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Mason Students Develop Mobile Apps to Discourage Underage Alcohol Use

March 12, 2013

By Buzz McClain

Chris Totten

Chris Totten

The success of last year’s release of Mason’s first mobile games to effect social change—designed to prevent gang activity among teenagers—caught the eye of the folks at the Century Council.

Based in Arlington, Virginia, the Century Council is a nonprofit devoted to combating drunk driving and underage drinking, which is funded by seven of the country’s distillers. Executives there thought a similar game for their mission might be effective.

“The mission of the game is to delay or prevent the illegal first drink for kids,” says Erik Strickland, senior director for government relations for the Century Council. “Delaying that first drink means we then are able to have a positive impact in life. We need them to say yes to a healthy lifestyle and no to underage drinking.”

That’s the challenge the Century Council presented to Mason mobile game development professor Chis Totten’s Online and Mobile Gaming class. On the first day of class, the 50 students in GAME 232 discovered their semester’s work would be to render a pair of mobile apps aimed at electronic tablet platform users ages 6 to 9 and smartphone users ages 9 to 15.

Now the questions are, What will the games look like? How will they play? And can a game be designed to discourage underage drinking without actually showing alcohol abuse by minors?

“That’s mechanics versus motif,” Totten says. “Mechanics are the rules, the ‘verbs,’ what we’re trying to define when structuring the experience. The motif is the art, the story, the coat of paint.”

In addition to teaching at Mason, Totten, the author of the book Game Character Creation with Blender and Unity (Wiley, 2012), is art director for game developer e4 Software and has taught at Westwood College and the Catholic University of America.

Decisions on how the games will look and play—World of Warcraft’s 3-D immersion or Angry Birds’ cartoonish simplicity?—are limited only by the students’ imaginations . . . well, not exactly. While the students, divided into teams of five, are at liberty to create what they like, they have to have a workable prototype ready for demonstration by the end of the 18-week semester; members of the Century Council will decide which projects continue development into the next semester.

“The idea is you learn about the effects of alcohol as you play the game,” Totten says. “It affects your ability to play the game in certain ways. Maybe you lose control of your character, or some of the character’s skills degrade and you can’t compete effectively. It’s a preventive ideology.

“As the professor, I’m acting in a producer’s role. It’s up to me to help the students find their scope. I want them to spend less of their time generating assets and artwork and more time refining the game play because in the game play is the underlying problem of underage drinking. One group could have the prettiest game, but it might not address the problem.”

Student is the class work on their games. Photo courtesy of Creative Services.

Student is the Online and Mobile Gaming class work on their games. Photo courtesy of Creative Services.

Content is king in this case, and it’s a trend Mason’s Computer Game Design program is capitalizing on. The university is developing a national reputation for “serious games”—games intended to educate or enlighten, not merely entertain. This summer Mason provost Peter Stearns signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Coventry’s Serious Games Institute (SGI), establishing at Mason the only SGI in the United States.

“We’re very happy that we’re the first mobile application that’s going to have the Serious Games Institute stamp,” says Strickland.

Totten’s students understand they’re not just creating computerized action; they have to be social scientists as much as programmers. “They have to study this problem, and they have to dissect it,” says Totten. “Somewhere in this app a character probably has to drink alcohol. Do you make it desirable? It might be a choice a player has to make, it might set up a series of cause-and-effect relationships—what are the consequences of imbibing the alcohol?”

“The middle school kid is very impressionable,” says Strickland. “We want to help them choose the right pieces of their lives to focus on. It’s about healthy decisions, not just about saying no to alcohol but saying no to just sitting on the couch. We want to give them a good base to work from so as they get older they have these good behaviors ingrained.”

For Totten, the measure of success for the final apps won’t be the sheer number of downloads.

“It would be successful if someone came back and said, ‘I downloaded this, I played this with my child, and I had this really open and honest conversation about what they do and what they’ve seen and we talked about the dangers.’”

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