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IU students and faculty ‘gamify’ technical training in partnership with Navy engineers

Feb 28, 2024

Amanda Reising, an media arts and science student in the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering in Indianapolis, creat... Amanda Reising, an media arts and science student in the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering in Indianapolis, creates a sketch for one of the training games under development in collaboration with Naval Surface Warfare Center-Crane Division. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

When engineers at the world’s third-largest naval base decided they needed to improve new employee training, they turned an unexpected resource: students and faculty studying video game design at Indiana University.

Naval Surface Warfare Center-Crane Division is a federal research lab located on Naval Support Activity Crane, a 110-square mile naval base in southern Indiana that IU has several educational and research partnerships with. The students and faculty studying game design are members of the Media Arts and Science program at the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering in Indianapolis.

Two men speak to each other in front of a classroom Powers, left, and Shelton co-teach the game design course at the IU Luddy School in Indianapolis. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Together, they’re collaborating to strengthen training in technical concepts at NSWC Crane with short educational video games.

“Games have a unique power to stick with people,” said Mathew Powers, a media arts and science lecturer at the Luddy School in Indianapolis whose research areas include educational games, or “edutainment.” “If you’re dealing with very difficult, intense subject matter, you need a good vehicle. You need to hold people’s attention because that’s how they’re going to remember things.”

Powers and fellow lecturer Todd Shelton co-teach NEWM-N 436, a highly independent, project-based game production course that matches students with “clients” to create unique games that address a wide range of experiences. Past projects include video games to promote special events in downtown Indianapolis, such as GenCon; a game inspired by the experiences of a young cancer survivor; and an app to educate consumers in electrical and gas safety.

Watch the video, “Using video games to teach engineering concepts,” with audio descriptions.

The project with NSWC Crane, which students began to work on in the fall, addresses a challenge from the organization’s digital engineering division. Civilian employees there need to learn fundamental concepts in systems engineering — a widely used a method for understanding, managing and designing complex systems. A key aspect of the system is the parallel relationship between product development and testing, commonly called the “V-model.”

“Model-based systems engineering started to get more use within our divisions at Crane about four years ago,” said Scott Thompson, a digital engineer at NSWC Crane who met Powers during a research showcase event on IU’s Indianapolis campus in 2022. “We started working to grow our base of people who could become modelers — who understand the software and the concepts behind it — which included creating training tools.

Explore a photo essay on this project at IU Experience

“The idea of this project was to gamify technical concepts in an innovative way — to make them more fun and interesting so people will remember more of it and better be able to apply their skills.”

The result is “The Mystery of Vee Island,” a colorful, pixel art game featuring cartoon pirates — a nod to the naval origins of the project. The game teaches the key concepts of the V-model — design, implementation, and integration and qualification testing — through a series of brief “mini-games” involving the repair of a shipwrecked vessel.

A woman points at a laptop second as a second looks on Amanda Reising, left, works with classmate Imani Peters, who serves as a 2D art leader and a voice actor on "The Mystery of Vee Island." Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

In one mini-game, for example, players are asked to repair a ship’s boiler by selecting six valves to rotate a wheel on the boiler. Players must click the valves in the correct order, and each valve corresponds to a step in the systems engineering process. If a player answers incorrectly, the boiler’s pipes will start to steam faster. Players can make as many attempts as they need to complete the puzzle.

The design of the game’s characters, as well as the game’s eponymous, V-shaped island, were led by Imani Peters. A Luddy School Indianapolis junior in media arts and science with a specialization in game design and development, Peters began as a game designer and 2D artist on the project before advancing to her current role as 2D art leader. She is also contributing to the game as a voice actor to reduce the amount of text in the game, improving players’ engagement.

“It was a bit daunting turning a nine-page document about systems engineering into a memorable experience for naval trainees,” she said. “As a game designer, I proposed the use of mini-games, and I used my drawing skills to draft two of their designs, including detailing how the level would play out. This allowed the pixel artists on the team to see what art assets were needed, and for the programmers to know how to implement functionality.”

The general design of the game, including the pirate theme and art style, was also partly inspired by “The Secret of Monkey Island,” a classic computer game familiar to engineers on the project at Crane, Powers said. The retro pixel art style, both nostalgic and achievable with a small art team, is also reminiscent of many console games from the same era.

A pencil sketch and digital art of a cartoon ship's boiler A pencil sketch of the ship's boiler "mini-game," left, and the final version that appears in "The Mystery of Vee Island." Image courtesy of Imani Peters and the pixel art team

Other media arts and science students on the team converted the game design into code. This included senior Andrew Choi, who focused on developing the mini-games and dialogue system.

One major challenge of the project was security at NSWC Crane, which meant the game had to be built using coding languages such as JavaScript, CSS and HTML, as opposed to modern game engines that are relatively “plug-and-play,” Choi said. This requirement gave students experience in these programming languages, as well as in the soft skills of collaboration and working across multiple teams.

“Since the writing and design team handled the game design, I had a lot of opportunity to practice working with others throughout the project, and learning to communicate between divisions of labor,” Choi said.

In addition to the 15 undergraduate students involved, Thompson said NSWC Crane is also advancing the game’s development. The lead individual assisting on the project is Riley Halloran, a digital engineer at NSWC Crane. Halloran recently graduated with a master’s degree in computer science from the Luddy School of Computing, Informatics and Engineering in Bloomington, as well as with dual undergraduate degrees in computer science and game and interactive media design from the Luddy School and The Media School, respectively. The combination of skills turned out to be the perfect qualifications to assist.

Andrew Choi coded the mini-games and dialogue system for The Mystery of Vee Island. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana Univ... Andrew Choi coded the mini-games and dialogue system for "The Mystery of Vee Island." Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

“My main job is data scientist; I handle data manipulation, data visualization and data hosting, and some project management,” Halloran said. “So imagine my surprise when I got here and found out that Crane does video games too.”

The end goal is to build up a small in-house library of game-based modules on different topics, Thompson added. In fact, NSWC Crane is already collaborating with IU on a second project, called “Ranger Roger’s Radar Rescue,” which will teach basic concepts of radar systems.

Once they’ve finished the game, Thompson said the project will become another “tool in the toolbelt” for trainers at the base and beyond. Engineers at NSWC Carderock in Maryland and Naval Undersea Warfare Center Newport in Rhode Island also advised on the project, he said.

“We’re always on the lookout for topics with opportunities for gamification,” Thompson said. “The concepts in ‘The Mystery of Vee Island’ are general enough to apply across the Department of Defense, and even outside the armed forces to schools and industry. Ultimately, the success of this project depends on popularity among users, and their feedback.”


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