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The Games People Play

By Angela Modany

Michael Treanor Prom Week

Screen shot of Prom Week; courtesy Michael Treanor.

Beginning this fall, video games won’t just be something AU students use to unwind after a day of classes: for many, they will be class. Michael Treanor, computer science professor and a self-described “child of the Nintendo Entertainment System era,” will be teaching some of those video game classes. 

“I didn’t have a ton of games growing up, but the ones I did have I played to death,” Treanor says. He’s been on a mission to make video games about more than sitting in front of a television ever since he learned there were no game versions of English classes. “Literally, from that point on,” he says, “I’ve been on a quest to make games as art and to pursue the scholarly study of games.” 

Treanor comes to the College’s Department of Computer Science from the University of California–Santa Cruz, where he received his master of fine arts in digital arts and new media. 

“Building off of AU’s strengths and [those] of the incoming faculty, I think AU is well poised to be a top school in this field,” he says. 

Students in Treanor’s classes can expect to have a lot of hands-on creative projects. They can also expect to have a say in shaping their assignments. 

“Personally,” says Treanor, “I don’t learn well without understanding why what I’m being told is useful in some way.” Treanor will also focus on his own research to understand how games are uniquely meaningful as an expressive medium. 

“I think the reason why the game industry essentially only makes action and horror-style games is that we don’t understand how to do anything different,” he says. “Part of the problem is theoretical: we don’t understand ways in which interactivity and the procedural aspects of games are or can be meaningful. 

The other part of the problem is technical: With computational models that only model running, jumping, and shooting, it should be no surprise that all the games we see involve running, jumping, and shooting. My research seeks to create theoretical approaches, technical tools, or design techniques to make games that reflect more of the human experience.” 

As part of a creative team, Treanor also has created several of his own video games. One of his favorites is Prom Week, the development of which was funded in part by a National Science Foundation award. 

“Prom Week is a social simulation game with a sophisticated artificial intelligence system,” he says. “The biggest challenge, and what excited me the most, was trying to make the player recognize and care about the system based on a theory of how people socially interact.” 

All theories aside, Treanor believes that video games are just another medium of expression, akin to paintings, literature, and music—but that they offer something that other media don’t. 

“I think video games are special because they are interactive and dynamic,” Treanor says. “[This] makes them well suited to explore and express ideas about the systematic aspects of our world. Understanding games requires understanding how dynamic processes are meaningful, and this is a very valuable skill for living in our complex world.”