor of the practice of cinematic arts, demonstrated The Cat and the Coup, a “documentary game” about the CIA-engineered coup against Mohammed Mossadegh, the first democratically elected prime minister of Iran, in 1953. The user plays his feline.

“There have been a lot of projects made about war,” Brinson said, who noted that his game explores the more subtle and increasingly important arena of intelligence operations.

The game’s visual artwork is comprised of coded narratives, with information culled from leaked CIA documents and articles from The New York Times.

“The power you have is subtle compared to most [games],” Brinson said.

The Game Innovation Lab, in conjunction with the USC Rossier School of Education, also recently released the first in a series of Facebook games aimed at teaching students how to navigate the oft-complicated process of applying to college and finding financial aid.

The Collegeology Games project is backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education, among others.

And the SCA alternate reality game Reality Ends Here, which was a hit with freshmen as part of the school’s student orientation process, has shown potential for wider application in business settings and on other campuses.

“The Game Innovation Lab doesn’t exist in an ivory tower,” Lemarchand said.

The Game Innovation Lab is part of USC Games, ranked by the Princeton Review and GamePro Media as the No. 1 game design program in North America last year.

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