Tesseract Center for Immersive Environments and Game Design

The Emerging Role of Game Design in Digital Humanities



by Darinda Sharp

What academic program involves students and faculty from the social sciences, architecture, visual and performing arts, the humanities, computer science and the natural sciences? Game design – an increasingly important methodology in digital humanities. David Fredrick, associate professor of classics and director of the humanities program in Fulbright College, uses game design to teach Greek and Roman mythology and Roman civilization.

The teaching method eventually led to Tesseract Studio for Immersive Environments and Game Design, which uses a game-centered approach to produce immersive content for online, face-to-face and blended courses.

The genesis of academically driven game design at the U of A lies with several visualization projects focused on Roman urbanism. The enterprise brought Fredrick together with faculty from the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies and the Fay Jones School of Architecture. 

“In 2004, I worked with Latin students in an Ovid class to construct a fictional Roman house in SketchUp decorated with myths from Ovid,” Fredrick said. 

In 2006, the project received significant seed money, as Fredrick and several colleagues were awarded an Interdisciplinary Course Development Grant from the Honors College.  With Jackson Cothren and Fredrick Limp in CAST and Timothy de Noble, who was an associate professor in the Jones School at the time, Fredrick developed a new course, “Visualizing the Ancient Roman City.”  The team spent two weeks laser scanning significant areas of Ostia Antica, the harbor city of ancient Rome.  The data was used to reconstruct baths, temples and residential districts.

With additional support from the Honors College, Digital Pompeii was offered as a course for the first time in fall 2008. The goal was to develop 3D models of houses to explore how decorative ensembles, such as wall paintings, mosaics, sculptures and fountains, work together to shape spatial experience and behavior.  Students were given the opportunity to model and texture specific rooms inside these ancient homes. 

“Unity, the software game engine that we use is incredibly valuable as a tool for visualization in archaeology and art history, but we soon began to realize how much more it had to offer for education,” Fredrick said.  “So in 2010 we began offering a course in game design.  We received 20 licenses from Unity and hardware from the university’s IT office – big thanks to Marie Riley [technology support manager with University Information Technology Services] – and off we went.”

Tesseract moved into a larger space in the J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. Center for Academic Excellence, and the program continued to grow.

In 2012, along with Tom Hapgood, associate professor in the Department of Art, Fredrick received a second Interdisciplinary Course Development grant from the Honors College, to create a visualization course based on the 10th Street Studio in New York.  The course was taught in summer 2013 and fall 2014. The project remains ongoing.

Through multidisciplinary collaboration among faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students the studio creates engaging games and interactive experiences. Thanks to a partnership with Global Campus, the group has developed and offered online courses in classical studies subjects that are game-centered but still require texts, writing and creative thinking.

“People often don’t realize all that’s involved in creating a game, all the different types of knowledge and expertise you need,” Fredrick said. “You absolutely need computer science people, but you also need writers to create the narrative, appropriate characters and dialog for them. You need actors to voice the characters’ dialog. You need musicians and composers so the game has a score. Character artists—much like costume designers and makeup artists for film—sculpt the characters and make sure they’re dressed appropriately. When you’re creating a world that is set in a certain time, you need historians, political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists to provide all of the cultural context and details—timelines, events, social relations, artifacts. It takes a lot of people if you’re going to do it well.”

Course offerings have grown, and now students may take Game Design I and Game Design II to learn the basics of making video games, in addition to courses in Greek and Roman mythology and Roman civilization to experience game-based online learning.  Tesseract worked with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to create an interactive gallery application featured in an online art history course, which was piloted in spring 2015.

“This curriculum has so many potential applications. We don't even know what's possible because we're finding out as we go. It's very exciting.”

The game design courses require peer-to-peer collaboration and project-based learning, while the game-based online courses depend on student feedback to improve level design and game play.

“The idea of students developing coursework for other students is a unique one and gives us an incredible source of feedback on our projects,” Fredrick said. “It’s Razorbacks teaching Razorbacks, and this kind of course development model is extremely rare.  But at the same time, it capitalizes on the affinity of online teaching for well made immersive content—serious games.”

Immersive environments and game design have the potential to affect every academic unit within the university. If current trends continue, games will soon be used to teach a wide variety subjects in higher education. While game-based content is increasingly available from outside vendors, Fredrick believes that it benefits the university to build much of this content in-house. By using this model, one group of students learns from the games themselves and another through the process of making them, giving the University of Arkansas an opportunity to become a leader in academically focused game design.

“This is not an overly-crowded field, but it’s happening lots of places. There are strong programs in Scandinavian countries, but when we look at other schools in the U.S., our program isn’t behind, we're actually ahead – especially when compared to other major state universities in the SEC and elsewhere.”

The peer-to-peer learning and deep engagement with academic content make the U of A program unique.

“To me, the real power is the connection between the game environment, game play and primary evidence like texts. It makes everything about learning about another place, time or culture much more memorable because the player ideally has meaningful choice in the environment.  But it’s no replacement for primary evidence. We have had, and will continue to have, a strong reading and writing component in the game-based courses. This allows students to critique the game through the reading and to think critically between the two.”

Melissa Bradt

About the author

Darinda Sharp serves as director of communications for the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.