New game development club plays to win

by Natalie Busch / Beacon Staff • January 27, 2016

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Kathryn Knutsen and Sarah Spiers are the president and VP of Emerson Game Developers.
Kathryn Knutsen and Sarah Spiers are the president and VP of Emerson Game Developers.

Video games are the future of the entertainment industry. At least, that's the truth according to Kathryn Knutsen, the president of Emerson Game Developers, a new club where passionate students can have analytical discussions about the industry and take part in tutorials on game design. 

The group meets on Tuesdays from 7-8 p.m in the Engagement Lab, which focuses on using new media to foster community involvement and social change. The applied research laboratory is located on the fourth floor of 160 Boylston St., which is tucked between the Piano Row residence hall and M. Steinert & Sons.

Emerson Game Developers hatched from the success of the daylong Girls Make Games workshop held in the lab in November, which provided 25 female students the opportunity to learn directly from women in the industry. 

After the event, Becky Michelson, a project manager at the Engagement Lab, and Sarah Spiers, a junior visual and media arts major who also works with Michelson as a student lab assistant, came up with the idea of creating a club.

That same day, Spiers said she called senior visual and media arts major Kathryn Knutsen, and asked her to fill the role of the club’s president with Spiers as vice president. 

For the club’s faculty sponsor, Michelson then reached out to Sarah Zaidan, an assistant professor in the department of visual and media arts. Zaidan, a game designer and lab fellow involved with the Girls Make Games workshop, said she happily took on the task, especially with Knutsen at the helm.

“Kathryn [Knutsen] is one of my best students,” Zaidan said. “She’s been in every class that I’ve offered here. I can vouch for her dedication and her passion for games and game design.”

During the first meeting last week, attendees stated their name, preferred pronouns, major, grade, and their favorite game, the last of which prompted enthusiastic reactions among the students. 

Knutsen used this initial assembly to gauge interest in possible discussion topics, such as the portrayal of race and gender, and the 1983 video game crash, a huge industry recession that bankrupted several companies. She also asked for input on what members wanted from future meetings.

Zaidan said she was pleased with the first gathering, which 24 students attended. The students present were of various gender identities but were mainly female-identifying.

“I think that it’s something that Emerson definitely needs and just the turnout was phenomenal,” Zaidan said. “To see all that interest and passion is great.”

Samantha Hollows, a freshman visual and media arts major, said she discovered the group through the alternative organization fair. Hollows said that being in a room with so many other people who are passionate about games is both comforting and inspiring.

“It’s nice to know that there are people that think the same way you do,” Hollows said. “They all really want to do a lot with the medium, and that makes me want to do a lot with the medium.”

As a senior, Knutsen said she had only met four other interactive media majors before last week’s meeting. She said she always brings her interest in games to her more film focused classes. She said she wrote her History of Media Arts II final paper on The Legend of Zelda

“Finding other people like that has been really nice because it can be kind of alienating at times to be in such a film-centric school,” Knutsen said.

Paul Mihailidis, the associate director of the Engagement Lab and an assistant professor in the department of marketing communication, sees the partnership between the institution and Emerson Game Developers as natural.

“We foster any kind of strong ideas that students or staff have for using technology for social impact or for social good,” Milhailidis said. “Any ideas that align with our mission, we support, so this one was like a no brainer.”

Zaidan said she is confident in the organization and excited for what is to come this semester. She said she hopes Emerson Game Developers will imbue students with the ability to engage with and think critically about the media they consume. 

“When I say consuming media, I think of it like food,” Zaidan said. “You’re taking it into you, you’re digesting it. It becomes a part of you. Parts of it, you reject; parts of it, you will absorb. Like good food, you hope it will make you stronger rather than give you indigestion.”

In the future, the leadership hopes to gain SGA recognition and to create a sister club that focuses solely on women in gaming. But, as of now, Emerson Game Developers remains open to all gender identities which Knutsen sees as crucial. 

“One of the reasons that it’s so important to focus on women in the games industry is because of the history of them being excluded, so we don’t want to perpetuate that towards other gender identities,” Knutsen said. “The more diversity you have, the more interesting experiences in games you get.”