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Serious Games People Play

Like a lot of her classmates in George Mason University’s Computer Game Design Program [1], Lisa Chhour Harrison, BFA ’18, created many games during her undergraduate years, including the “hack and slash” RPG (role-playing game) that was her senior project. But one of the games she worked on during her time at Mason could one day save lives.

Harrison was part of team of students that created a training game for the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security High Threat Operations branch. The team was tasked with building a first-person shooter multiplayer game for 48 agent trainees with the capacity for instructors to observe. It will be used to help train diplomatic security special agents and U.S. Marines to better protect U.S. embassies with the highest threat levels.

“The game also has an ‘after action report’ so it can give the camera perspective of the trainers, but also allows the students to see what they looked like and what they did wrong,” says Scott Martin, founding director of the Computer Game Design Program and Mason’s Virginia Serious Game Institute (VSGI) [2]. “Games can save lives. This is a serious training game that could prevent the next Benghazi [attack].”

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Lisa Chhour Harrison, James Casey, and Oscar Quinteros of the Virginia Serious Gamer Institute. Photo by Ron Aira

By a serious game, Martin means one that is developed for a purpose other than entertainment. “But it is still important that they be fun and engaging or no one will use them,” he says.

The team, led by Computer Game Design faculty member Eric Piccione, modeled the Diplomatic’s training facility in West Virginia for the game. They made several trips to West Virginia to tour the facility and take photos. They even had the opportunity to view videos of actual U.S. Embassy breaches.

Using 3-D modeling, Harrison “built” the West Virginia facility to scale for the game. “It’s different than looking at a video,” says Martin. “You can actually walk the facility.”

Other team members were responsible for creating textures (making the grass look like real grass), lighting, the characters, and weapons that appeared in the game. “Everyone either had a niche or found their way into one,” Harrison says.

Game programmer Oscar Quinteros, BS Computer Science ’17, was in charge of the lighting, which includes both indoor and natural light. He says the most challenging and fun part for him was figuring out what he calls the “flag physics” of the embassy’s American flag that flutters in the breeze on the grounds of the virtual compound.

Piccone says trainees will use the game to run co-op missions and play team versus team with weapons used in the field, and the instructors will be able to customize the conditions of each mission to better prepare players for specific situations.

This embassy training game was actually a “proof of concept” project, and there are more games to come. The State Department wants to expand the work with VSGI to include modeling other embassies so that it would be possible to train personnel before they head overseas.

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Oscar Quinteros demonstrates the State Department training game.

“This project is a great opportunity for diplomatic security trainees to play out missions and scenarios for a particular embassy before they even set foot in that embassy in the real world,” Piccione says. “They’ll not only become familiar with the layout but also learn how to adapt their tactics to that setting under a variety of conditions.”

More games translate into more opportunities for Mason students to take part in applied research and gain real-world experience for their resumes.

The State Department training game was funded research through the VSGI on Mason’s Science and Technology Campus. Access to VSGI is one of the things that sets Mason’s Computer Game Design Program apart from the rest.

VSGI, the only facility of its kind in the United States, supports Mason student entrepreneurship in the simulation and game-design industry. In 2017, the organization helped start 11 new companies, which generated more than 60 jobs in this emerging field.

And the State Department grant isn’t the only funded research project Mason students are working on. Mason is a subcontractor to CHI Systems Inc., a Pennsylvania-based company that develops advanced technology solutions for defense and security agencies and government research organizations, working on a U.S. Army Medical Research Acquisition Authority project.

James Casey, associate director of VSGI, is the principal investigator on the project they are calling IMMERSE, which is an acronym for Interactive Mixed Media Augmented Reality Simulation Engine. The simulation device that Casey describes sounds very much like a tricorder on Star Trek, a handheld medical device used on the television show to scan and diagnose patients.

Designed for Army medics to use in the field or as a training refresher, the IMMERSE device, when held over a certain part of the body, show images and runs through “a medical procedure to keep the information fresh and relevant, and it will also allow them to potentially train off of it too. [The app] can watch what they’re doing, compare it, and then give them pointers,” says Casey.

Computer Game Design Program interim director Sang Nam is leading the team of students working on IMMERSE. The app shows a series of demo animations that can be visualized on top of a real surface in augmented reality (AR). A good example of AR is the game Pokémon GO, which had people of all ages chasing cartoon characters in public places using their smartphones.

Computer game design major Conner Stern has had the good fortune to work on both projects. In addition to designing and animating the characters and weapons appearing in the embassy simulation, Stern is also working on IMMERSE as the animator and medical modeler. “I made all the anatomical models and animated all the demo animations,” he says. “It’s a lot of looking at images of dissected body parts and anatomy lessons. We all work on design and user experience together, so I contributed to that as well.”

Computer game design major and IMMERSE co-designer Nathan Garner also served as lead environmental artist. “[We] all worked together on designing the application—how it looked, felt, how the user navigated the app,” he says. “This project helped me gain necessary experience working and communicating in a professional environment. As we were sub-contracted through the company CHI, creating a product directed by their vision and successfully delivering on that vision was crucial. Throughout the process, I was constantly receiving feedback from CHI on the product and iterating on it until they were satisfied.”

Stern adds: “Of course, being able to say I did all this work for the U.S. Army while in college looks superb on a resume.”

Jamie Rogers contributed to this story.