On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes video game designer Andy Phelps to the show on Monday, September 28 at 12:30 p.m. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
On average, kids spend more than 15 hours a week playing video games. And it’s only increasing during the pandemic.
So we thought we should learn a bit about the games we play and the people who make them — from writers to artists and coders. And what about video game testers? Is that job as great as it sounds?
We’ve invited Andy Phelps, director of American University’s Game Lab, to answer your questions about video games and tell us about some types of games that may be new to you. Want to play a game that lets you hug a stuffed bear? How about one that helps you figure out whether a news source is reliable?
Join us for a show about the fun of playing video games, and the science and art behind them.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Andy Phelps Director, AU Game Lab and professor in the media and film arts division of American University's School of Communication; @augamelab
KOJO NNAMDIMany of you may recognize the "Ms. Pac-Man" theme. She's not coming on this show today, but we are going to talk about video games. We know many of you like them a lot, maybe even more than your parents want you to, but even non-gamers can respect the creativity of the writers, coders, animators, musicians and many others who take an idea and turn it into a cool game. Andy Phelps is here to tell us about how video games are made. He's a game designer himself, and teaches the subject at American University.
KOJO NNAMDIDon't tell your parents but, yes, you can study video games in college, kids. Adults, even if you wish you had studied video games in college, on Kojo for Kids, we take calls from kids only, but you are welcome to listen. Joining us now, Andy Phelps. He is the director of the Game Lab at American University, and a professor in the Media and Film Arts division of its School of Communication. Andy Phelps, thank you for joining us.
ANDY PHELPSThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAndy, tell us about what you were like as a kid. Where did you grow up, and what did you like to do?
PHELPS(laugh) Well, I grew up a little bit of everywhere. My dad moved around a lot for a human resources job. And so, I lived in probably 14 or 15 states growing up, and video games became a way for me to connect with people to have fun. So, I certainly played a ton of them when I was in school. I was also really passionate about being an artist, so I was drawing all the time and sketching and painting and all that kind of stuff. And I was also a swimmer, so had a little bit of sports, a little bit of art, and a little bit of video games. And that kept me sane.
NNAMDIWhat did you plan to study in college, and what did you wind up studying?
PHELPS(laugh) Yeah, well, everybody's got that story. I planned to study art. I had wanted to be an artist right from the first moment I think I held a crayon, and so I went to art school. And while I was in arts school, I was at a school called Bowling Green State University in Ohio. And they had just started a computer arts program. And so, I started doing computer-based arts, in addition to painting and got into computers kind of in a backdoor that way, because I was one of very few people that were into it, as it was just starting there.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call, but only if you're a kid. Are you into "Roblox," "Fortnite," "Minecraft" or other video games? Tell us what you like about them, 800-433-8850. Andy, you're now the director of the Game Lab at American University, which, I should mention, owns this station, but what is the Game Lab?
PHELPSSo, the Game Lab is a really unique part of the university. It's a multidisciplinary center where faculty and researchers and students from a bunch of different disciplines come together and study games, how they're made, who makes them, who plays them, what affect they have on society. What we could do differently with them, looking at experimental ways that we could extend games into other realms, like policy and governance and communications. So, it's sort of a think tank for lots of different things that games might help us think differently about and help us explore.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you are a kid. Are you playing video games remotely with friends, amid COVID? 800-433-8850. Andy, can you walk us through how a video game gets made from the idea until you can buy it in the store or the online store?
PHELPS(laugh) It's a short show, so briefly (laugh) – briefly, there will be a team of designers that will start developing rough prototypes of the core interactions that a game is based around. And they'll spend probably several iterations on those prototypes, just to try to nail what the core thing you can do in it is, whether or not it hangs together, whether or not it's fun, etcetera. And so, you'll have some people doing some concept art. You'll have some people doing maybe some mockups of what the controls are and what you see on the screen, really crude graphics of what it might look like, etcetera.
PHELPSAnd over time, those prototypes will develop enough of a sense of what the game is that somebody can make a decision then on whether or not they think it will be a viable product. And if they decide that it is a viable product, then they would move it into production. And then you're going to have teams of designers, teams of developers, teams of artists, some musicians, some -- you know, whatever skillsets you need in order to create that game.
