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 MechWarrior 's Weisman fights to save the wetlands with new game

MechWarrior's Weisman fights to save the wetlands with new game Exclusive

January 27, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

Veteran game designer Jordan Weisman is now interim director of the University of Washington Bothell's Center for Serious Play, which has just launched its first student game on Facebook.

The game, UWB Wetlands Restoration, is a social game with a real correlative to the subject at hand, developed in collaboration with the university's ecology department. The Center itself is a new initiative, just under a year old. Weisman, who established FASA, created series like Shadowrun and MechWarrior, and was also the founder and initial CEO of Smith & Tinker, co-founded the Center with Wanda Gregory, a teacher of game design who's also worked with Wizards of the Coast.

The Center got off the ground so quickly that Gregory and Weisman quickly realized they'd need a full-time administrator. As Gregory had a full courseload, "I stepped into the breach," Weisman tells us.

The new 5,000 square-foot facility has classrooms, project rooms and a social space. Its goal "is to be an estuary between academia and industry, which is unique for an undergrad program," Weisman says.

Undergraduates will have the opportunity to get involved in various industry programs, in addition to support in the development of their own media -- the focus is on interactive media, versus on games in specific.

"The goal is to get students a lot of hands-on experience with creating interactive media from concept to ship... not with a very strong focus on engineering as much, but on design, narrative development and project management," Weisman describes.

The University already has a strong computer science program, but as in many academic institutions, other disciplines have historically been less well-supported. UW Bothell is one of many schools exploring broader offerings for interactive entertainment students that focus on interactive media as a holistic, multifaceted creative discipline, versus more traditional, programming-centric approaches.

"This was a unique opportunity to help build something different, and it's exciting," Weisman says. "I just love the energy of undergrads... they come up with really great ideas unfettered by conventional wisdom telling them such things aren't possible."

With Wetlands Restoration, the center was looking to task the students with a large scale project that would also demonstrate the kind of aim the Center had.

"We were looking for something in the social space, because it is a dynamic and fast-growing environment," adds Weisman. "We thought students learning how to design for that space and doing a lot of research in that space would be something that was very useful for them."

The UW Bothell campus is invested in the restoration of local wetlands, and ecology faculty have been engaged in that research for a number of years. "It seemed like a really good fit, to take an established game dynamic and use it to educate about the real causal links of a project like wetlands restoration."

The university ecology professor's team was available to help teach the Center students about the building, maintenance and restoration of fragile wetlands, the better to inform the game dynamics.

"We worked with our students to craft something that was accessible to a broader audience, but still had enough underlying science to it to be respectable and actually achieve the goal of education," Weisman explains.

80 percent of Wetlands Restoration's profits will actually benefit the wetlands, although it's still too soon to fully evaluate what kind of impact the just-launched game will have.

It may not be "cutting edge" by social game standards -- that's somewhat the nature of the beast -- but Weisman believes it achieves its core goals of engaging and educating players. It's unique in that it has an end game players can reach, versus being an always-open persistent universe.

"Beyond what we're hoping to see in terms of public response, we've also gotten a lot of enthusiastic response from other educators who are enthusiastic about using this tool inside of high school and college classes," Weisman adds.

Up next, the Center will work with a local startup on its virtual world tools offering, helping create content that will exemplify the product. It's also developing innovative web apps for a local jewelry company.

"And we're continuing our efforts to create a development culture, and a common toolset, and mentoring from a whole bunch of different excellent local professionals," Weisman adds.

"I think it will continue... on a broader spectrum than just games. The concept of how to design for interactive media isn't limited to just games, as important as games are," says Weisman.

"It's the future literacy that's going to be required for people."

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