Student Video-Game Demos Dabble In Voodoo Torture, Tasers

New York's Parsons School of Design unveils startling exhibition projects.

Have you ever wanted to control a video game with a voodoo doll? Use a Nintendo DS to read and mark up a library book? Or play a game that lets you try your hand at spreading a corporation across a Third World country?

Maybe not, but these are the kinds of projects on display through June 10 at an exhibition of thesis projects at the design and technology department at New York's Parsons School of Design. Graduating students are displaying more than 100 game and non-game projects that include everything from a glove that can digitally track dreams to the hardware needed for a jolting game called "Taser Tag." (Most of the Parsons projects can be viewed at dt.parsons.edu.)

The Parsons show is another example of the increased involvement higher education is taking in shaping the game designers of tomorrow (see "Microsoft Pays College Students To Play With Xboxes In Class"). Gaming programs are no longer just available in specialized schools such as Redmond, Washington's DigiPen and Winter Park, Florida's Full Sail — students can take game-related courses at campuses ranging from NYU to USC. In April, Parsons teamed with Atari to sponsor a 24-hour game-design contest. In the fall, Parsons will introduce a concentration in game design. All of this attests to Parsons' students having something to say about today's video games.

"I kind of think video games get boring after awhile," said Donnie Bugden, 29, one of the few undergraduates with work on display. Bugden decided to do something about that. He created a game demo, on display at this week's exhibition. Titled "Associate Assistant of Departmental Operations," it features an onscreen office worker who can be jolted to action when a voodoo doll "controller" is stabbed with a pin. Jabbing the doll's knee makes him flinch. Stabbing the head knocks the guy off his feet.

Bugden, who used to work in Web development, said he wanted to make a joke about the tortures of office work. But he also wanted to strengthen the case for video games whose controls go beyond mere button pushing. "Gameplay should be a little more active," he said, acknowledging that he's the kind of active person who surfs off Long Island in the dead of winter. "There's a disconnect between what people do [to control] a video game and what they do in the real world." Bugden plans to flesh out his game over the summer and shop it around.

Bugden's fellow aspiring game designers had much the same goal. Prithvi Virasinghe, 27, who surfs with Bugden, developed a game called "Plunder," a "SimCity"-style simulation focusing on globalization. The goal of his game is to find the perfect balance of profit and exploitation of a Third World labor force. "I always wanted to make a game about colonialism," he said. "Globalization is sort of a replacement."

For Virasinghe, these are themes that hit home. Virasinghe is originally from Sri Lanka, where he avidly played PC games and, as a child, had to depend on family friends from abroad to satisfy his request for a console system. In America, he studied marketing and finance and wound up working in investment banking, which, combined with his enthusiasm for games, seemed to perfectly dovetail into a game about corporate involvement in the Third World.

In "Plunder," players decide what kind of businesses to launch in an assortment of cities. Building a sweatshop or petrochemical plant will have different effects on factors like pollution and deforestation, which in turn affect life expectancy, the GDP and, ultimately, the minimum wage. That affects productivity and even the workers' "revolution meter," which in turn affect your ability to build more factories. A bad wage might cause workers to revolt. "You want to help them, but not too much," Virasinghe said.

Some of the game projects at the Parsons show were a bit lighter in tone. Alona Umansky's "Adventurer's Club" had players exploring maps of the Victorian era. Her goal is to make the same game playable from your computer or your cell phone, so you can keep at it wherever you are.

Brett Jackson's "Likeabilly" turned the clamshell Nintendo DS on end and made it into an electronic book that could download texts, allow users to mark them up through the system's touch screen, share them via Wi-Fi and host IM-style chats on the DS' second screen — a book club for the "Halo" era. Jackson said he wants to contribute to a movement that will "legitimize libraries as we go into a digital age" and create "an open, free network of all human knowledge."

If last month's cacophonous Electronics Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles was primarily a showcase for companies promoting the upcoming games you might expect — racing, shooting, and sports titles predominated — then the quiet Parsons show represents something of an antidote. And it offers a hint of what today's aspiring game designers would create if they could make any game they desired.