(President William Destler and Dr. Rebecca Johnson visit Phelps' class with undergraduate student Joe Coppola and play Hack, Slash & Backstab, 2016)
The undergraduate degrees that I founded and helped design and nurture at RIT are based on a fairly simple principle, which is a broad core of study for undergraduates that asks them to do, essentially, a ‘little bit of everything’ and then specialize in years 3-5 (it is a cooperative education program spread out over 5 years with planned absences for work experience). The idea here was not only that students would gain core skills in computing, animation, art, design, math, physics, technology, language, psychology, writing, etc., but also that they would experience things outside their comfort zone, and learn a little bit about the various roles and communities that comprise a multidisciplinary, design-centric, high-tech field like games. The important thing to me in this context wasn’t just core skills to advance, but that right from the beginning students were forced to learn a little bit of everything – the gifted programmer had to draw, the gifted artist had to code. I didn’t expect they would all be good at everything, even at an introductory level – I was hoping that they would learn a little bit about each others roles. The other core components of the program was that students would start building things right away: that the curriculum would meet students directly at their passion in a very immediate way.
Later that transitions to specialized roles on multidisciplinary teams, building games at ever increasing scale, in ways that test professionalism, communications, and integration. Formalized structures of reporting, clearly identified roles, discrete task-based assignments towards long, open-ended projects, group decision making and individual leadership, use of professional tools in context – these are the hallmarks of my upper division game studio courses. We focus on production, and apply skills and knowledge in context. This can vary across content and form: art games, serious games, health games, pure entertainment games, etc. One of my personal passions is what I would term ‘experiential learning games’ where I’m looking to explore a particular subject or feeling in a way where merely playing the game itself conveys the concept. Splattershmup is an attempt at this – a way to explore line, motion, space, and context merely by playing, relating a familiar thing with an unfamiliar style.
At the graduate level I’ve worked to incorporate those same principles of applied production, multidisciplinary collaboration, and specialized roles and marry them with an applied research focus and pursuit of fundamentally new processes and concepts. This can take many forms, across all of Boyer’s various classifications of scholarship and discovery, but the fundamental shift is a move away from an undergraduate focus on innovation and invention, into a more structured research methodology and analysis. But this can and does need to operate in harmony with a production focused, product-centric approach.
When I look at the students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, the thing I am most proud of is not just their accomplishments, their contribution to the medium, or even their successes beyond their careers in families and living and citizenry and making the world a better place. I think every educator has to have the passion for those things, the ability to want for their students a better world and to want to help them succeed beyond measure.
The thing I am most proud of is that for so many of my students they explore the intersection of computing and the arts, and come out on the other side of that with a newfound appreciation for both. I’ve worked my entire career to help students bridge this divide, to construct curriculum that flows back and forth across these fields, and to design experiences that engage students in situated learning directly through construction and production. The thing I am passionate about is helping student learn, directly, to respect both technology and the arts, and most importantly their intersection. I am passionate about helping them make the things they are driven to make. Because in the end, we learn by making things.
Andrew Phelps, 2018