Ed Greig ’23 sits in a booth in the Goddard Library’s Academic Commons, observing the hustle and hum of a typical weekday afternoon. Nearby, students gather around tables to collaborate on class projects. A line forms for coffee and cookies at the café, while a hi-def screen flashes announcements of upcoming lectures and concerts.
The scene is fairly typical. But Greig notices other things as well: the texture of the library’s brick walls and concrete supports; the two-toned gray carpeting checkered with scarlet squares; the staircase leading to the second floor; the view through the glass to the Kneller Athletic Center.
The grace and geometry of the place — Greig is processing it all. Only he’s not considering the library merely as a setting for learning; he’s looking at it as the virtual environment for a video game, one that he’d like to design right down to every eccentric angle of the building’s Brutalist architecture.
The Clark senior insists he could convincingly reconstruct the library, digital piece by digital piece.
“I’d add each individual asset,” he explains, “first modeling each item, then adding texture. I’d bring these items into the virtual space until they look exactly as they do right now.”
Greig is turning a lifelong passion into a career plan that began when he enrolled in Becker College’s internationally recognized programs in game design and interactive media. He feared those plans would be derailed when, in March 2021, the chair of Becker’s Board of Trustees regretfully announced that the Worcester institution, which traced its origins to 1784, would close its doors due to financial difficulties accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Greig launched a frantic search for another college with a promising gaming program. To his surprise, he wouldn’t need to move far. “Two days before I finalized my decision,” he says, “I found out Clark was adopting the Becker program.”
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Not long after the news of Becker’s closing was made public, Clark President David Fithian announced plans to establish the Becker School of Design & Technology (BSDT) at Clark. Doing so was a deliberate and delicate process that kept intact Becker’s undergraduate and graduate interactive media programs under terms negotiated with Becker’s leadership and approved by Clark’s Board of Trustees.
In August 2021, the BSDT began its first semester of operation at Clark with 179 students in two leased buildings on the site of the former Becker College campus. The merging of Becker College’s strengths in game design and interactive media with the heft of Clark’s liberal arts education and research capabilities offered the potential for an amplified and energized academic experience that would inspire students to confront challenges on a global scale and embrace emerging opportunities in the 21st-century economy.
Just a year and a half since the plan was executed, the results are exceptional. Students are thriving, recruitment is strong, academic synergies have developed, and the Becker School of Design & Technology has held its place as a top-ranked program.
Clark is now building the state-of-the-art Center for Media Arts, Computing, and Design, which will be home to the Becker School, the Computer Science Department, and some programs in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts. The Center is expected to open this fall.
“David Fithian saw this as an opportunity from the very beginning, not only for our program, not only for the community and the students, but for Clark to forge ahead along the strategic line that he has planned for the college,” says Paul Cotnoir, dean of the Becker School. “He was a huge advocate, and he was relentless in pursuing that goal.”
Cotnoir notes that nearly 3 billion people play games worldwide, part of a $159 billion industry. But the idea that gaming is only for entertainment is a myth. Becker students are also deeply involved in creating so-called serious games, such as for academic instruction or professional training. BSDT students have designed games to simulate emergency room procedures for medical students and to coach elementary school students on how to avoid opioid use.
“We’re now working with Professor Tim Downs and other faculty from Clark, along with researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, on a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to develop a virtual digital visualization experience related to the potential effects of climate change in the Mexico City Basin,” Cotnoir says.
Though other colleges tried to woo the Becker program in the wake of the college’s closing, Clark was clearly the best fit, he insists. “The wider humanitarian focus, the focus on social justice, the ability to access visual arts and computer science, sociology, and psychology, and have that type of a campus experience were extremely important,” Cotnoir says. “Those factors set Clark apart.”
Last spring, Stanley Pierre-Louis ’92, CEO and president of the Entertainment Software Association, sat for a Q&A with Cotnoir in Dana Commons, where he noted that today’s games routinely draw on history, archaeology, and other scholarly disciplines to inform their narratives and visuals. The result is a steady supply of games with elevated sophistication and widening appeal. Gaming during the COVID-19 lockdowns, he added, is credited with giving many people an avenue to engage virtually when they lost the ability to be together in person.
Pierre-Louis lauded Clark for “future-proofing” its students by helping them develop in-demand skills in game design, publishing, and promotion for a robust market. “They are literally always hiring in our industry,” he said. “I hear from CEOs on my board that there are never enough people to fill the jobs.”
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When BSDT gaming Professor Ezra Cove met theater Professor Jessie Darrell-Jarbadan at a faculty orientation event, the two quickly discovered a connection between their areas that laid the foundation for their joint course, Interactive Theater. The course, which also drew on the talents of BSDT professors Terrasa Ulm and Amanda Theinert, culminated with a December performance of Ulm’s original fantasy story, “Waiting for Obols,” in the Michelson Theater. Unlike a traditional play with a defined stage and audience seating, this was a one-of-a-kind show that encouraged the audience to interact with the performers.
