Level Up At NYU’s Epic Game Center

Last semester NYU Local’s visit to the Game Center’s Open Library gave an idea of the fun stuff going on in the basement of Tisch, but there is a lot more to the program besides its massive video and board game collection.

In addition to the Open Library at 721 Broadway and a variety of events and lecture series, The Game Center is an academic department of Tisch that facilitates a game design minor as well as an MFA program. NYU Local talked to Dylan McKenzie, Program Coordinator at the Game Center, and Mehak Khan, an English major and Game Design minor who works at the Open Library, to learn more about what the Game Center has to offer.

McKenzie was studying Media, Culture, and Communications at Steinhardt when he discovered the Game Center in an NYU PR blog post in 2008. At its start, the Open Library was just a box — the department had an Xbox, Wii, and Playstation students could play on Tisch’s 9th floor after school. Since then, the program has grown exponentially, although there is no questioning that it’s still new (McKenzie’s current office is a converted equipment room). Following an initial game design course taught by Eric Zimmerman, the Game Center undergrad curriculum has expanded to include a variety of classes relating to game design, production, and scholarship.

The last of these three is introduced in the Center’s foundational course Games 101, a sort of art survey course that covers not just what every gamer should know but what every educated cultural student should know. All professors share the class, taking students through a whirlwind tour of what’s going on in all games. If you take Games 101, your homework is literally playing games and writing about them. The class introduces the department as very inclusive, opening up the field of game studies to non-gamers and non-programmers and starting everyone off with the same core cultural knowledge.

NYU isn’t the only school to offer courses in game design. Schools like USC, the DigiPen Institute of Technology, and The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University all do, too, but many programs are either part of another department, such as cinema studies or computer programming, or they offer a more vocational approach to game design, focusing on getting students good jobs in the gaming industry. When asked about what makes the Game Center unique, McKenzie said “I think that we’re different because we’re part of a second wave of games education… games for their own sake.” With a focus on game scholarship and no clear connection to any other program at NYU — the department grew outside the realms of MCC, Computer Science, and Tisch Film + TV — the Game Center has been able to develop a unique curriculum and independent style. Without the limitations of a parent program, the Game Center focuses just as much on a variety of non-digital games as it does on digital ones.

This uniqueness is in part due to the Game Center faculty’s wide range of previous experience studying topics like painting, computer science, and Nordic literature, and working in media, advertising, and teaching at ITP. Visiting professor Jesper Juul has a PhD in video game theory. In addition to its interdisciplinary background, the Game Center’s New York City location, where games are played in public spaces and galleries, demonstrating intersection of art, commerce, design, and technology — as opposed to the West Coast where the focus is more on games as a product — is beneficial to its focus on academics and art. Being in New York City also makes it easy to find speakers — last year the Game Center hosted Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield and lead designer of the Uncharted series Richard LeMarchand at its annual design conference PRACTICE 2012.

All students are welcome at Game Center events. These include curatorial projects let student librarians share their expertise with attendees who play games art gallery-style on the 9th floor. Playtest Friday from 4-8pm connects design class to the Open Library, initiating feedback for game design students or anyone else who wants to bring in their board game, physical game, or “indie ninja-themed digital games” (Khan’s words). Instead of just playing big-name games, players can try out new stuff being made in classes upstairs. Sometimes there is pizza! League of Learners meets Tuesdays 6:30-8:30 to teach novices (with the help of experts like MFA students and game librarians) how to play League of Legends, currently the world’s most played video game, but also very complicated, and with a less than helpful community and therefore often intimidating for novices to start.

“A lot of times games can be very isolating, so we encourage people to come together,” McKenzie said. They encourage people to come together often — in addition to all previously mentioned programs, the Game Center has something going on just about every week, whether it’s a lecture, workshop, or other event.

Although the Game Center prides itself on academia and What Makes Games Art, they also really like competitive games, as made evident with Spring Fighter, an annual Street Fighter tournament hosted by the Game Center. This year the event will take place in April, and though it hasn’t been announced yet, McKenzie promised the tournament will be huge, featuring appearances from some of the arcade game’s top competitive players and founding fathers.

Interested students can learn more about the Game Center at its website, Facebook, or Twitter,  and there is a mailing list and a game-dev specific mailing list that anyone can join. Currently a new space for the Game Center is getting built out at MetroTech in Brooklyn, where NYU Poly is also located. The Game Center hopes to move there in the fall or whenever the space is ready. There, masters students will have brand new, state of the art facilities to move into. As the program continues to grow and establish itself, McKenzie is hopeful about the move — “Now we’re out of the incubator and doing our own thing.”

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