PHELPSAnd then you're going to work with a publisher in order to get that game out in front of the public. And that usually means doing -- in addition to all of the game-making work that also means all of the product licensing, all of the legal necessities, figuring out what platform it runs on, running it through a quality assurance process, etcetera. And then...
NNAMDIHey, Andy, it's a short show.
PHELPSYeah, and then brining it altogether, right. So, people don't realize a lot of times but some of the games that we play are, you know, three-to-five-year productions across a couple hundred people. So, they're very much more complex than they were back in the day when I first started playing them.
NNAMDIHere now is nine-year-old Emilio in Fairfax, Virginia. Emilio, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EMILIOSo, my question is, what platform do you play on, and what do you play?
PHELPSSo, I play, um, I play on lots of different platforms. Call it a sort of professional interest. One of the games that I'm playing right now is called Spiritfarer, which is a pretty cartoon game about brining souls across the underworld. And that's on Steam.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Emilio. You, too, can give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you ever done any video game summer camps or video game coding classes? Was it fun? Let us know, 800-433-8850 -- if you are a kid, that is. Andy, let's talk for a minute about one part of making a video game. It’s a big mystery to many people, how game designers get characters to move. What makes Mario jump, and what about more complicated moves, like when Spider-Man swings through the city?
PHELPSSure. So, the way that works is that – so, first, you're going to have an artist create a 3-D model of the character. And then using some very sophisticated animation software, you'll have an animator go in and create sort of a skeleton for that character and then animate sort of premade moves. So, it might be a walk cycle or a jump or, if you're Spider-Man, when you fling your arm out and it shoots the webs.
PHELPSAnd then you'll have a programmer that takes those individual animations and links them together with the controls of the game, so that when you press the button on the controller, the character jumps, or what have you.
NNAMDIHere now is 12-year-old Adam in Baltimore, Maryland. Adam, your turn.
ADAMHi, I'm nervous right now. So, I did coding classes and it was called Coding for School. It was a group of people who teaches coding to -- in Baltimore.
ADAMAnd I want to know if, when you made your first game, were you nervous or excited to see if it would become popular or not?
PHELPSYeah, it's a great question. I think not just my first game, I think every game (laugh) that I've ever made, I have been both nervous and proud and excited and a little scared of what people were going to think about it. I remember one game that I did, which was a game where you sort of play an arcade game, but you make a painting, so it was sort of an art game. And we showed it at the game festival at the Smithsonian.
PHELPSAnd there were thousands and thousands of people playing it that day. And it was exhilarating and wonderful and also terrifying (laugh) every time somebody picked up the controller, of what they were going to think about it. So, it's very much a personal thing to make games and to understand what an audience thinks about them.
NNAMDIAdam, are you working on making a game of your own?
ADAMWhen I grow up, I do want to be a game designer and a graphics designer. But either way -- right now I'm just – I’m just playing "Roblox" and "Minecraft."
NNAMDIOkay. Well, thank you very much for your call, Adam, and good luck to you with your career choice. You, too, can give us a call at 800-43--8850. Can you imagine yourself as a video game designer? If so, what kinds of games would you create? 800-433-8850. Andy, after a video game is created, someone has to test it to make sure it works. I bet some kids are thinking that would be an awesome job. What does it involve?
PHELPS(laugh) Well, those are typically referred to as quality assurance jobs, in the industry. And there's sort of a popular myth about, you know, oh, you can get paid for playing video games. And that's not exactly how it works, because, really, what that job is, is that job means very systematically going through a game and looking for anything and everything that could be broken and then detailing that in reports back to the engineering teams to get it fixed.
PHELPSAnd so, you know, there's probably some aspects of that that are fun, because you're playing a game, but a lot of times you're, you know, testing the same thing, 3, 4, 500 times looking for different ways that something still might be broken. And that can get very tedious. And the people that are really good at quality assurance are the people that are systematic and that find those things to make products better. So, it is a role. It's a very important role, but it might not necessarily be the most fun role of all of them involved in game-making.
NNAMDIHere is 12-year-old Maddox in Virginia. Maddox, you're on the air. It's your turn.
NNAMDIGo ahead, Maddox.
