In a classroom on the basement level of the Journalism Building, three students are grouped around a laptop, designing a video game about Tyson Chicken. Once they’re done, they complete a similar assignment, this one about the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall.
“You cannot lampoon them. These are your clients,” Casey O’Donnell, the instructor, calls out over the working groups. But the students are used to this. Game design challenges are a weekly part of the telecommunications topics course that O’Donnell teaches.
His lesson—that it’s easier and cheaper to design smaller games with massive restrictions—is unspoken, but through the activity, students absorb the idea and begin to discuss it among themselves.
“I’m a big believer in the idea that students do more work and work harder if you give them the resources and the tools they need to create something and make them do it,” he said. “It emulates the real world.”
O’Donnell is a newly minted Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the sort of technological powerhouse that is churning out the kind of movers and shakers expected to create the next big thing.
For O’Donnell, that thing is the UGA Video Game Lab, a windowless room in the Journalism Building with a 52-inch television and enough game consoles to stock an arcade. However, the lab’s purpose isn’t to study video games, but the interactions they produce, both in their design and playing.
“I consider myself an anthropologist,” O’Donnell said. “My research focuses on how interdisciplinary people come together and make things. I happen to like games as a way of showing that because they’re fun, and I have a knowledge on how to make them.”
He came to UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the New Media Institute last year. His path snaked from a women’s studies concentration at Drake University through the video game industry itself before coming back to academia. He has done scientific data visualization work for Jet Propulsion Labs funded by the California Institute of Technology and helped create 3-D sound systems for the Nintendo 64, Playstation, and Windows and Mac computers.
That experience made him ideal to begin UGA’s foray into digital gaming, according to Scott Shamp, director of the New Media Institute.
“The Video Game Lab is Casey’s baby. He conceptualized it, and he has an innovative strategy for how to make it work. And the students love it,” he said. “We have known for at least the last three years that games are becoming viable communication media. Casey is leading the way in exploring how we can teach students to effectively use this new media.”
As O’Donnell said, “They wanted somebody to do digital games. I could have gone somewhere with an established program, or I had the opportunity to go here, where there wasn’t anything, and build a program. And I like to make stuff.”
Since beginning at UGA last year, craze for the lab has spread through campus. And O’Donnell’s broad view of what gaming can achieve has only fueled it. Currently, he’s working with faculty from the College of Veterinary Medicine to design games that help explain animal biology.
For O’Donnell, it makes perfect sense. Games are not merely adolescent escapism, but tools for learning and experience that have applications beyond saving the princess.
“If you’re reading a book, you’re getting a story but you’re not interacting with it,” he said. “When you play a game, you’re in a way living that story. It happens as you make it happen. It’s a completely active experience.”