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Geared for Gaming

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By Robin Keats

Published Oct 1, 2013 8:00 AM


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The UCLA Game Lab’s experimental research and development team explores game aesthetics, game context and game genres.
Photo by: Elena Zhukova

Lara Croft is so passé. Try taking on Waco Resurrection, a computer game that mirrors the story of the federal raid on the Branch Davidian cult’s headquarters in that Texas city in 1993.

In the game, cult members led by their mastermind, David Koresh, combat agents from the ATF and the FBI. In real life, law enforcement agents sent by both Washington, D.C., and the state of Texas laid siege to the cult’s compound. In this game (devised by UCLA Game Lab director Eddo Stern), like in all games, outcomes depend upon the play of those engaged in the contest — this time limited to a video screen.

It’s history that gets a chance at temporary revisionism in a gaming world where no one gets hurt. And given that its author is the way-out-of-the-box conceptualizer Stern, it’s no wonder that students at the Game Lab don’t feel bound by traditional thinking about video games.

The work being done at the Game Lab is under the academic umbrella of the Design Media Arts Department and is supported by the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture and the School of Theater, Film and Television. At the lab, about 20 UCLA students (the numbers ebb and flow) stretch their imaginations, skills and senses in both aesthetics and competitive play.

Indeed, an all-encompassing atmosphere of play — the silly, the serious, the spontaneous and the serendipitous — is evident as soon as one enters the lab. A huge mobile, in yellow and orange, hangs from the ceiling. It’s formed from pieces of uniforms worn by players of a game developed at the lab called Flatland ARG!!! The game is based on an 1884 science-fiction novel by Edward Abbott, and UCLA students have developed the print-formulated (written word) piece from more than 125 years ago into a contemporary game in which play extends from two dimensions into three, with players seeking to find out if there’s a fourth.

The integration of gaming and entertainment is accomplished at the highest academic levels at UCLA. “I like the idea of creating different worlds and them taking a life of their own,” says Diana Ford, who is a world-class expert on 3-D user-generated content. “It is what both games and films have in common, and I love both.”

“Gaming mirrors life,” says Game Lab manager Tyler Stefanich, a Design Media Arts graduate student. And Game Labber Aliah Darke ’13, who finished her undergrad studies this year and is going on for her master’s, says, “With games, I tend to think of the mechanics in concert with the aesthetics. For example, I wanted to make a drag-queen fighting game.”

Currently developing an escape-the-room game, Darke says that working at the lab is both nerve-wracking and exciting. “It’s a confluence of eccentric, opinionated personalities. I love it when we all just kind of hang out between projects and a 10-minute work break turns into an hourlong exchange of ideas. ... A few months ago, I was part of a team that made a game controlled by an actual hot dog — with mustard! It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

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UCLA Game Lab researchers playing Flatland ARG!!! — based on the 1884 science-fiction novel, Flatland — in which mobile computing is used in the costumes.
Photo by: Elena Zhukova

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