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Here’s a college classroom where it’s nothing but fun and games

Helen Liu and Bridget Zhou, both second-year students, demo video games in the What's Poppin' space on Dec. 6, 2018. The event was part of Professor Kellian Adams' capstone game design class. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

At the peak of its popularity, “Fortnite,” the wildly successful online video game, came with a warning on its loading screen discouraging students from playing during class. This came after frustrated teachers across the country confiscated cell phones from the grip of many a distracted and hopelessly addicted student caught playing the game.

Things are a little different in Kellian Adams Pletcher’s class at Northeastern, where playing games doesn’t trigger disciplinary action and is actually a requirement for passing. Better still, students get to play video games for homework.

Pletcher, a professional game designer and producer who specializes in mixed-reality games, said the program, which is only around 7 years old, is a “best-kept secret” of the College of Arts, Media and Design, regularly churning out students who go on to make waves in the competitive gaming industry.

“A lot of people don’t know Northeastern has a game program,” she said.

One of her seniors, Tyler Gier, a computer science and game development student, already has a cross platform engineering job lined up at Skillz, a mobile gaming startup in San Francisco. Rejecting the idea that games can be an antisocial activity, Gier said that playing video games was the great equalizer in his household when he was too young to keep up with his older siblings in sports. Now, games help him bond with his friends. The formative experiences ultimately motivated Gier to pursue game design and production for a living.

“If you make an experience that you can share with your friends, you can create some awesome social experiences,” Grier said at a recent event where he showcased a game he helped create for his final project for Pletcher’s capstone game design class.

Since September, each of the 35 students in the class has been plugging away in teams to create digital games from concept to completion or, as Pletcher described the process, “from a twinkle in their eye to a finished product,” using a cross-platform game engine called Unity.

“They’re expected to produce a fully functioning, creative, unusual game; something that is worth showing off,” said Pletcher.

Last week, her students demonstrated the fruits of their labor to playtesters at What’s Poppin’, a new space on campus to lounge, study, and host events. The idea was to gather feedback they could then take back to the lab to improve their games for a final presentation and launch in April, and prove that it’s possible for a senior thesis project to be a painless, even exciting experience.

Students playtest video games in the What’s Poppin’ space on Dec. 6, 2018. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Gier and his team’s pièce de résistance is a multiplayer game they’re calling “Fruit Postal Service.” Taking inspiration from Mario Kart, Crazy Taxi, and Overcooked, the game requires the player to be the best postal employee by delivering the most packages, along the way outmaneuvering opponents and stealing their business. The colorful cast of characters includes “Bandana Nana,” a banana sporting a bandana, Rambo-style.

As with Gier, other students find these games to be deeply personal. When his classmate, Rachel Ellis, lost her best friend, Jake, in a house fire two years ago, she poured her grief into a pet project that she later expanded with the help of her classmates into a game called “Deadboy.”

“The natural next step was to create a game that reflects my process of healing and coming to terms with his death,” said Ellis, who is 20 years old. “In a lot of ways, I feel like it’s my last little letter to my friend. I hope it’s something Jake would enjoy and something he would be proud of.”

The game, which evokes the set of a creeptastic Tim Burton movie, has players navigate a purgatorial space to save the main character, who’s teetering on the brink of death, and send him back to the world of the living. The game has drawn comparison to Limbo and Thomas Was Alone. Ellis’ teammate, Ryan Maloney, said their aim was to create a game that was “spooky, but not horror.”

“We don’t want people to be scared of anything; we want them to feel that overcoming of grief,” he said.

If you didn’t have a chance to play “Fruit Postal Service” or “Deadboy” at the demo event last week, don’t fret; many of Pletcher’s students plan to enter their games in local game festivals and launch them on the digital distribution platform Steam next year.

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