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Ahead of the Game

By Helen Dodson

Josh McCoy

Inside the AU Game Lab, students are hard at work playing video games. These are not your parents’ old-fashioned video games, however, and the “play” is not just for fun. AU’s Game Design Program has a serious purpose. It is the center of AU’s strategic effort to turn game design and development into an academic discipline, with real life application in areas as diverse as bullying prevention, drug addiction recovery, and persuasive play. AU is rapidly becoming a national leader in the field—The Princeton Review ranked the Game Design Program in the Top 25 in the world.

The gaming graduate program is a partnership between the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication. Faculty member Josh McCoy is a key member on the College side of the team. An assistant professor in computer science, McCoy came to AU in 2014 from the University of California–Santa Cruz, where he specialized in artificial intelligence in computer games.

How has gaming changed over the past quarter century?

Other than the well-known fact that video games have eclipsed movies in worldwide revenue, they have grown in ways that make them have real impact on the world. Games now include a much larger demographic, are playable in many more spaces, and can express an ever-increasing range of ideas, themes, and emotions. It is now common to see people in all walks of life playing games in any number of settings. 

While expanding in demographics and locations, games have also been maturing as an expressive medium. In contrast to sports games, and games based in violence, you can now experience games with computationally generated worlds in which the entire environment is subject to alteration and play. Vibrant, emotional, and immersive stories can be experienced. Players can engage in social play in domains ranging from intense competition in future-themed cyberspaces to soulful exploration of the remains of ancient cultures. What makes the current moment in games truly interesting is how much we have yet to explore. Video games are still in their infancy when compared to other media like print or film.


How did “playing games” become a serious academic discipline?

Games are now seen as more than the playthings of children, and are considered complex, human-centric, computational artifacts. Expanding the technical aspects of how games are created, studying how they are played, reflecting on what they reveal about the human condition, and experimenting on what they can express are all now part of academic discourse. As one of many areas in this discipline, my research and works combine game technology, social science, artificial intelligence, and design to make new types of games and computational experiences possible.


What is persuasive play?

Persuasive play is the application of game design to influence interests, activities, or opinions of individual players, and to potentially convey the message of the game to a broad audience. Often this means the use of games in non-traditional contexts such as policy, advocacy, and social justice. The goals of persuasive play vary wildly, and can include building empathy, or teaching lessons in cross-cultural competence. Persuasive play can include games that are digital, analog, 60 seconds long, 60 days long, playable on a smartphone, or playable on a pay phone. The unifying concept is designing for change.


What do you hope to accomplish in AU’s Game Design Program?

The university’s Game Lab is key to my goals as a researcher and educator. As AU is one of the few universities in the world with a focus on serious games, it presents a rare opportunity to put games in the center of research that is both technical and interdisciplinary. The type of work I do can be seen in Star Trek. Think of handling the complexities involved in creating a Holodeck character driven by artificial intelligence that actually behaves like a Victorian lord or noir detective. This is the level of computed character detail and nuanced generated performance I strive to approach. Not only does this type of work require developing new artificial intelligence systems, but it needs to be informed by what we know about social science, the humanities, and experience design.

A critical aspect of this work is including AU students in my research in meaningful ways. I want to share the results of this work with students—particularly those in the Game Lab and the Computer Science Department. While participating, students take the roles of developer, designer, author, and creative foil. The basic requirement for joining in this work is to have the drive to create the types of games they want to play in the future.


What characteristics do your gaming students have in common, and how do they differ?

Our students come from surprisingly diverse backgrounds, and have wide-ranging experiences. Our ranks include clinical psychologists, screenwriters, journalists, and visual novel authors. Although our game design students arrive with a wide variety of passions, goals, and life experiences, they all want to apply game design or persuasive play to their own areas in useful ways. They arrive with agendas and topics and leave with the ability to design and develop games tailored to their goals.


Can you describe a situation where video games diffused a tense situation or made people think differently about their behavior?

One of my works is the game Prom Week, a dramatic playable story about the lives of several high school students set in the week before their prom. This game features an artificial intelligence system that models character behavior, and is based on concepts from social science and the humanities. As such, we were able to author stories that contain complex social puzzles for the player to solve.

One such puzzle is based around Oswald, the debate team captain, who has the goal of finding a date to the prom. Many players try to spark a flame between Oswald and the adorable yet emotional Lil, the popular and imperial Monica, or even Jordan the competitive skater. However, we designed all of those potential solutions to be very difficult to achieve. The easier path is found when the player breaks with the pervasive heteronormative bias in video games and kindles a romance between Oswald and the class president, Nicholas. Four years after Prom Week’s release, we still receive messages from players saying that this one small story made them think just a bit differently than before about characters in games.

What are your hopes for the future of the program?

We have already built a great foundation. I want to make the Game Lab and AU the home of games that make positive impacts on the world through thoughtful design, purposeful scholarship, and compelling research.