University of Washington Bothell is teaching its students to build video games as a way to prepare them for all kinds of different jobs when they graduate.
It’s a computer game populated by floating, light-beam-wielding monsters, but “Ghostlight Manor” has another purpose beyond entertainment: to help newly minted grads better prepare for their first job.
That’s the strategy behind the University of Washington Bothell’s Digital Future Lab, which runs a gaming studio as a novel way to get students ready for life after college.
It turns out that developing a computer game involves using a raft of skills also necessary in most offices today, said Jason Pace, the lab’s executive director and a former manager at Microsoft. Producing a game involves software development, creative and artistic skills, project management and marketing, to name a few.
And with its focus on diversity on a campus where minority students make up about half the enrollment, the lab may contribute to diversifying the region’s tech workplace as well, Pace hopes.
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Over three years, a roving cast of about 60 students created “Ghostlight Manor.” The game is now being marketed commercially, the first time one created by UW Bothell has been released for sale. If it’s a hit, students will share in the profits.
“It was so fun — it was ridiculously fun,” said Jerri Roberts, a 2015 graduate of UW Bothell. The experience helped her land a job as a communications specialist at T-Mobile.
Roberts, who grew up in Woodinville and majored in media and communications, had only a casual interest in computer games before she joined the Digital Future Lab.
She has worked as a producer on two different games, “Ghostlight Manor” and the soon-to-be-released “Corrupted.”
To do the job, she had to mediate among all the different student-interns — including developers, artists, designers and audio experts. She learned the production flow and how to problem-solve at crunchtime, when a deadline loomed. And she did a voice-over for one of the characters.
She said it was hard not to have fun when the products they were creating were all about entertainment. “We would have arguments in meetings about what color a zombie should be,” she said.
The Digital Future Lab works as an in-house internship opportunity for students studying on the Bothell campus, said Pace, the lab director.
Undergraduate and graduate students can work on games or do research, and that counts toward course credits. The lab also does virtual-reality research. About 40 to 60 students participate each quarter.
Pace, who worked for years as a Microsoft hiring manager, knows about the “transition pain” that happens when new college graduates join the working world.
“It takes about a year to understand the rhythm of business. One of the lab’s goals is to mitigate that first-year pain.”
Video games are well-known for their levels of violence, and for appealing to an audience of mostly young men. So the lab makes a special effort to focus on diversity and does not produce violent games, said Pace and Aina Braxton, the lab’s assistant director.
“I’m a very out-and-proud queer person, and Aina is a woman of color,” Pace said. “And you’re not going to find many interactive-media studios run by two people like us.” Both have also been active in social causes.
About half the Digital Future Lab students identify as women — the lab includes transgender and non-binary (not identifying as male or female) students, Pace said. About half are students of color.
And this year, the lab started a partnership with Bellevue College’s Autism Spectrum Navigators program, and is offering students with autism a chance to intern.
Roberts, the graduate now at T-Mobile, said she liked the focus on a diverse workplace, and on using safe and inclusive language that made all feel welcome.
“That doesn’t mean every idea got executed, or everyone got their way, but we all felt safe to express ourselves,” Roberts said. “It made it a very easy and fun space to work and create things.”
That diversity in the lab may have had a subtle influence on the development of “Ghostlight Manor,” Pace said. The next game release, “Corrupted,” has a main character who is female.
The lab also aims to teach that diverse teams benefit a company’s bottom line, Pace said.
Mix of talents
Braxton, the lab’s program coordinator, interviews each applicant for the lab’s internships and tries to figure out what talents they bring that might not necessarily appear to fit in software development.
A student who wants to be an audio engineer, or who composed music in high school, might find his or her niche in making the sound components of the game, for example.
Even a student involved in geopolitical research can put their talents to use by combing through the games for ideas or representations that could be offensive in other cultures, Pace said.
“We’re basically teaching the basics of software development, but we’re also lining up with what they might need extra skills in,” Braxton said.
Senior Malik Bseikri worked in the Digital Future Lab for two years. Bseikri, who is majoring in business, did project management for the lab, which includes creating three months of work planning schedules for students working on the game, and keeping people motivated and on-task.
He’s also helped sell the game during marketing conventions.
“It really does parallel with exactly what I’m studying,” said Bseikri, who grew up in Lynnwood and had little interest in video games before he started. “It’s been an awesome experience.”
UW Bothell has donated 10,000 copies of the game to a North Carolina nonprofit, Stack-Up, which will distribute them to military members, because there’s research showing that playing certain types of video games can help veterans deal with stress, pain, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Ghostlight Manor” tries to capture the ethos of an arcade game from the 1980s, one that requires skill but is easy to learn how to play. It’s designed for a PC or a Mac and costs $14.99.
If it makes money, the profits will be shared among the students using a point system that gives them credit for the amount of time they worked on the game.
In March, the game will be available as a Windows 10 app with Xbox Live integration, allowing gamers to play against each other.
“We’re attempting to re-envision video games as experiences that are fun for the widest range of people, in the same way that classic board games are fun for everyone,” Pace said.