With professor’s guidance CIA, CWRU students bridge game-design gaps

Owen Bell, Game and Tech Reporter

This is the first in a multipart series following Benjamin Smith and the experiences and work of his CIA and CWRU students in game design. The rest of the series will be published over the course of the semester.

I meet Benjamin Smith at the Joseph McCullough Center for the Visual Arts, the Cleveland Institute of Art building in Uptown, in a brightly lit room overlooking Euclid. Tall, young and soft spoken, Benjamin is a new joint hire between our own Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Department and the Cleveland Institute of Art, brought on to teach game design, a duty he is sharing with EECS professor Marc Buchner.

While an artist in residence at CIA, Smith comes from a background in both computer science and music, “I did my undergraduate at Ithaca College in New York and I studied music composition. Then I went out and worked as a software engineer for several years.”

Following up on his already impressive credentials, he earned both a master’s degree and Doctor of Philosophy degree, also in music, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and then post-doctoral research in artificial intelligence at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. “At the same time I had been teaching game design during my Post Doc and doctorate.”

Now, after first being approached by Information Technology Services for a research position, he is here. “They wanted me to come and lead a research group looking at high bandwidth video conferencing applications. However, that wasn’t a full-time job, so they went around trying to drum out some other interest, and both EECS and CIA said that [they] could definitely use [me]. So now I’ve got a whole package that’s distributed: two parts [Case Western Reserve University] and one part CIA.”

Despite just starting this semester, Smith is already planning on making some significant changes to how game-design courses are taught at CWRU, starting with EECS 290, Intro Game Development, which he is teaching this semester.

Originally a course taught through EECS just for CWRU students, the course is now a multidisciplinary collaboration between both CWRU students taking EECS 290 and CIA students taking Introduction to Technical Design.

By having them work together, Smith wants to give his students something more than just a technical understanding of game development. He wants them to learn something about the game development process and overcoming difficulties that many game design students, at both CIA and CWRU, have faced in the past.

Most often, programmers and artists seem to always be fighting over what kind of game they should be making. “This comes up every time and in every course that I’ve taught. It happens at many levels because they have different motivations in terms of what they want to accomplish in a game.”

The big contributor to this problem is the communication gap between the artists and the coders. “Computer scientists will say things, really innocently, they’ll say things like, object, entity, or function, and the art students see it as very intimidating because they don’t know what it means. I doubt it’s intentional on the computer science side, and I really want the whole team to engage in the conversation.”

It’s a gap that he is sure can be overcome, “I don’t think that it is fundamentally a real conflict but it’s one that should be overcome for the sake of the [game].” Reflecting that, each artist is officially a technical designer rather than an artist and is responsible for doing much of the work normally reserved for programmers. This has left many programmers also contributing to the art for the games, in addition to the code.

He is optimistic with the potential for his new approach. Smiling, he joked about his decision to teach the class in a CIA building and the effect it was having on the computer science students, “I think that having a computer scientist walk over to CIA is good, because it takes them out of their environment and puts them into a new space.”

It’s that idea of being in a new space that really seems to be at the heart of what Smith is trying to do. He wants his students to be willing to talk to the other side, to talk to the people with whom they think they don’t have much in common.

“I’m hoping…they’ll all become friends by the end of this and…they can all talk together. I guess that is some of the experiment.”