Written by Kylee Ehmann and Casey Koldewyn
At best, the phrase “educational videogames” comes across as cheesy and silly. At worst, it comes across as a boring ploy by teachers to get students to learn.
But some students in the Entertainment, Arts and Engineering (EAE) master’s program are looking to change this perspective. Currently finishing her group thesis project, “Maui,” a lore-based game with the aim of educating players about native Hawaiian culture, Erica Larson hopes to show a new side of gaming that is engaging and can educate others about different cultures.
Centered around the myths and legends of Hawaii, players learn about aspects important to the native culture, such as basket weaving, what huts look like, fishing and the names — and pronunciation — for different parts of this world.
“I feel like the entertainment industry is kind of saturated,” Larson said. “I think medical games and then games for education are two fields that are just going to explode. I mean, you’ve seen like kids with the iPads — if you could turn those into educational games, I think we’d all be better for it. Like, education and games. Those are two things — if we can bring them together, you’re having fun and learning.”
“Maui” is being rendered in family-friendly graphics that resemble those in games like “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker,” which Larson said has been well-received.
Larson said that while the chemistry between members of her group was great due to their desire to create “cool things,” they had technical difficulties in getting the actual game developed.
Originally, “Maui” was going to be an augmented reality game run on phones and cameras using a software called Matheo. Last summer, after the team had spent an entire semester’s work on the project, the software was bought out by Apple, who then took that platform off of the internet, deleting everything they had created.
After beginning from scratch at the start of this year, their game changed significantly. Originally, the game was going to be on American Indian cultures, which Larson said required a lot of research to ensure they represented these cultures accurately, as they did not have anyone on the team from one of these cultures.
After the software obstacle, they switched to focusing on native Hawaiian culture, as they did have someone of that ancestry who could guide their art and story design.
“I know as one of the artists — and I was the art lead of ‘Maui’ — one of the original things was like, I want to put tikis everywhere, and that’s not really that Hawaiian, actually, like that’s very touristy,” Larson said. “The whole point of this Maui game was to be more educational about the actual Hawaiian-Polynesian culture.”
Larson said she believes games are a perfect medium to engage in this kind of learning, although she certainly does not think they should necessarily be a part of any school’s curriculum.
“If you give content out there with the purpose of educating and make it fun and draw people to it, you’ll end up teaching people something,” Larson said. “I think educational games are more of a supplement to actual education, a reason to go deeper and interact with the things we’re learning instead of just reading about it.”
Larson studied virtual technology and design while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Idaho.
“When I set out my only goal was … to make a game people want to play,” Larson said. “Like, it’s not just be being, like, ‘Hey, I made this thing, can you please play it?’ I want people to voluntarily say, ‘Hey, I want to play this game.’ It’s honestly been accomplished.”
Originally from Montana, Larson said she’s been playing videogames her whole life, though she’s only been pursing gaming as a career for the past two years. Previously, she was working with animation and made the switch in studies because she felt it would be a practical way to transition into gaming.
When she got to gaming, however, she became a technical artist and ended up doing more engineering than actual animation.
“I spent a lot more time solving people’s problems than I did actually creating stuff on my own,” Larson said. “I actually ended up doing that and then applying that back to art when I came here … Coding can help art.”
Larson said studying at the U’s EAE program, which was recently ranked the top program of its kind in the world, does a great job at introducing its students to the game industry by helping them build contacts with professionals and giving them the tools to stand out in a cluttered job market.
“You have to have an extreme passion to get into making games,” Larson said. “It’s a competitive job. All jobs are, but this is insane, because you’re dealing with people that get out of high school and think, ‘Hey, I like games, I want to make games,’ and so they send in their résumé […] And it’s really hard to just get yourself to stand out, and EA does a pretty good job of helping you to stand out in that regard.”
Larson said all of the staff in the EAE program have been supportive of her, but one of her mentors here at the U has been Gabriel Olson, who helped her build her work portfolio and find jobs.
“Getting in — especially as artists — is definitely really difficult. You have to really sell yourself well. He’s been really helping us with that,” Larson said.
Olson works as an associate instructor in the EAE program, focusing on the game arts classes. He also works for Disney Interactive as a level designer and an artist there. He was also a part of one of the first graduating classes from the program.
In his upper level course, he helps students compile their art and develop any final projects. He said Larson is one of the brightest students he’s had.
“What impresses me about her is she has a very technical background, but still she has really embraced the art side as well,” Olson said. “It’s hard to place her in a single category. Right off the bat she was very intuitive.”
Olson said he’s seen Erica’s art for “Maui,” but has yet to see the game in full. From what he’s seen of this project and other art examples, he said it’s easy to see she’s “going places right off the bat.”
Larson recently received a job at a mobile game company where she will be helping in level design after graduation.
Larson said she and her team are looking to get the game published, and are looking to put it up for bids on a couple of different gaming platforms.
Currently, “Maui” is currently available on Steam Greenlight, a platform where people can vote on which games they would like the Steam digital marketplace to make available.