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Computer gaming skills shown on national stage

May 11, 2010

Engineering students Travis Sein and Ryan Scott recently showcased skills they’ve gained in Arizona State University’s computer gaming program in the finals of the national Microsoft Imagine Cup challenge in Washington, D.C.

Sein and Scott, computer science majors in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, are pursuing the computer gaming certificate.

Microsoft, one of the world’s major computer technology corporations, gave students the task of developing games that demonstrate technological innovation and convey messages about making a positive difference in the world.

Students had to design computer video games that reflected themes from the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which set objectives for overcoming some of the world’s biggest social and technological challenges.

After local and regional contests for software design and game design projects attracted about 700 student teams from around the country, the ASU duo was one of only 10 teams selected for the national finals in late April for computer game design.

Sein and Scott competed against teams from Yale University, the University of Southern California and the University of Houston, among others.

Their game, called Awesome Town, reflected the Millennium Goals themes of global partnerships and resource management.

In the game, players face the potential end of human civilization. After the Earth has been harvested dry, there is a last-ditch effort to save humanity.  Several individuals are sent on space shuttles on a mission to colonize a distant planet capable of sustaining life.

While in a cryogenic sleep during the long flights, each space traveler loses his or her memory. The game player must then teach the characters in the game basic survival skills, so they can create the space colony that will save Earthlings.

Sein and Scott say they hope the game teaches players how to work together, and how to work with nature, in efforts to develop technologically and socially sustainable societies.

The game allows players to simulate what civilization would look like if it were shaped by the players’ rules and ideas. 

“In Awesome Town, it does not matter who you are or who you were. The focus is on who you will become, and what you do to get there,” Sein explains.

He and Scott met in a Game Engine Development course taught by Ashish Amresh, a lecturer in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decisions Systems Engineering.

Amresh, who directs the gaming certificate program, encouraged students to take on the Imagine Cup challenge.

Sein and Scott didn’t know each other before taking the course, but Amresh matched them up for the competition. They found that they “shared the same passion for creating interactive media,” Sein recalls.

The project wasn’t easy, though. It took hundreds of hours to create Awesome Town and make it meet Microsoft’s standards.

“Despite frustration and the long hours that stretched through the night and into the early hours of the morning, I’d say it was one hundred percent worth it,” Sein says.

Even though they didn’t capture the top prize in the finals, they are primed to continue competing, and plan to enter the contest again next year.

“I never saw video game development as a viable career choice, just because there are so many factors to take into consideration. But making it into the finals with a game that we spent less than half a year developing has blown my mind. I’m excited, and this competition is just the beginning for me and Ryan,” Sein says.

Scott says he has “always loved video games and wanted to develop them since I was in the second grade. I've tried my hand at the trade several times in the past, but this is the first time I've been able to make it to such a high level of competition.”

He now hopes to “start building up a name in the industry so that I can continue to develop games and make a living from it. I love everything involved in the process of developing games. But to be successful in this, you have to work very hard. Winning the Imagine Cup would definitely be a great step in the right direction.”

 “The fact we were selected to go to the finals over so many other great video game projects was exciting,” Sein says. “Winning this competition would show the high level of game-development skills students are learning in ASU’s program.”

An added bonus to the trip to the finals this year was the appearance of another big fan and user of computer technology, James Cameron, director of the award-winning feature films Titanic and Avatar.

Cameron was the keynote speaker, and students got a chance to talk to him during the event.

See video of Sein and Scott at the Imagine Cup national finals competition. Scroll down the page to the video "Team Name Not Found."

See more information about Awesome Town

Written by Krista Flewelling and Jessica Graham