It Just Takes A Byte

North Carolina is the gaming industry’s East Coast hub. Changing technology, innovation, interactive gaming and e-learning all combine to transform a line of data on the screen into serious gaming.

The flight controller was understandably pleased with how the Mars Probe mission was going. All systems were go. The probe had slipped into a safe orbit around the Red Planet. But suddenly, the warning lights blinked on, the siren sounded, and the probe was aiming for a crash landing on the planet’s surface. An asteroid had slammed into the orbiter.

Frantically, the controller pounded the computer keyboard. Mission aborted. The screen went dark.

“No, no, no!” he yelled at the machine. “I’ll make this work yet.”

Suddenly, the screen awoke. The smoking remains of the Martian probe appeared, strewn across what appeared to be the floor of a crater. But at the center of wreckage, was the four-wheeled probe. Amazingly, it seemed to be intact.

Carefully, the controller began to slowly tap the keys. Checking systems, he started to type a program that would tell the probe to drive itself out of the wreckage and onto the crater floor.

“I can salvage the mission,” the controller said quietly.

“And that,” says Juan Benito, a computer game creator/developer with Joosy Inc. and Triangle Game Initiative, “is the challenge and the fun of my new game, Nomad Crash Landing."

Benito was leaning over the shoulder of the “flight controller.” He watched as the player tried to operate the Mars rover and save the Mars Probe mission. 

“The rover has some internal resources and you’ve got to manage those,” explains Benito, who adds that his creation is a challenging game to play. “You’ve got a limited amount of battery power and computer memory space on the rover, and so part of the play experience is to create a program that fits in the computer and doesn’t use up all of the power.”

Benito says he wanted to make a game that has a tight coupling between programming and mathematics. The player uses an interface to write a simple computer program to guide the Mars Rover. It’s a way to teach while at the same time having fun. This next generation of video games is taking gaming to a new level.

“Gaming no longer means just turning the brain off and having a shoot-em-up experience,” says Benito. “Games can teach people practical skills, empathetic skills and soft skills.”

Developers use the term “gamification” to describe this new use for gaming. Essentially, it means games are useful for more than just entertainment. Schools, corporations and governments are using games for education as well as employee training and evaluation. Game designers are employing all of the technologies that are used to create games for entertainment to create games for new purposes.

To achieve those lofty goals, video games are now designed to be accessible across a wide variety of web browers and to be played on multiple devices. Games can now be streamed while playing so there’s no need to download the game. And games boast 3D graphics, full sound effects and music.

How well it all works depends on people like Martin Duparc, who is a computer programmer.

“You might think writing lines and lines of code is tedious and boring,” explains Duparc, as he types away on the keyboard. “It is challenging, but it is also a lot fun because you can create something from nothing. You start with a blank page, or a blank screen, and you write things that make the computer do what you want it to do, and that’s very empowering.”

Each line of code controls one event on the screen.

There’s a code, or language, for what is called the front end of the game. It’s what the user sees on-screen.

But’s there’s also a separate code, or language, for what is called the back end of the game. It controls where the user is and what actions the user can perform as well as the score, how the player is interacting with the game and if the game is performing correctly.
   
The challenge for a game designer and programmer lies not only in anticipating what the user could do, but also in typing the code correctly. One wrong numeral, letter or symbol and the game won’t run.

“You have to be prepared for anything as you write the code for the game because you don’t know what the player is going to do,” explains Duparc. “You have to anticipate the actions and prepare the computer for those actions. For example, if the player clicks on one item, the game does one thing, and if he doesn’t then something else happens.”

Duparc continues, “What makes game design even more challenging is that there is almost no limit to what can happen because every player has a different reason for playing and a different goal they want to accomplish. It’s important to think about the ways people play the game as well as the device they are playing on.”

North Carolina is one of the leaders in this gaming revolution. There are roughly 40 game development companies in the state. It’s one of the largest concentrations on the East Coast, and the Tar Heel state’s concentration of universities, health care and technology companies is fueling the growth of the gaming industry.

“A few years ago there was a lot of talk about serious gaming but many C-level executives in companies just weren’t comfortable with their employees playing games,” explains Troy Knight, Managing Director of BLDG25. “But after a while, they saw their kids playing games and they began to realize that games could be a valuable tool for training.”

North Carolina’s gaming companies began utilizing game technology to run these new corporate teaching tools. They’ve harnessed game engines for a 3-D simulation as well as game techniques, and loaded them into applications to allow people to train and learn quicker. 

However, Benito points out it is more than just technology and the skills of programmers that fueled this gaming revolution. In the end, society has simply become more comfortable with games, in every aspect of life.

“When you think about it, every game player is a scientist because every scientist creates a model of the world that they test through experiment,” explains Benito, as he looks again toward the game player trying to salvage the Mars Probe mission. “And every game player creates an internal model of how they think the game world should work. The player tests their model by interacting with it through game play and, based on those results, just like a scientist would be faced with results, the player decides how it matches the world they internally generated.”


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