Academics and Research

First-year seminar lets students design campaign video games

To teach first-year students about the machinations of campaign politics this fall, computer science Professor Scott Leutenegger intends to speak to the freshmen in a language he knows they will understand.

He’s having them create their own video games.

“You have this medium that kids want to engage with—they’re all gamers, and the idea of playing a game is just completely normal to them,” Leutenegger says. “So you have this opportunity to inject some sort of political commentary or to shape opinions through the game play. It’s not just killing zombies; it could be a game where you’re a campaign manager and you have to coach your candidate on whether to use negative attack techniques or patriotic chest-thumping.”

Leutenegger’s first-year seminar, Election Games, was inspired by the presidential debate the University will host in October. Using a simple programming language called Scratch, students will team up to design games that take a cue from presidential politics. Once the games are finished, students will take turns playing the games designed by their classmates.

“They are going to create board games and Scratch games that are basically making campaign pitches for one candidate or the other,” Leutenegger says. “I’m planning on making them switch halfway through. I want them to actually look at issues on both sides, but more importantly, I want them to see the techniques that politicians use to inform—or misinform—the public.”

Another aim is to teach students about the socially conscious gaming movement pioneered by designers like Rafael Fajardo, an associate professor in DU’s emergent digital practices program. Games such as Fajardo’s “Juan and the Beanstalk,” about Colombian farmers, or “Oiligarchy,” a big oil-themed game by Italian team Molleindustria, deliver a message about society. And designing such a game, Leutenegger says, is even more educational than playing it.

“When you have to actually make the game, and you have to decide on the message that you want to get across, it’s the same as writing a paper. They have to do the same background research,” he says. “When you write a paper, about the only thing an instructor can do to stop you from going all over the place is say, ‘You are limited to four pages.’ Well, when you have to write the code for this game, you have to do the art for this game, that’s much more of a constraint than limiting the number of pages. It forces the designer to hone that argument down to the bare minimum.”

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