Cove oversaw the design of costumes and props with specialty software. Students acting in the play went through a 3D scan so their peers could design costumes to scale. Darrell-Jarbadan and her students handled the physical aspects of creating the costumes and props.
“This is stretching my skill set and understanding of how my talents can be used. That’s the selfish side,” Cove says. “The unselfish side is that this shows that subdisciplines within game development — mainly 3D art, narrative design, and interactivity — are being brought into experiences that are not games.”
As professors and students cross-pollinate, they’re finding unexpected ways to relate to one another, Cove says. But they’re also teaching each other.
“I’m steeped in games. I’ve been playing them almost all my life and know the culture well. There’s probably some language I can use with my students and colleagues in games that would be unfamiliar to everyone else,” he says. “At the same time, I have no theater experience. I’ve never been involved in any kind of production like this and am already learning new themes, concepts, practices, and things to avoid.”
Greig, who was enrolled in the Interactive Theater course, designed digital versions of the costume for an ethereal cloaked character named Potone. He then had to learn how to give Potone’s garments physical life.
“All my studies have been exclusively computer-based, so it felt awkward to have a needle and a thread in my hands,” he says, “but that’s the beauty of this class.”
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Gaming culture has clearly arrived at Clark.
Students gather outside of class to in creative exercises they call Game Jams. These events can happen on an international scale, with groups from competing universities racing to complete games by a deadline. On a more casual level, game parties, sometimes called Game Galas, break out among BSDT students and can even evolve into tournament play. And then there are the various levels of esports teams led by coach Nicholas “Shifty” Travis that have attracted students from all Clark disciplines.
“When you play a game, you’re building a community. And it’s a community where we’re able to put aside things like differences of race, differences about where we live, differences between blue states or red states. It doesn’t matter in a game environment,” Cotnoir says.
But the program is about more than play. Interactive media can change the way people learn, and a degree from BSDT covers fine art, user-focused software development, and human-computer interaction.
Ulm describes the seamless fit of the BSDT program with Clark’s liberal arts education as a “perfect marriage.”
“Our program is the study of engagement across all the fields in media,” Ulm explains. “We’re not just technology. We’re design and technology, but also liberal arts and technology. They are all integrated and reliant on each other. If people see that, they recognize how obviously the program fits into a liberal arts education.”
BSDT students can work with the Geography Department to aid in the visualization of GIS data. Or they can collaborate with the Education Department, using technology to help elementary school students comprehend math concepts.
“Everything at Clark has a human center, whether it’s psychology, sociology, geography, biology, the humanities, or the visual arts,” Cotnoir says. “People can come together and share ideas. That’s really the key that unlocks the door to making games that can help teach.”
With BSDT courses available to all students, undergraduates outside of the interactive media major have taken an interest in gaming and design courses.
“They’ve been coming to events and they’re in our classes,” Ulm says. “It’s been absolutely wonderful to see that smooth transition.”
A key element of BSDT is its Game Studio course. Each Wednesday, sophomores, juniors, and seniors gather in classrooms to build interactive media properties, often working on projects for outside entities.
“It’s similar to real-world scenarios where you work with a team,” says Arielle Johnson ’25. “You learn problem-solving skills. Artists, programmers, and designers learn how to work together and figure it out.”
In the Spring 2022 semester, BSDT students brought historic arms and armor back to life in a video game format through a partnership with the Worcester Art Museum. The museum is home to the John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, which contains more than 1,500 pieces of arms and armor dating from ancient Egypt to 19th-century Japan. After touring the collection at the museum, students were inspired to turn real-life weapons and armor into game graphics, which appear on screen as players navigate through some of history’s most notable battles. The game was part of the Becker School’s showcase at the PAX East gaming convention in Boston last April.
Ulm is typically contacted by outside entities, ranging from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences to Old Sturbridge Village, who suggest topics that might be turned into games. Students develop, demo, and revise games around health care, defense, education, politics, and emergency management, among other areas.
“While the work can be challenging, it’s also very personal,” Ulm says. “Our goal is to help everyone recognize their potential and their passion.”
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Since the transition to Clark, Cotnoir has noticed that Becker School students appear exceptionally motivated, encouraged by robust student services and the ability to explore an array of subject areas.
“I think it shows they’re interested in this new expansive view that they’re being offered here at Clark,” he says.
Becker graduates have landed jobs at large gaming studios, while others have gravitated toward small independent companies or created their own, determined to make their game idea a reality.
“We want our students to be leaders in the game industry because that’s how they’re going to change the industry,” Cotnoir says.
“And if they change the game industry, they can change the world.”