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Thursday, 9 December - link

One Sixth

My semester has officially come to a close. I would say I feel a great sense of relief to be homework and task free for the next few weeks, but I've overplanned a bunch of work and collaboration and energetic socializing to keep me from approaching relaxation.

One semester done - one sixth through my time in grad school. Wow! Thinking about the rapid passage of time makes me ever more eager for this project; time passes, it might as well be in some guided stimulation. At least at this point -

People ask me, how is school? How do you like the program? What are you learning? Here's excerpts from a letter I wrote recently on that subject, included below. For another perspective on my school/social context, you can photos from an Interactive Media Division party I hosted at my house last weekend.

USC Film School's Interactive Media program is very young; that's clear. There are experienced faculty, who have put time in on some respectable projects. Not so many from the commercial video game side of things, but digital artists, online game makers, experimental interactive media makers. There's a slight slant in the program towards interactive media art, which reflects the fact that they have just begun integrating a new focus on games.

I'm a first year student; I have eight required classes this year. None of them are about games specifically. I'm learning about film, writing, animation, production, collaboration, interactive media theory. All of which seem important. Other students grumble that they want to make games, and they want commercially-focused classes where they learn how the market works. I don't care so much, I'm happy to learn the other material first - it's a three year program, I figure we'll get there in time. We touch on games in our other classes just a bit, but I have the feeling in a year or two, they'll probably start the game track students off with something game-oriented immediately.

Specialization is a challenge here - we just had some first-year students build an experimental arcade game cabinet that used physical movement of the machine mapped onto game controls. That's the sort of interactive installation art that we've seen the faculty present - if the first year students studying games were spending all their time writing game design documents, they might not have done something outside of the screen like that. So I like this little bit of forced mingling, at least in the beginning.

We spend time with the other students, future TV and film writers and producers. I have the feeling that's not going to last, but I hope it does. Many of them seem to have a mix of admiration and dumbfoundedness for the Interactive Media Division students: they're not sure exactly what we study, but they keep hearing video games are the "next big thing." We're such a few folks in a much larger division; sometimes we seem to be a little bit off the collective radar of the film school. I'd like to see some grassroots-style spreading of the Interactive Media charm with some regular open houses for the whole film school to see some of our games and projects and maybe just play some games on our big screens.

There's a great aura of possibility here. I'm hip to it - I thrive on it. Envision something, and it seems like they'll say yes. There's dynamic people coming through, there's money around, there's facilities. The only drag for first year students seems to be required classes. Maybe it's because I'm about 5 years older than most of the other students; I've got some additional perspective: this program is young, so it's listening to student ideas. But the students need to come up with and push their own agendas. That's not coming easy to all of them.

I'm trying to figure out how I feel about students playing games in class. We're studying games; is it alright to play Worlds of Warcraft during lecture? Or play Yahoo Word Puzzles during student presentations? I think it's rude, but I wonder if I'm just old-fashioned. I'm doing some research on effective means of maintaining class focus during "Backchannel" - internet-enabled collective knowledge sharing during class - using chat, shared documents, search results projected onscreen during lecture to promote student engagement. Gotta keep up with the kids.

I knew that the program would be project-oriented going in, still it's been a whirlwind of films and Flash applications. Terrific fun, I must say, looking back on my first semester. Learning to make films was magic. Part of the Hollywood vibe that the school has - there's some problems there, but the magic goes a long way.

My chief problem with that part of the program: we're making digital media, the Interactive Media program encourages us to use the web, and personal weblogs to write about our school assignments, but the film school says they own every inch of tape we shoot, and we can't share our videos on the internet. That bugs a few students, and seems to point out one of the areas where the Interactive Media Division is on a different, more future-friendly track than the surrounding film school.

We've had these great Wednesday night meetings, where the division gathers, speakers come in, they serve food, we have some chatting. It's a good social thing. Not enough parties throughout the year perhaps; people were working hard. I would like to see more game nights, more social events (ie, off campus with alcohol). I'm doing my part; I just had a division party this weekend, and faculty and students mingled into the wee hours. That made me happy as a host.

So that's a bit of a first semester data dump. My next semester, we're going to have a brief unit on games. Will I be designing any games in Spring 2005? It's not clear. Several of the students have gotten very fired up about a grant (from EA I believe), sponsoring student-driven game design projects. A friend of mine is listed on four of the seven teams; he wants badly to make a game next semester so he's charging ahead into that. It's a sort of entrepreneurial approach that seems healthy - a few of the first year students have really pulled themselves together to bring ideas to the table. So there's learning outside the classroom, which I expect to ramp up.

Most first year students move to LA about three weeks before school starts, so this first semester is a time to get their lives together, establish themselves in a new city and a new work/learning situation. I'm expecting second semester some of them will exercise more of their preferences, demanding more of what they want from the program. We'll see.

Me, I felt like I had so much on my plate in school, and I'm expecting next semester to be the same. I took on a lot of responsibilities and relationships; I want to maximize my time on the ground. I'm enjoying the sort of start-up environment where I can make my own breaks.

Posted on 9 December 2004 : 20:32 (TrackBack)
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Justin's Links, by Justin Hall.