More than fun and games

When Qiru Hu, an undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara, visited Beijing not long ago, she found herself fascinated by a robot. A somewhat mediocre robot.

“It was this huge sweeping robot,” said the third-year electrical and computer engineering student. “He was cruising along the roads, sweeping the streets and picking up trash.”

As brave as it worked to accomplish this noble task, however, it wasn’t as good as it could have been. “I actually saw it cleaning up a street, but it wasn’t advanced to the point where it could replace human workers,” she said.

The experiment generated some interesting questions: What should an efficient street sweeping automaton be able to do on a busy metropolitan street full of cars and people? What could he do with the trash he picks up?

These questions became the inspiration for Hu’s video game, “MOMO RecycleBot 2022”, in which the player controls – you guessed it – a sweeping robot. Using their keyboards, players can steer their robot around obstacles, avoid people, and sweep up trash. Not only do they get the complete satisfaction of a clean, on-screen city street, but they also get points for successfully performing what has become a necessary – though still underappreciated – real-life skill.

“It also educates the player to distinguish between recyclable and non-recyclable waste,” she said.

Hu’s game is one of more than a dozen she and her colleagues in engineering professor Pradeep Sen’s class will showcase at UCSB’s first-ever video game open house, from noon at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30, in front of the university center. The event is free and open to the public, and visitors of all ages are encouraged to come and play the games. Attendees are encouraged to use Parking Lot 6 (on Lagoon Road near Freshman Residences) or Parking Lot 22 (on Ocean Road near the Thunderdome).

“We will set up about 10 computers, each playing different games that were developed in our introductory game development course, and the public can come and play,” Sen said.

Some games, like Hu’s, have a casual flavor, while others have players racing or slaying enemies with swords.

“I have people working on role-playing games and collaborative multiplayer games. We have one where you are a flying dragon,” added Sen, whose expertise lies in the field of computer graphics.

However, don’t expect Assassin’s Creed or Red Dead Redemption level gameplay, Sen said; after all, this is an introductory course. This showcase is about students discovering their budding powers in software development and marks the beginning of a video game development program called UCSB Gaucho Game Lab.

Still, prepare to be impressed.

“The reason I’m so excited about video games is that it’s a great way for students to learn how to develop real-world software,” Sen said. To do this, its students drive the course by choosing their game mechanics, their graphics and, with the cross-platform Unity engine, strive to bring their games to life. Along the way, they discuss gameplay and story, play each other’s games, provide feedback, and continue to polish their own games.

“The whole process of creating a game from scratch is a lot of fun for me,” said Hu, who will intern at Meta this summer to work with augmented reality games. “Playtesting is also fun – I saw a lot of bugs when I was testing my game,” she added, as her trash robot ran through buildings and fell off platforms. “It was very funny.”

Hu’s Recycling Robot Game is the first in a series of new eco-friendly games that expose players to concepts such as climate change, recycling and renewable energy to be released as part of the UCSB Gaucho Game Lab’s Go Green initiative.

“The hope is to create games every year under this initiative,” Sen said. “It’s a way for UCSB to fill an important need because unfortunately there isn’t a lot of high-end quality content in this space.”

More than just fun and games, however, the course helps provide an entry into the often closed world of video game and software development.

“The idea is to create a program that basically solves the chicken and egg problem: if you want to get into game development, you need experience to get a job…and you have need a job to gain experience,” Sen said. By gaining experience from his course in developing their own games, students can begin to build their portfolios and venture into the professional world with an edge. The video game industry is huge, bigger than movies and music combined, with billions of gamers around the world. Tech giants like Google and Meta are tapping into this market with more and more immersive game offerings.

Sen also hopes to capitalize on the universal appeal of video games and their pandemic-proof ability to bring people together, regardless of age, gender and ethnicity. As the program grows, the number of games will increase and their quality will improve.

“Having such a program gives the public a unique way to engage with UCSB,” said Sen, who plans to put the games in development on the Gaucho Game Lab platform for wide release. “And it’s a cool way for us to connect with the community, not just locally but globally.”

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