MADDOXHow many people does it usually take to make a really good game?
PHELPSSo, that is (laugh) -- that's a complicated question, because it really depends on what you mean by really good game. And so, when you think about, like, a big game like "Halo" or "Destiny," or one of those, it can take, you know, 150, 250 people three or four years to make some of those games. Whereas other games might just be, you know, a small group of maybe three to five people that made some really great games, but they were much smaller scope. So, it really depends, but it's usually a little bit more work and a little bit more effort than people might initially think that it is.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Maddox. Here now is 10-year-old Hunter in North Bethesda. Hunter, you're on the air. It's your turn.
HUNTERHi, Kojo. I enjoy playing Fortnite with my friends. And I just think it's a really cool game, because you can play with everyone. You can build, there's lots of fights and, yeah.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. And you play with your friends, Hunter?
NNAMDIIs that, Andy Phelps, particularly important during this pandemic, that kids like Hunter are able to play with their friends when they might not be able to actually get out and see them?
PHELPSOh, absolutely. I mean, you know, it's been really interesting the way that folks are talking about games, you know, right at the height of everything that's been going on with the pandemic. Because we sort of -- when games first came out -- when video games first came out, we sort of had this strange notion that they were antisocial, that they -- when they moved home into people's living rooms on consoles, the computer technology didn't exist, the internet didn't exist yet.
PHELPSAnd so, there was this really weird notion that games were somehow antisocial and were driving people not to play together when, in fact, the opposite has always been true. Games have always been social and the minute that we connected them online, they became social there, as well. And I think that, right now, in the height of all of this, they're a really powerful and important way for us to retain connection with our communities and for kids to play together.
NNAMDIBut some kids do find themselves unable to stop playing, and it can be hard to limit game time and switch back to the real world. What do you think kids should ask themselves about whether they're playing too much?
PHELPSSo, I think the first -- I'm a big believer in the sort of all-things-in-moderation mantra. And I think the first thing is ask themselves, you know, is what they're playing or how they're playing it interfering with other things that they like to do, is probably the easiest way to think about that. And to really think in terms of self-reflection, right.
PHELPSSo, is it -- you know, are you still getting outside? Are you still, you know, doing other activities, as well? Those kinds of things, and most of the people that I know in the games industry play a lot of video games, because, you know, one, for work and two, because they got into games in the first place, because they love them. But, you know, they also do tons of other things. And I think that you're a better gamer and a better game designer the more rich experiences that you have, because you bring all of those to the craft of making games.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, are you a girl who likes video games? Do you think games should have more female characters? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. If you've called, stay on the line. We will get to your call, but we'd like to hear from you, 800-433-8850. Andy, many girls who like video games look around and see mostly boys playing. And some women in the video game industry say they haven't always been made to feel welcome. Some black people have also felt ignored or worse. What's being done to make sure that the video game industry and games themselves are more inclusive?
PHELPSSo, first, you're right, that that has been historically a huge problem in the games industry. And that there's a number of different things that are being done. One is obviously that, I think, right now, culturally, game companies are being sort of called to task on, you know, policies around inclusion and opportunity, etcetera. I think that there's been sort of a longstanding effort in terms of getting young women involved in technology and minorities involved in technology.
PHELPSAnd so, you're starting to see, you know, Steam programs, STEM programs at various schools, scholarships made available, you know, programs for diversity and inclusion to help people that are studying technology, etcetera. So, I think all of that is, you know, continuing to make progress, so I'm hopeful for the future. But it is a long road. So, yeah.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of the future, here is 12-year-old Caden in Washington, D.C. Caden, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CADENYes. Andy, I got a question for you. What do you think is the future of gaming?
PHELPSWell, I guess a couple of different things spring to mind. One is, you know, games right now have been sort of very focused on the particular hardware device, so be it a Play Station or an Xbox or a PC, or whatever. And I think that we're entering an era where that is going to break down a little bit, that you'll be able to play games on just a multitude of different devices and move between them in the same game.
PHELPSAnd so, you might be playing on your phone while you're on the bus. And then when you get home, you put it on your big screen TV and then you, you know, take it to your iPad when you want to, you know, travel somewhere or something like that. And so, I think that those kinds of interactions will be interesting in the foreseeable future.
