UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The fields and hills of Bosnia and Herzegovina are beautiful, but they hide a dark secret. More than 20 years after the Bosnian War, the country is still littered with landmines. It’s been approximated that more than 500,000 people live close to areas believed to be contaminated, and landmine blasts have killed about 600 people and wounded more than 1,100 since the end of the war.
Kenan Zekic, a Penn State visiting scholar from the International University of Sarajevo and Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, wants to do something about it. He came up with an idea for a digital game named “Mine Avoiders” that would improve school children’s awareness of still-buried landmines while also building technology literacy with augmented-reality and coding concepts.
“I want to reinforce kids’ knowledge while reminding them about the landmine dangers and how to improve their safety,” Zekic said. “At the same time, I also want to expose kids in underdeveloped areas to new and emerging technologies. The idea builds on my experiences from Bosnia and Herzegovina, but my aim is to develop a tool that could be used wherever we have landmines: Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and other places.”
Zekic envisioned a game in which players must race against the clock and avoid obstacles to rescue a group of children who are trapped in a minefield. Players must hurry to the nearest Mine Action Center and retrieve help for their friend, avoiding landmines and unexploded ordinances along the way.
Last fall, Zekic shared his idea with Andrew Hieronymi, a Penn State School of Visual Arts (SoVA) faculty member who at the time was teaching a course about game art. Hieronymi knew several of his students would be taking a studio course he was scheduled to teach with Carlos Rosas, a fellow SoVA faculty member, in the spring.
Together, the three presented the idea to the students in AA310: Collaborative Studio and tasked them with building the game from scratch, with Zekic providing support and guidance along the way.
“The project is a great opportunity for our students to engage in creative research while collaborating with Kenan Zekic,” Rosas said. “Students were really able to engage with the content, educational and cultural context, and project goals while having considerable influence over the overall design and gaming experience.”
The class was split into several teams that tackled building the game — teams for art, design and audio, as well as research and coding. Each team was responsible for a different aspect of the game, using a variety of technologies along the way.
With so much to accomplish, a system was needed for organization. Keeping everyone on task was the class’s project director — Sarah Parker, a junior majoring in Interdisciplinary Digital Studio — and the infamous “scrum”: a document kept on Box cloud storage that detailed everything that needed to be done and who needed to do it.
“I created deadlines, assigned tasks and recorded what everyone was up to in the document we keep on Box,” Parker said. “It has helped me keep everyone organized and equipped with the necessary tools and manpower to get the job done.”
At the beginning of each class, a representative from each group gives an update on its progress. The design team might present the most recent character sketches, while the game’s composer might share the latest version of the score.
After the updates, the groups are free to break out and continue their work. The coding team members hunch over their computers, puzzling over a problem, while the design team tweaks a detail on the landscape.
The teams use a host of digital tools to help them create the game: Unity, a popular game engine for developing 2D and 3D games; the programming language C# for coding; Adobe Illustrator for designing 2-D characters; and Maya for 3-D animation; among others. Because a project of this scope requires the use of so many technologies, Rosas says throughout the program, he often uses tutorials from Lynda.com to help students learn new technical skills, adding that the tutorials have even replaced software-related textbooks in some of his courses.
The students also do independent research of their own. To write the game’s musical score, Brady Emeigh — a senior majoring in Interdisciplinary Digital Studio — researched Bosnia’s musical history to make the piece as authentic as possible. Zekic listens to it with a smile on his face, hands pressed to the earbuds in his ears.
“I wanted the music to stay true to the area,” Emeigh said. “I’m so glad that Kenan is happy with it.”
As the class nears the end of the semester, Rosas said he’s happy with how his students honed their skills and developed as professionals throughout the past few months.
“I am very proud of this group’s approach, attitude and professionalism. They have really engaged with the collaborative design process and have taken ownership of the project,” Rosas said. “They have been great to work with in the studio, and they are on target toward meeting the creative and design goals of the game development project.”
Hieronymi agrees. “Although the prototype is still in progress, I can already say the project is a success,” he said. “Students got a glimpse at the power of design and the vast possibilities offered by the game medium. It should empower them as they move towards their thesis and beyond the University out in the world.”
Hieronymi says once the semester ends, he and Rosas plan to continue collaborating with Zekic to take the game from prototype to finished product. Zekic hopes it will eventually be available to the children in the landmine-affected areas, who will then have a better understanding of how to stay safe while learning something about new technologies.