PHELPSAnd then I also think there's stuff going on right now with virtual and augmented reality that it hasn't taken off as quickly as, I think, you know, some folks would've wanted it to. But there are really, really interesting pieces of work still in sort of the laboratory, exploratory phase that I think are going to be, you know, just incredible in the near future.
NNAMDICaden, thank you very much for your call. Andy, many people are familiar with games where cars race on a track, fighters battle it out. But at the Game Lab and elsewhere, game designers are also now working on very different kinds of games. Can you tell us about some of them, including one called "Huggin' Bear"?
PHELPS"Big Huggin'," yeah. Yeah, "Big Huggin'" was an experiment by a friend of mine, Lindsay Grace, who's at the University of Miami and some other folks associated with the Game Lab. And it was -- we wanted to challenge the notion of the way that we think about game controllers, right, because game controllers are usually these awkward things that you hold in two hands with lots of buttons. Or, you know, sometimes they're guns or wands that you wave, or stuff like this.
PHELPSAnd Lindsay's question as a designer was: What if the controller was a bear that you hug? As that was the core interaction of the game, right. And so just really challenging our notions around design and what would it mean to design a game where hugging a bear was the core experience? And so, we got a really interesting project with that one.
PHELPSAnd, you know, the games at Game Lab are really designed to do a bunch of different things. Ben Stokes' work springs to mind is somebody that's looking really at games and communities, around local histories and ways to get people out and about and exploring the things that are in their communities that they might not know. And so, he's done a lot of work with -- in and around things like "Pokémon Go," but customizing those for local environments and libraries.
PHELPSHe's done some of the Game Days that we've done at Adams Morgan, here in D.C., etcetera. And then some of my work has focused on games and art appreciation, you know. And we also did a game called "Factitious," which as a game for people to practice discerning between real and fake news, which seems a little timely right now. So, those kinds of interactions are the -- we're interested in, what else can we do with games?
NNAMDIHere now is nine-year-old Collin, in D.C. Collin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
COLLINOkay. My question is, how long does it take for them to publish the game?
PHELPSSo, that is, again, sort of one of those "it depends" things. Some game can be published relatively quickly because they're smaller games from smaller studios. And if they're going on a predetermined platform, like Steam or the Apple Store or something like that, then it can get -- you know, it might be just a matter of, you know, like a month or something to get it reviewed and get it out the door.
PHELPSWhereas publishing a big game can take many months or even years, because there's so many different platforms and tests to be done and regulations to sign off on and all that kind of stuff. So, it can vary pretty widely for how long it takes to get something to market.
NNAMDICollin, thank you very much for your call. Let's talk about coding. Andy, some people hear coding or programming and think, hard. How difficult is coding, and what do you say to kids who think they don't have those skills?
PHELPSSo, the first thing I would say is that it's -- I don't think -- I think if it's taught in the right way, I don't think that it is necessarily hard. I think that it's just a different way of thinking. And it's a thing that, if you practice it, lots more people can do it than think they can. And I think there are lots of great opportunities for kids right now using environments like "Minecraft" or "Scratch" or some of the other tools that are out there and some of the programs that they have in schools now, to learn some of this tech that's really interesting.
PHELPSAnd so, I think that there are -- you know, there are some people that are just very, very good programmers. But then there are lots of people that are good enough programmers to do what they want to do. And I would encourage people to play with it. I see it as a creative activity, and so I think of it mostly as playing rather than, you know, hard difficult work.
NNAMDIOkay. Andy Phelps is the director of the Game Lab at American University and a professor in the Media and Film Arts division of its School of Communication. Andy Phelps, thank you so much for joining us.
PHELPSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIThat's it for today's show. Kojo For Kids was produced by Lauren Markoe, with an assist from Julie Depenbrock. And our segment on the local Salvadoran community and TPS was produced by Ines Renique. Coming up tomorrow, skateboarding has an image of being white, male and punk rock, but how has it changed? We talk about diversity in D.C.'s skate scene with two local skaters.
NNAMDIPlus, protests put police reform on the legislative agenda across the nation and our region. But are the changes what protestors have been demanding? And what do police officers think about reform? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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